Many people have heard the powerful words ‘do not go gentle into that good night,’ but few realize where they came from and the powerful emotion behind them. The poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas is one of the recognizable pieces of English poetry from the 20th century, being consistently quoted or used in various media. The poem is a dark-themed villanelle that focuses on the concept of inevitable death and the personal struggle to accept it and fight for life, as Thomas utilizes a combination of rhythm and texture to create a rich, powerful message as if a final exclamation to the world.
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Dylan Thomas was born in 1914 in Wales, UK. As the First World War passed and he directly experienced the Second World War, the events of the turbulent first half of the 20th century influenced both his writing and his psyche. He published his first book of poems at the age of 20, becoming famous. However, he adopted a persona of wild behavior and intense displays of emotion during public readings.
He began to drink heavily from this early age. Thomas was known for his deep and sonorous voice, having joined the BBC after surviving WWII with his wife and newborn daughter. He wrote and recorded broadcasts for the station, putting him further in the national spotlight. However, it is this experience of broadcasting that is believed to have had an influence on the writing of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” as the poem is written in such a manner that it is “channeled through the human voice than when read in the contemplative silence of the mind’s eye” (Popova).
The poem itself was inspired by the deathbed of Thomas’ father, who passed away in 1952. The lines are written as if addressing the father, urging him to fight on. Dylan Thomas himself died an early death a year later, in November of 1953. He was in New York at the time, which had severe air pollution that exacerbated his chronic pneumonia. Combined with heavy drinking, Thomas deteriorated rapidly and fell into a coma before passing a few days later (Popova). Thomas left behind a significant legacy as a poet, particularly through “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as he continues to influence new generations of poets and artists.
“Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night” is written in the form of a villanelle. This poetry form is rare and difficult to master but can have an unforgettable and potent effect when written well. A villanelle consists of 19 lines, five 3-line stanzas of iambic pentameter, and an ABA rhyme scheme until the end, with the final stanza having four lines. A villanelle typically has two refrains, used in the first and third lines of the first stanza and repeated alternatively at the close of each subsequent stanza until the final quatrain, but some variations may be present. The form is highly structured and viewed by many 20th century poets as constricting (Thomas 194).
The poem utilizes a range of literary devices, repetition being one of them highlighting one of the main themes. The primary line, which is also the title, is in itself a metaphor, immediately identifying the purpose and meaning of this powerful poem. That very same line, “go gentle into that good night” (1), and others such as blinding sight/blind eyes could blaze (13-14) contain alliteration. The tone of the poem is one of desperation, urgency, and defiance.
Meaning and Themes
The meaning of the poem centers around its title and first line, “do not go gentle into that good night” (Thomas, line 1). The night represents a metaphor for death, and the poem is a call to cling on and fight for life. While as known this was written by Thomas for his dying father, many interpretations see it as not just the fight for life before death, but the general perseverance and defiance of fate. Through the poem, Thomas identifies four types of men – wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men. Wise men understand that death is a part of life and accept it, and good men are those who have lived a good life (and Thomas believes his father was one of the few ones.
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Meanwhile, wild men are those that have realized mortality too late, and grave men are those that are staring death. The poem ends with a quatrain where Thomas claims that no matter the type of man, everyone seeks to fight for life and for more time. He encourages his father to do the same and not give in. The ending line used alternatively in stanzas, “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (3,9,15,19), is meant to be a call of defiance against death, with ‘rage’ being both a metaphorical and literal meaning as it demonstrates passion and emotion rather than acceptance.
“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is a powerful poem by Dylan Thomas. It represents a call for the fight against death and the call to live life. The poem is written in the form of a villanelle, which is a highly structured but beautiful style. Thomas took inspiration from the poem from his own tragic and difficult life as well as the years of experience working on the radio. The poem utilizes literary devices masterfully, highlighting its themes and the tone of defiance that are prevalent in the text.
Popova, Maria. “The Story Behind Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the Poet’s Own Stirring Reading of His Masterpiece.”. 2017. The Marginalian. Web.
Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” 1951. Poets. Web.
Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. 194.