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Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

Introduction and Text of "Do not go gentle into that good night"

Dylan Thomas's widely anthologized "Do not go gentle into that good night" features a speaker who is troubled that his father seems to be willing to accept death without complaint. The speaker deems such acceptance as weakness. The son beseeches his father to rage against death and show his customary strength of character.

Thomas utilizes the French poetic form known as the "villanelle." That form was originated as a medium for dramatizing simple, light verse and pastoral scenes. Dylan's choice of such a serene poetic form masterfully underscores the irony of his suggestions in the poem. The speaker is ironically begging his father to rage against an event which he cannot change regardless of the ferocity of said raging.

It is likely also that Thomas chose this form because it requires repeating two extremely important lines: "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." The tight structure of the villanelle also adds to the gravity for the poem's theme. The juxtaposition of the important pairs of opposites results in a symbolic significance: "day" and "night" become symbols for "life" and "death."

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"

Commentary

The speaker of this poem is employing the poetic form known as the villanelle, which is a tightly structured 19-line poem, featuring a chant-like repetition of lines that come together in the final quatrain, after appearing separately and alternately in the preceding five tercets, to emphasize the message conveyed throughout the body of the piece.

First Tercet: Command Not to Give Up Easily

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The speaker commands his father, who is near death, not to give up so easily, not to go meekly into death. The speaker's father had been a strong—and even belligerent—man, and the speaker finds it difficult to watch his once vigorous and sturdy father serenely succumbing to the grim reaper. The son feels that if his father demonstrated that same burning, raging character of his earlier days, he would feel less helpless in the arms of his coming demise.

The speaker has begun by creating a symbol; instead of employing the dreaded term, death, he symbolizes that concept with a much less worrisome term, "night." But then he goes even further: it’s not just any night; it’s a "good night." Therefore, not only is the speaker employing a symbol, he is also employing the literary device of irony.

Second Tercet: Continue to Rail Against the Inevitable

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

The speaker is now marshaling evidence that his stance of raging again death is the right one. Other "wise men" have not gone gentle, so he wants to convince his father, who also being wise, should not go gently either.

Even though men who are intelligent know that death is necessary and "right," still they do not allow their words to wither, even in the face of devastation. Instead of letting nature take its course without remark, the speaker believes that those near death should continue to rail against it.

The speaker’s emotion is driving him to plead with his father to fight his ensuing demise; thus, the speaker’s pleas are directed at his own mind and heart as well as at his father. He knows the loss of parent will be devastating, and he is fighting against that loss himself in a manner that he feels will work for them both.

Third Tercet: Prattle On Regardless

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The speaker continues to refer to what other men have done while facing death. Now focusing on "good men," he insists that despite the intensity of their life, despite successes and failures when their "deeds might have danced in a green bay," at their life’s end, they do not accept that finality without rage.

Even if their accomplishments were few or "frail," these "good men" still vehemently prattle on in bravado about how grandiose they were. If anytime is right for machismo and braggadocio, it's just before one shuffles off the mortal coil; that is this speaker's opinion, anyway.

Fourth Tercet: Ignore the Futility and Keep On Battling

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

The speaker continues to garner his support for his claim that raging against death is sweet and proper. He now focuses on the class of men who have remained untamed and uncontrolled by their environment. Those "[w]ild men" who have battled tooth and nail for their achievements continue to struggle, even if they found that they only brought grief to their lives. Learning too late is still learning, and the speaker encourages his father to continue the struggle, regardless of its futility.

Fifth Tercet: Railing Against the Demise

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In his continued effort to collect evidence for convincing his father to rage against his coming death, the speaker has referred to "wise men," "good men," "wild men," and now he focuses on "grave men." Men who are dead serious, "grave," who have eyes that are failing against the light still find the strength to rail again their final exist. The speaker claims that even in blindness there can be a "blaze like meteors."

By employing these various categories of men, the speaker is suggesting to his father that he detects the qualities of each of these types of men in his father. If all these men, who are like his father in deed, personality, and accomplishment, have not died a quiet, sedate death, the speaker insists that his father should emulate those raging, masculine beings, and take up the sword and begin his own campaign of rage against they "dying of the light." There can still be happiness and joy left for him, if he will place his mind on the fight instead of on the finish.

Final Quatrain: Fierce Tears and Rage

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Finally, the speaker addresses his father directly, commanding him to rail with him against his coming departure from life. The speaker begs his father to speak out harshly to him but also give him the bliss of witnessing his crying with ferocity against what is coming. Thus, the speaker is demanding that his father's tears be fierce, not wimpy little fearful tears.

The final two lines, which have been repeated chant-like throughout the villanelle, come together to emphasize the importance of their mission—to command his father not to give in to death’s approach but to fight every moment before the light has gone.

Use of Sources and Purpose of Commentaries

In place of an official "disclaimer," I am offering this elucidation regarding the employment of source material and the purpose for composing commentaries on poems. I do not claim to be an expert in literary studies, but I suggest that having completed the PhD (Ball State University, 1987) in British, American and World Literature with a cognate in rhetoric/composition affords me a certain level credibility in making remarks on poetry.

Sources

  • No outside sources were used in the study of and commentary on Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night."

Purpose

In my commentaries on poems, I focus solely on the issues that have most strongly caught my attention; thus, my commentaries feature mostly my responses and reactions to the text.

Politically themed poems or poems that address historical or social issues sometimes require resources to support my stance. In those instances, I offer a complete list of sources consulted to support my claims.

The main purpose of my commentaries is to assist others, especially students and beginning readers of poetry, in assessing meaning in each poem. They are offered as a staring point and not a final exhaustive analysis or explication.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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