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We all know that death is inevitable. The timing of death, however, is unpredictable. Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet who himself was gone too soon, explores this tension in his poem 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' (1951). Arguably Thomas's most famous poem, 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' is a frequently studied text in high schools and universities throughout the world. Due to its inventive and refreshing use of poetic form, brilliant use of figurative language, and poignant message about life and death, this poem has withstood the test of time.
|Title||'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night'|
|First Published||1951 in Botteghe Oscure|
|Theme||Life and mortality, relationship to father|
|Imagery||Light and dark|
|Poetic devices||Enjambment, repetition, contrast|
|Meaning||Resist death as much as you can.|
Dylan Thomas wrote the poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ in 1947, about five years before it was published. Many scholars believe Thomas wrote the poem for his terminally ill father, who died in late 1952. Because Thomas’s tumultuous life ended in November 1953, little is known about the poem's origins.
Dylan Thomas was a contemporary of modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, yet he rebelled against using social and political ideas in his poetry. Often called the “archetypal Romantic poet of American imagination,"1 Thomas wrote emotionally charged and deeply personal poetry centering on imagination, intuition, beauty, and vivid imagery. Thomas was likely introduced to the Romantic literary tradition by his father, who taught English Literature.
The poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is an exploration of the inevitability of death. It's also a call to resist death. The speaker opens by talking about different types of men who, in their own way, attempt to escape or deny their mortality. Wise men, despite knowing death is inevitable, seek to thwart death because they haven’t done anything revolutionary yet.
Good men, who realize their life is like a wave passing by, want more time to live. Wild men refuse to accept their mortality because they want to continue living in the moment. Old men have the knowledge and wisdom to realize the preciousness of life and therefore want to hold onto it.
The poem then shifts to focus on the speaker’s father, who is presumably dying. Instead of accepting it gracefully, the speaker uses direct address to urge their father to resist it — to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (line 19).
Direct address: When a speaker in a poem talks directly to a specific audience. The speaker usually indicates the direct address by referring to the listener by name, title, or pronoun "you."
|Line||'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night'|
|1||Do not go gentle into that good night,|
|2||Old age should burn and rave at close of day;|
|3||Rage, rage against the dying of the light.|
|4||Though wise men at their end know dark is right,|
|5||Because their words had forked no lightning they|
|6||Do not go gentle into that good night.|
|7||Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright|
|8||Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,|
|9||Rage, rage against the dying of the light.|
|10||Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,|
|11||And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,|
|12||Do not go gentle into that good night.|
|13||Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight|
|14||Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,|
|15||Rage, rage against the dying of the light.|
|16||And you, my father, there on the sad height,|
|17||Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.|
|18||Do not go gentle into that good night.|
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
On first glance, this poem is full of repetition, which can feel redundant and empty. However, when doing a close reading of the poem, you find it’s rich with nuance and meaning. Let’s take a look at a few elements to help us analyze it.
Close Reading: An exercise in literary analysis that requires close examination and intentional re-reading to determine a text’s meaning.
The form of ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' is a villanelle, which is a highly-structured form of verse that uses refrains (repeated lines) throughout the stanzas. It also uses a strict ABA rhyme scheme.
The first refrain, “do not go gentle into that good night,” repeats in the lines 1, 6, 12, and 18. The second refrain, “rage, rage against the dying of the light” repeats in lines 3, 8, 15, and 19.
This structure demands control, rigidity, and conformity. As a result, it heightens the pressure of impending death. Death is predictable and unavoidable, just like this villanelle structure.
Consider how the subject of the poem — mortality — is unpredictable, yet the form of 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight' is totally predictable. When analyzing and interpreting poetry, it's helpful to look at incongruences such as this one.
Enjambment: the running-over of the poetic line from one line to the next and stopping only at its punctuation.
Paying attention to a poem's enjambment can aid in reading and interpreting it. When doing so, we can see how the refrains are not quite as verbatim as they initially appear. When describing each type of man as he approaches death, the speaker says essentially that the man “does not” go gently into death; that is, the man refuses to accept it. In this case, the phrase “that do not” describes how each man behaves.
However, when the poem shifts to the speaker’s father, the refrain is no longer a description. Instead, it’s a command. The speaker implores their father: do not go gentle into that good night. In other words, “father, please do not give up. Do not accept this as your fate.”
The fact that this highly-structured and repetitive poem can achieve multiple layers of meaning is why it has become one of the most famous and beloved poems of all time.
You may have come across Dylan Thomas and this poem before without ever realizing it. 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' was featured in Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar. It was also referenced in episodes of Doctor Who, Mad Men, and Modern Family. And have you ever heard of Bob Dylan? His real name is Bob Zimmerman, but he changed it to Bob Dylan after unexpectedly reading Dylan Thomas's poems.
Oxymoron: when two contradictory ideas are expressed together, creating a logical statement in context.
One form of figurative language that Thomas uses in this poem is oxymoron. In line 13, the speaker says, "Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight." The speaker says in the final stanza when speaking to their father, "Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears" (line 17). The men who are near death finally see the meaning of their life with such stunning clarity, yet it is blinding them to the inevitability of death.
The speaker's pleading toward their father in the phrase "Curse, bless" is indicative of the feeling-state the speaker is in: deep grief at the thought of death. The only way to help is if the father fights death with "fierce tears". These two oxymorons -- "blinding sight" and "Curse, bless" reinforce the conflicting and paradoxical nature of life and death.
Throughout the poem, Thomas weaves in competing images of light and dark. The speaker uses words such as “night,” “close of day,” (line 2) and “dying of the light” when referring to death, yet when the speaker talks about the various men who are approaching death, the speaker uses words such as “burn and rave,” (line 2), “lightning” (line 5), “bright,” (line 6), “blaze” (line 14). Light and dark are conflicting forces - one must absorb the other. The speaker, ultimately, pleads for light to be victorious over dark.
Memento Mori: A Latin phrase that roughly translates to "remember you will die."
The poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is a memento mori poem — that is, it’s a poem that reminds us of the inevitability of death. Often read when someone is nearing the threshold of death, it can also serve as an everyday reminder that, despite death’s inevitability, we should do everything we can to resist it. We can “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (19) by living our lives to the fullest.
1 Dylan Thomas, poets. org, https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night
The meaning of 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' is to rebel against death as much as possible because life is precious.
'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' uses the literary devices oxymoron, contrast, and repetition.
'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' is a metaphor for resisting the inevitability of death. Instead of going to it willingly, the speaker urges to fight it.
The analysis for 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' is that people who are near death never want it.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night'
Who wrote 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night'?
Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet (1914-1953).
What poetic form is 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night'?
What does Memento Mori mean?
A Latin phrase that means "remember you will die."
What is an oxymoron?
When two contradictory ideas are placed together. In context, this phrase makes logically sense.
What does it mean to do a close reading of a text?
A close reading of a text means that you read the text multiple times, paying careful attention to its elements.
What is enjambment?
Enjambment is the continuation of the poetic line from one to the next, without stopping until its punctuation.
Where does the poem's shift occur?
What type of poet was Dylan Thomas?
Dylan Thomas rebelled against his fellow modernist poets whose focus was on social and political ideas. Instead, Thomas wrote about imagination, deep emotion, intuition, and vivid imagery,
What is the meaning of 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night'?
The meaning of 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' is that, when faced with death, we should resist it to keep on living.
Who is the speaker speaking to in the final stanza?
The speaker's father
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