In “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” poet Dylan Thomas uses nighttime as a metaphor for death, and anguishes over his father’s willing acceptance of it. He urges his father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” i.e. the onset of night, or as it is used here, death.
This poem is one of the most famous villanelles every written in the English language. A villanelles is 19 lines long, consisting of five stanzas of three lines each and concluding with a four line stanza. A villanelles uses only two rhymes, while repeating two lines throughout the poem, which then appear together at the conclusion of the last stanza. The two lines repeated in this work are “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
The poet begins by proposing that the elderly should not easily accept their demise (“go gentle”), that they should fight it with vigor and intensity (“Old age should burn and rave at the close of day”). The choice of the words “burn” and “rave” suggest an uncontrolled, irrational response to imminent death, the incoherent expenditure of useless energy directed at a hopeless goal.
Yet for the author, this seemingly senseless display is preferable to docile submission to the “close of day”. The son is seeing his father slowly wither before him, and he mourns the loss of vibrancy in the old man. Thomas knows that death is unavoidable, even “good”, but he does not concede that meekness must precede it. Thomas refuses this concession because the subject is his father, and he cannot bear to see his once strong parent as impotent and shriveling in his final months.
At the end of the first stanza he urges his father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”, again choosing a word (“rage”) that evokes an image of furious, even violent intensity. In the phrases “the close of day” and “the dying of the light”, Thomas shows us the extinguishing of the sun’s light and the approach of darkness as a metaphor for death, in that it is both natural and inevitable.
Thomas encourages his father to resist death by providing examples of four different types of men who “rage” against this inevitable end. The four examples are a broad cross section of men that one might find worthy of emulating, and Thomas hopes that his father will emulate their vain resistance to finality.
In the second stanza, Thomas points to “wise men” that know that death (“dark”) is the natural end of life (“right”). And because the light of their great words had no impact on even a single bolt of lightning (“their words had forked no lightning”), they “Do not go gentle into that good night”. The “wise” like everyone else must die, but here they do battle right up to the very end, so as to allow themselves more opportunities for greatness.
He then points to “good men” that, having seen their final great moment disappear into the past (“the last wave by”), and knowing that their good deeds came to naught, when they might have shone brightly, as if they were rays of sunlight reflected by countless ripples on the green bay (“might have danced in a green bay”), still “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
In the fourth stanza he provides the example of the “wild men” that lived life full of mirth and vivacity (“who caught and sang the sun in flight”) only to discover “too late” how their lives were, in fact, full of grief (“And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way”), still “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Here Thomas uses the image of catching the sun in flight and singing to paint a picture of flighty, irresponsible men who did not take account of their days.
Finally, he tells of “grave men” (taken literally, “men of the grave”, which is exactly what all of these men are about to become), serious men that hover near death with blind eyes that yet see with tremendous insight (“who see with blinding sight”), continuing to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Perhaps the grave men “see” that death is the end, that there is no second chance and that one must make all one can of the moments available to us. The use of alliteration in the simile “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay” draws our attention to the ability of one to be physically sightless and still have life (gaiety) in one’s eyes. This is in sharp contrast to those, even some quite young, who live but have no life in their eyes. They step cautiously through life, trying to make it safely to death.
Thomas closes the poem gazing upon his father on the precipice of death (“there on the sad height”). He begs his father to “Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears,” proclaiming that anything vibrant directed at him by his father, be it a blessing or a curse, so long as it was accompanied by intensity, would be preferable to what he sees.
In the end, he pleads with his dying parent to rise and fight, to refuse to submit to death. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Human nature instinctively struggles to preserve life, even when the issue seems decided. It is this self-preservation reflex that enabled our species to survive harsh environments, and enables individuals to survive life-threatening situations today. It is natural therefore, for Thomas to be unnerved by the sight of his father betraying his instinct to fight for life.
The form Thomas has chosen for this work, the villanelles, allows the poet to build the work slowly, rhythmically, while continuing to reinforce his central message of violent, hopeless resistance to the inevitable. Thomas knows that death must and will come, but watching his father shrink to insignificance before him, he also feels the human need to flail against it, to flare out in the dark sky, rather than sputter to an ignominious end.
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.