In a 1933 letter to a friend, Dylan Thomas describes the library he shared with his father in their home. His father’s section held the classics, while his included modern poetry. It had, according to Thomas, everything needed in a library. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” was in all likelihood composed in 1945 when D. J. Thomas was seriously ill; however, it was not published until after his death on December 16, 1952. Thomas sent the poem to a friend, Princess Caetani, in the spring of 1951, telling her that the “only person I can’t show the little enclosed poem to is, of course, my father who doesn’t know he’s dying.
After his father’s death, the poem was included in the collection In Country Sleep. Ironically Dylan Thomas himself died just a year later. The poem discusses various ways to approach death in old age. It advocates affirming life up until the last breath, rather than learning to accept death quietly. Poem Summary Lines 1-3 The first tercet introduces the poem’s theme; it also introduces the two recurring refrains that end alternate stanzas. Although these two lines, the first and the third, both state Thomas’s basic theme about resisting death, they contrast in several ways.
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Each of the predominant words in line one finds its opposite in line three. “Gentle” is paired with “rage,” “good” with “dying,” and “night” with “light. ” The tone of the two lines also is quite different. Line one is subdued; the verbs are deliberately simple, vague. Thomas uses the predicate adjective “gentle,” making it describe the personality of the individual, rather than the more obvious choice “gently,” an adverb which would only refer to the action of the verb. “Good night” when it refers to dying becomes a paradox for Thomas, meaning a good death.
Although this line may be an exhortation to resist death, its entire tone is gentle. Compare this to the beginning of line 3 where “rage” is repeated twice. Here the poet urges a furious resistance to death. The second line introduces Thomas’s advice to those who near death. The idea of burning is frequently associated with the passion of youth; however, Thomas wants the elderly to cling as passionately to their lives as anyone would. The phrase “close of day” establishes a connection with the “good night” of the previous line, while the words “burn” and “rave” move the reader into the third line of the stanza.
Line 4 The next four stanzas describe four different types of old men and examine their attitudes and feelings as they realize that death is approaching. The first type Thomas mentions are the wise men. They may be considered scholars or philosophers. Perhaps because of this, intellectually they accept the inevitability of death. Thomas begins the line with the word “though,” however, to indicate that their knowledge has not prepared them to accept the reality of death. Line 5 This line explains why the wise men are unable to act in accordance with their knowledge.
Scholars are known and measured by their words. These men have many words still left unwritten or unspoken, so their goals have not been accomplished. Thomas ends this line in mid-thought, leaving the rest of the idea to the next line. This parallels the unfulfilled lives of the wise men, with their messages only partially delivered. Line 6 In many villanelles, the refrains simply serve as a chorus. Here, Thomas makes it an integral part of the meaning of the stanza. Lines 7-8 “Good” seems to be used in a moral sense here, describing men who have lived worthy, acceptable lives.
The phrase “last wave” presents readers with a dual image. The men themselves are a last wave, the last to approach death; they also seem to be giving a final wave to those who they are leaving behind. “Crying,” as well, has two meanings here. In one sense, it simply means speaking out, but it also carries the sense of weeping and mourning. Like the wise men, the good men have not accomplished what they wished to in life. Their actions failed to stand out. Thomas uses rhyme for different purposes here. Rhyming “bright” at the end of line 7 with “might” in line 8 erves to emphasize both words and link the two stanzas. Also, the rhyming of “by,” “crying,” and “dying” unites this stanza, while the use of “deeds” and “danced” is an example of alliteration. Line 9 The intensity of the refrain contrasts with the nature of the good men as Thomas has presented them. They seem passive, their actions weak. Now at the end of life, they must finally behave passionately, finally be noticed.
Lines 10-12 Thomas’s wild men are very different from the good, quiet men in the previous stanzas. The image, “caught and sang the sun,” is joyous and powerful when compared to frail deeds. These men have lived live fully, not realizing that they, too, will age and die. Since Thomas himself cultivated an image as a wild Celtic bard, this stanza seems ironically prophetic about his own death. Line 13 The word “grave” carries two meanings here: seriousness and death. These are the men of understanding; paradoxically, although they are blind, they are able to see more clearly than those with sight. Lines 14-15 The mentions of blindness are references to his father.
Thomas spoke of this blindness again in the unfinished elegy he wrote after his father’s death, describing him as: Too proud to die, broken and blind he died ... An old kind man brave in his burning pride. In this stanza, Thomas contrasts light and dark imagery; for instance, the term “grave” is countered by “gay,” just as “blind” is contrasted with “sight. ” Lines 16-17 While the last stanza referred to Thomas’s father only obliquely, this stanza is addressed to him. The “sad height” refers to his closeness to death.
There are Biblical overtones to Thomas’s request in line 17, as he asks for a final blessing or curse; the patriarchs delivered such parting messages to their sons. As in many Bible verses, with their parallel structure, blessings and curses are paired together. If this line is read as iambic pentameter, however, the emphasis will fall on the words, “bless” and “now. ” The image of “fierce tears” shows contrast: the tears acknowledging the inevitability of death, while the use of “fierce” indicates resistance until the end. “I pray” reinforces the Biblical imagery; however, the prayer is addressed to his father, the agnostic, rather than God.