A reading of a classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is probably the best-known villanelle in English poetry. If you’re not sure what a villanelle is, don’t worry – it’s not important right now. But it’s one reason why the poem is worth reading. The other is that ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is one of Dylan Thomas’s most famous, and finest, poems. You can read it here. What follows constitutes our analysis of this poem of brave defiance in the face of certain death.
A number of Dylan Thomas’s poems offer a sinewy, unsentimental approach to death: in another poem, he offers his reasons for refusing to mourn the death of a child in the London Blitz. In ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, the death he concerns himself with is somewhat closer to home: his own father’s. But Thomas’s own demise would follow not long after he composed these defiant words for his father, so the poem might also, oddly, be analysed as autobiographical, in a quasi-prophetic sort of way.
‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’: summary
The best way to begin analysing ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is, perhaps, by offering a summary – or paraphrase – of Thomas’s taunt, gnomic statements and commands to his father. Paraphrase might be more useful than summary, given the strong, confident, and imperative voice we hear from the poet here, so here goes:
First stanza: ‘Father, do not allow death to take you without putting up a fight. Old people, as they approach the end of their lives, should be filled with fire and anger.’
Second stanza: ‘Even though wise men know, as they die, that it is fitting for them to die, having lived a long life, they refuse to go gladly into death because they know that a wise man’s words (about accepting one’s death) are all well and good, but are useless in practice.’
Third stanza: ‘Never mind wise men. What about good men? When they are close to death, crying how all their good deeds came to nothing, like so many bright glimmers on the surface of water in a green bay (i.e. beautiful and bright, but frail and of little lasting worth), rage against their imminent deaths.’
Fourth stanza: ‘Okay, what about wild men, then? They lived their lives to the full, and learned all too late that such bold and exciting living only ends in grief, refuse to accept their deaths with meek acceptance.’
Fifth stanza: ‘Serious and sincere men – but also, men who are shortly for the grave, i.e. “grave” men – when approaching their own deaths, realise in a moment of terrible insight that their lives could have been bright and exciting (like the wild men’s lives), and regret not having taken more chances when they had the opportunity, rage against their imminent deaths and the loss of opportunity.’
Sixth stanza: ‘And now let’s turn to consider one man in particular – you, my own father. There, on the edge of death, please show some sign that you still live and are imbued with all the signs of life – I don’t mind whether you bless me with your angry grief or whether you curse me, as long as you do something.’
Of course, such a paraphrase reduces Thomas’s poem to its bare meaning (where a single ‘meaning’ can be divined), and destroys his beautiful use of double meanings (e.g. ‘Grave men’), alliteration ( ‘Blind eyes could blaze’), and repetition (the powerful return of the same two sloganistic phrases which the villanelle has built into its structure). But, with any luck, such a summary helps to get a handle on Thomas’s meaning.
‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’: analysis
As we mentioned at the beginning of this analysis, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is a villanelle, a poem divided into a series of three-line stanzas where the same two repeated lines of verse comprise the last line of each alternating stanza. So ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, as well as providing the poem’s opening line, also concludes the second and fourth stanzas; ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ – its counter-refrain, if you will – concludes the first, third, and fifth stanzas. Both lines then conclude the sixth and final stanza of the poem by forming a rhyming couplet. The villanelle, as the name of the verse form implies, has its origins in French poetry: the form dates back to a late sixteenth-century poem ‘Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)’ by Jean Passerat, but it was in the twentieth century that it became a great English verse form. (Indeed, it appears that Passerat invented the form himself with this poem). And a number of English poets – especially Anglophone poets, writing after, and partly against, the high moment of modernism – had a go at writing villanelles in the mid-twentieth century. For other widely anthologised examples, see W. H. Auden’s ‘If I Could Tell You’ and William Empson’s ‘Missing Dates’.
This poetic form enables Thomas to use the title within the poem as both an instruction (or request) and a simple indicative statement. So although the poem opens with a clear command: ‘Do not go gentle …’ (and note Thomas’s irregular use of ‘gentle’ as an adverb: ‘gently’ would have been to smooth over the realities of dying all too gently), when the mantra recurs at the end of the second stanza it follows a run-on line describing wise men (‘they / Do not go gentle’), and so becomes indicative rather than imperative. This shifts the poem between the two modes, between asking his father to put up one last fight against the terror of death, and talking of how ‘wise men’ and ‘wild men’ (among others) have provided an example to follow by their defiant actions, using their last breaths to contest their own annihilation.
It is that first stanza which shows Dylan Thomas’s way with vowels (and, for that matter, consonants) so wonderfully: ‘age’ and ‘rave’ play against each other with their long ‘a’ sounds, only to coalesce into ‘rage’ in the next line – decidedly apt, since the rage Thomas describes is a result of old age and, in Philip Larkin’s words, ‘the only end of age’. ‘Rage, rage’ offers a nice example of the spondee (or heavy iamb, depending on your perspective on spondees), where two syllables are sounded with a similar amount of emphasis. Such emphatic words convey the disordered rage which Thomas wants his father to allow to overcome him. The rhymes, too, cleverly reflect Thomas’s desire that his father allow a little daylight into his darkest final hours: ‘night’ plays off ‘light’ in terms of rhyme and meaning, but ‘day’, sandwiched between them, semantically opposes ‘night’ (just as Thomas’s father is being asked to oppose its oppressions) before giving way to ‘light’.
You can hear Dylan Thomas reading ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ here. It really is an unmissable experience. And perhaps these words of analysis have shed a little light on the workings of the poem, and how it manages to produce such a powerful incantatory effect.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Dylan Thomas statue in Swansea, Wikimedia Commons.