Poetry: Thomas – 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 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.

Though the villanelle is a poetic form I struggle with, this poem by Thomas has long fascinated me. Not one to comment on the issues of the day, he still manages to capture the emotions of the middle of the 20th century. And that is what he did best. He lyrically captured emotion, holding to the forms and traditions of past writers for the modern era. Yet what is the poem about? Every time I read it, I feel like I find something new.

At first glance, it is easy to get caught up in the two refrains: do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light. Together, they form a picture of stubborn assurance against death. Not exactly that we should fear it, but that we should recognize its wrongness and its animosity towards humanity. Old age should not have been a thing to concern us, yet it draws us closer to our end.

But each verse allows us to focus on different aspects of humanity and their similar reaction to death. Those who are wise know that death comes to all, as even they spoke nothing to change the course of time. But even they hate this end. The good who did brave deeds note how, years later, their sacrifice seems so small, and rage against the futility of it all. Even the insane, the undisciplined, forever children recognize the terribleness of the coming end. Why is there an end? For even those who see the brightness yet to come rage against our dying light that should never have been snuffed.

And then, we come to who this poem was likely for, wrenching us from our collective humanity to the deeply personal. His father, now reaching the end of his days yet not quite gone when this was written. So Thomas pleads with him now: Don’t be content with death. Allow him, his son, to see the frailty of man and to be frail too. Allow him to rage as the old though he is young, and will himself be snuffed out quickly.

Perhaps Thomas took his own words too much to heart, allowing the subtle messaging of the lost generation to influence even him, infecting his heart and poems with the emotions of despair. And perhaps I am too optimistic, seeing in this poem only the justified anger at death, furious and the dying lights around us. But perhaps this is the emotion he desired.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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