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Analysis of Poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas

Updated on December 14, 2016
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas | Source

Dylan Thomas and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night


Dylan Thomas finished this poem, a villanelle, in 1951, and sent it off to an editor friend of a magazine, together with a note which read:

“The only person I can’t show the little enclosed poem to is, of course, my father, who doesn’t know he’s dying”

He also remarked to his friend, American Robert J. Gibson, that the spark for the poem was his father's approaching blindness. Thomas's father was to pass away a year later and the poet himself succumbed to illness and died in 1953.

When Dylan Thomas was a child his father would read Shakespeare and nursery rhymes to him and the dreamy, sensitive Welsh boy absorbed the sounds and music of the texts at an early age.

Their relationship was complex but loving. Dylan Thomas respected his father, a senior master of English, but was no academic at school, and left without furthering his education at university. The young Dylan wanted to publish his poems and go one better than his father, himself a frustrated, never published poet.

So Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is a poem that meant a lot to Dylan Thomas, who wanted to see his father face death in a blaze of defiance.

Dylan Thomas wrote many crafted, musical poems during his turbulent and boozy life as a romantic poet. His love of sound and his subject matter - religion, death, sin, redemption, love, the nature of the universe, the processes of time - helped create uniquely memorable poetry.

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 grieve 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.

Form/Structure


This villanelle, in iambic pentameter - 5 beats and 10 syllables per line - has masculine words ending most lines. A traditional villanelle has 19 lines split into 5 tercets and a quatrain. Thomas stuck to tradition.

The rhyme scheme is as follows : aba aba aba aba aba abaa. All the rhymes are full.

Reading through, note the lilt effect of the unstressed/stressed words, the use of enjambment allowing a paused follow on into the next line.

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 first stanza is an imperative call, the following four consolidate and the final stanza implores, and the whole builds into a tremendous powerful message of defiance and would be resolve.

Be sure to read it quietly to yourself but then recite it out loud and note the difference. The poet is witnessing the end of a life and cannot seem to tolerate a gentle status quo.

A villanelle is hard to get right but this example by Dylan Thomas is considered to be one of the best, the least contrived.

Themes

Death

End of Life Care

Family Responsibility for the Aged

Philosophical Ideas About Life and Death

Resolving Issues

Old Age

Imagery

Light and dark play an important role in this villanelle, as symbols of life and death. From the first stanza to the last, this theme is reinforced with a number of devices. Note the use of good night,a pun, and close of day, a euphemism for death.

In the second stanza lightning is used, creating a vivid image of vocal energy, whilst in the third bright and danced and green suggest the season of Spring and the surge of life in Nature.

The fourth stanza contains alliteration - sang the sun - whilst the fifth stanza has the wonderful alliterative line:

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay

Note the simile - like meteors - and the final stanza has the paradox of the father who might curse, bless the speaker with mere tears. This image, of the father on the heights - the Welsh hills? - with the son close by praying, is surely one of the strongest Dylan Thomas ever created.

Language/Diction/Sound


This is a short poem with words of one and two syllables, the only word with three being meteors (but some pronounce it with two).

Note the contrasts in the choice of words such as:

gentle/good with burn/rave,

frail/danced with rage/rage and

curse/bless with fierce tears

all reflecting opposite forces at work in the poem, further reinforced by the use of the preposition against. It's as if the speaker wants the old father to rebel, to confront the idea of death with heated passion, like when the sunset burns the sky red raw.

This is a poem with strong sounds coming out of most lines. Just listen to the consonance of: Do not go gentle into that good night which tests the vocal powers and pronunciation of the reader.

Whilst the line:

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay

is choc-a-bloc with assonance.

And stanzas 2-5 focus on four different types of universal male - wise, good, wild and grave - who all have their own characteristic approach to life but still rage against the dying of the light, as one.

In a villanelle, some of the lines repeat, which can often dilute the overall effect but in this particular case repetition strengthens the poem. The final stanza drives home the message in a personal way, the speaker in two minds about the reaction of his father but clear as to how he would like the ending to be.

Tone/Mood


This poem is full of passionate intensity from the start. The imperative - do not - sets the tone as the speaker showcases four types of male who rage and do not and in the final stanza faces his father, who is at the point of no return.

Rage, rage - the advice given to all who face the inevitable mystery of death. This direct message is somewhat like an old fashioned sermon delivered to those who would dare to go timidly to the threshold.

And there is strong emotion throughout, from the early and repeated rage to the joy of dance and the idea of blazing away like a meteor. This villanelle, though compact and structured, takes the reader away into the skies and beyond, out into the cosmos.

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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