Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night

by Dylan Thomas

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 the 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.

___________________

The poem by Welshman Dylan Thomas is a villanelle – meaning that it is a 19-line poem of fixed form consisting of five tercets and a final quatrain on two rhymes, with the first and third lines of the first tercet repeated alternately as a refrain closing the succeeding stanzas and joined as the final couplet of the quatrain.

According to Wiki:

The form started as a simple ballad-like song with no fixed form; this fixed quality would only come much later, from the poem “Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)” (1606) by Jean Passerat. From this point, its evolution into the “fixed form” used in the present day is debated. Despite its French origins, the majority of villanelles have been written in English, a trend which began in the late nineteenth century. The villanelle has been noted as a form that frequently treats the subject of obsessions, and one which appeals to outsiders; its defining feature of repetition prevents it from having a conventional tone.

The message of this poem is to vigorously resist death. That message is first stated in line one.

Do not go gentle into that good night

This line is subsequently repeated three additional times – lines six, twelve, and eighteen. This repetition is called a refrain. This line is not the only refrain in the poem, though. The other is this:

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

We first read the second refrain in line three and it is repeated in lines nine, fifteen, and eighteen. In contrast to the first refrain, which utilizing calming words like “gentle” and “good,” the second refrain uses charged up words “rage, rage” and “dying.”

Between these two refrains, both calm and ferocious, the first tercet also includes the more plainly spoken message of the poem: Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

The speaker lets us know, with line two, to what lines one and three are referring. This poem is about how one faces death. The Speaker here clearly advocates against a meek passing.

The second tercet justifies the advice given by the first tercet. The Speaker refers to “wise men” whose words had “forked no lightning.” The Speaker here is referring to those people who near the end of their life with a sense of incomplete accomplishment. They do not die easily because they wish to continue on. This tercet utilizes “enjambment” – one of my favorite words – between lines two and three. Enjambment is when a line ends at a non-natural stopping point and thereby propels the reader to the next line more quickly.

The third tercet tells that that good men also rage against the dying of the light because their good deeds are, with the perspective of old age, frail. They wish to stay and do more.

The fourth tercet introduces us to wild men. These men “caught and sang the sun in flight/ And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way.” This means that these people resist death because they realize too late their own bad deeds and do not wish for death because they either hope to stay and make amends or they hope to avoid what comes next as a result. One does not “go gentle” if an eternal punishment awaits, I suspect.

The fifth tercet tells us about grave men. These men, near death, realize the joy they missed in their lives and regret it.

The sixth stanza is a quatrain. The Speaker here addresses his father. The Speaker’s father is “on the sad height” meaning that his father is near death, also. Line seventeen is the plea of a son to a dying father to fight on. “Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.” This is the Speaker’s way of asking his father to struggle and live on as long as possible. The Speaker knows it will pain his father, hence “your fierce tears.” The Speaker also acknowledges the sight of those tears will be both a curse and a blessing to himself. Nonetheless, he asks his father to do so.

The poem ends with the two refrains back to back for the first time in the poem.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

_____________________

It is believed, though unconfirmed, that Dylan Thomas wrote this regarding the impending death of his own father. David John Thomas, the father of Dylan Thomas, died in 1952 a year after this poem was published. Dylan Thomas died himself in 1953. It is believed that the younger Thomas had been suffering from bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as emphysema, immediately before his death. 

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