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"Do not go gentle into that good night", a villanelle, is considered to be among the finest works by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914–1953). Originally published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951, it also appeared as part of the collection "In Country Sleep." Written for his dying father, it is one of Thomas's most popular and accessible poems.
The poem has no title other than its first line, "Do not go gentle into that good night", a line which appears as a refrain throughout the poem. The poem's other equally famous refrain is "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
|This section may contain original research. (October 2012)|
Thomas watched his father, formerly in the Army, grow weak and frail with old age. The poet relates this experience in this poem. The speaker tries to convince his father to fight against imminent death. The speaker addresses his father using wise men, good men, wild men, or grave men as examples to illustrate the same message: that no matter how they have lived their lives or what they feel at the end they should die fighting. It is one of Thomas' most popular, most easily accessible poems, and implies that one should not die without fighting for one's life, or after life.
Another explanation is that the speaker admits that death is unavoidable, but encourages all men to fight death. This is not for their own sake, but to give closure and hope to the kin that they will leave behind. To support this, he gives examples of wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men to his father, who was dying at the time this poem was written. There is little textual evidence for this interpretation, however, except the words "curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray." Also, it has been historically stated that Thomas never showed this poem to his father; if so, it would seem that Thomas composed it more for his own benefit than his father's.
A third reading of the poem observes the possibility that the speaker's listing of various reactions of men in their final hours is a self-addressed rationalization of his father's scolding catharsis before passing on. The line "Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray," might then suggest a negative interaction between the two generations, and because historical evidence leads readers to believe that the poet never in fact showed this poem to his father, it would not be ridiculous to think that Thomas wrote the poem knowing that his father was not the designated audience at all. He cites all of human beings' rage against death, regardless of disposition, and perhaps attempts to write off this negative interaction as a natural byproduct of death's impending arrival.
Another reading of this poem shows the author's own fear of death. He seems to fear having little separation between life and death such as in John Donne's poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", where:
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
- And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
- "Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."
It shows the author's fear that there is very little that separates life from death. As such he feels the need for a strong indication of the difference between the two. It does not even matter whether he is being blessed or cursed, he wants to see a reaction (l. 17). The poem could be written as well in the hope that the speaker would be able to see his dying father. He gives the impression that since wise men, good men, wild men and grave men all regret leaving this world his father as well should not be wanting to leave this world without a fight. It seems to be a wild hope, that he will be able to see his father before he passes; that each will be able to say those last words to each other—whether curses or blessings.
The poem is structured as a villanelle, which seems to imply a light gay tone. This already alludes to a profound paradox: unavoidable death in the face of the perpetual rhythm of rebirth. The haunting refrains seal the poem between courage and frustration, strength and grieving. The different epithets "wise", "good", "wild", and "grave" allude to the attitudes of men in front of their last challenge. By the time the poem was written, Dylan was facing not only the severance of the last solid bond in his life – the relationship with his father – but also the imminence of his own demise. As his wife Caitlin notes in her memoirs, a sinister foreboding accompanied Dylan since his teenage years, when, after an illness, a doctor gave him four years to live. Also D.J. (his father) used to say that his son would not have reached the age of 40. The same ominous feeling informs "Poem on his Birthday", composed shortly after "Do not go gentle into that good night".
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The poem and in particular its two refrains 'Do not go gentle into that good night' and 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light' have become much quoted in popular culture. Welsh works to use the poem in their titles include the 2001 film Against the Dying of the Light, which commemorated the work of the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales and 2002 release Do Not Go Gentle. Films to use part of, or a paraphrase from, the poem have included such diverse titles as comedies Dragnet, Back to School, Loose Cannons, The Rundown, high school drama Dangerous Minds and was partially quoted by Bill Pullman in his defiant presidential speech in the 1996 blockbuster action movie Independence Day. The poem has also been sampled in the American play and movie, "Butterflies are Free".
Television writers have also borrowed from the poem, from Doctor Who, Northern Exposure, Rain Shadow, Mad Men, to Family Guy, while the poem's connotation with death and endings was used to effect in the final episodes of both St. Elsewhere and Roseanne.
Do not go gentle into that good night is also quoted in literature; Não entres tão depressa nessa noite escura, a Portuguese interpretation of the iconic first line, is the name of a book by António Lobo Antunes. While the poem is a re-occurring theme and quote in the book "Matched" by Ally Condie.
Musicians have also found themselves drawn to the poem's words. Igor Stravinsky wrote a musical work in 1954 the year after Thomas' death, "In Memoriam Dylan Thomas", that included the poem to commemorate him. Jeannie Lewis sang and recorded the poem in her 1973 album Free Fall Through Featherless Flight, while Elliot del Borgo wrote a piece in 1979 by the same name for full orchestra, using hemiola and hymns in polyrhythms to portray the struggle of the poem in musical form. Thomas' fellow countryman John Cale, set the poem to music in 1989 and performed it at a concert held to celebrate the opening of the National Assembly for Wales. Modern bands to use the work include Brave Saint Saturn, Great Big Sea and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.
Don Henley and Steven Curtis Chapman borrow from this idea in their song both with the title "I Will Not Go Quietly."