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Full Expert Analysis: "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Mar 1, 2019 2:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Learning to read and understand poetry is tricky business. Between the tough terminology—what is synecdoche, anyway?!—and complicated structure, it can sometimes feel impossible to understand what a poet is trying to say. Unfortunately, if you’re going to take the AP Literature exam, you’re going to have to figure out how to quickly read and understand poetry.

One of the best ways to get a handle on poetry is to read a poem along with a detailed explanation of both what the poem means and how the poet conveys that meaning.

To do this, we’re going to take a look at Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” one of the most famous poems of the 20th century. Not only will you have a handle on the poem’s overall message, but you’ll also understand the most important techniques Dylan Thomas uses to convey that meaning to the reader.

We promise: by the end of this article, poetry will seem a lot less scary. So let’s get started!

 

body-dylan-thomas-jim-forest-flickr Jim Forest/Flickr 

 

Meet the Poet, Dylan Thomas

Just like with a novel, play, or short story, knowing a little bit about an author can help you better understand their work. While there’s no way you can learn about every important author ever before you take your AP literature test, you should definitely know a bit about a few of the major players in the literature world. (Taking a look at our AP literature reading list is a good place to start!)

Dylan Thomas is definitely a literary figure you should know. Born in Swansea, Wales in 1914, Thomas began writing poetry at an early age. In fact, many of his most famous poems—including “And death shall have no dominion” and “Before I knocked”—were written when he was still a teenager! In fact, his poetry was so good that it caught the attention of English literary greats like T.S. Eliot, Geoffrey Grigson, and Stephen Spender, who helped him publish his first book of poetry, 18 Poems, at the age of 20.

Thomas, unlike many poets, had the fortune of being both well-known and well-acclaimed during his lifetime. His poetry collections were critical hits, and he participated in multiple tours—both domestically and abroad—to talk about his work.

And yet, despite his success, Thomas found it difficult to make a living from his poetry alone. Along with securing the funding from wealthy patrons, Thomas also wrote and recorded pieces for BBC radio, and he performed in BBC radio dramas as well. Thomas even dabbled in film and scripted at least five movies, including This Is Colour (1942) and Conquest of a Germ (1944).

Despite Thomas’ personal success, his personal life proved difficult. He suffered from breathing issues from childhood, and they plagued him throughout his life. (His breathing problems are what spared him from being conscripted into the military in World War II.) Thomas had married young, and his marriage to Caitlin McNamara was contentious. Thomas was a very heavy drinker and carouser, and his alcoholism and multiple affairs put a strain on his relationship with his wife.

It also put a strain on his body. During an American tour in 1953, Thomas started getting sick. On the night of his 39th birthday, Thomas fell ill and slipped into a coma. He passed away a few days later, and the coroner ruled his cause of death as a mixture of a fatty liver, pneumonia, and brain swelling.

Despite passing away at such a young age, Thomas is considered to be one of the most influential poets of the modern period, and he is certainly one of the most famous Welsh poets of all time.  

Unlike some poets, who fit into a poetic movement like metaphysical or baroque poetry, Thomas is hard to classify. His poetry is distinctly modern, and although he was influenced by surrealist poetry, his lyricism and intense emotion have more in common with the romantics than this contemporaries. Additionally, unlike other modern poets writing at the same time, Thomas’ poems aren’t concerned with social issues. Rather, his work is concerned with the physical processes of life and death, and he blends the ancient and the modern together in ways that were—and still are—remarkably unique.

 

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Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” (1951)

“Do not go gentle into that good night” is one of Thomas’ most famous poems, and in fact, might be one of the most famous poems of the 20th century. He composed it when he was traveling with his wife and children in Italy in 1947, and it was published as part of his 1952 poetry collection, In Country Sleep, And Other Poems.

Here’s the full text of the poem:

 

“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(If you understand things better by hearing them rather than reading them, you can actually listen to Dylan Thomas read the poem himself!)

 

The Background Behind the Poem

Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night” during a very specific moment in Dylan Thomas’ life. His father, David John Thomas, had first introduced him to the wonder of language by reading him Shakespeare before bed at night. Thomas’ father was a grammar school teacher, but he had always wanted to be a poet but was never able to realize his dream.

In 1952, Thomas’ father fell critically ill, and Thomas went to sit by his bedside. While sitting vigil with his dying father, Thomas was struck by both the inescapability of death and the anguish of grief at his father’s passing. As a result of his experience, Thomas penned “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which is both a poem about the death of his father and, more generally, a poem about the tension between life and death itself.

In a twist of fate, Thomas’ poem about death would be one of the last poems he would write before his own untimely demise the following year.

 

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“Do not go gentle into that good night”: Meaning and Themes

Before we start talking about Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” go re-read the poem one more time. Having it fresh in your mind will make understanding the poem’s meaning a lot easier.

Done? Great! So what’s this poem about, anyway?

 

“Do not go gentle into that good night” Meaning

At its heart, “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem about death. The narrator of the poem is experiencing the death of his father, which we see in the last stanza, or group of lines. Witnessing the death of his father makes the speaker think about death in a more general way. The first five stanzas focus on different types of men, and the speaker thinks about how they will have to face death one day, too.

In the end, the speaker realizes that death cannot be avoided, but it can be challenged. When he tells readers to “not go gentle into that good night” and “rage against the dying of the light,” he’s telling them to not accept death passively. Instead, he tells people that the last thing a dying person gets to choose is how he faces death. For Thomas, struggling against death is both a valiant—and a human—reaction.

Once you understand what’s happening in the poem, you can start to get a better handle on what “Do not go gentle into that good night” means. To get a better handle on the different messages of Thomas’s poem, let’s take a closer look at three of the poem’s main themes/messages.

 

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Theme 1: The Unstoppable Nature of Death

Like we mentioned earlier, “Do not go gentle into that good night” comes out of Thomas’ experience watching his father pass away. As a result, the poem’s primary purpose is to think about death—or more to the point, to think about dying. In many ways, this is also a poem about man’s last mortal act, which is passing away.

Given this, Thomas’ poem is often taught as a grieving man’s anger at death, which has come to take his father away. The phrase “good night” refers to death—where “good night” references both how we say goodbye to people and how a dying person slips into a final sleep that they never wake up from.

But more specifically, Thomas’ poem tells people to “not go gentle” into death. Here, the word “gentle” means “docile,” or passive and without resistance. in other words, Thomas tells readers they should not accept death passively, but instead should fight (or “rage”) against it (“the dying of the light”).

But why is this, exactly? Why fight against death instead of slipping away peacefully?

For Thomas, the best way is to face death with strength and power, like the “wild” heroes of old. In his poem, Thomas argues that this allows dying people to embrace the fiery energy of life one last time, and in many ways, serves as a small way to triumph something they have no control over in the end. Put another way: if you can’t avoid dying, it’s better to go down fighting than to not fight at all!

It’s important to note that although Thomas tells readers to struggle against death, this isn’t a poem about triumphing over death. The end result of fighting death isn’t victory. The people in the poem don’t cheat death in order to live another day. The truth is that the people Thomas mentions are dying—and they will die no matter what.

Thus, “Do not go gentle into that good night” focuses on a person’s literal final choice: not whether or not to die, but how they will face the inevitable.

 

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Theme 2: The Power of Life

In “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Thomas creates tension between death—which he speaks about symbolically through images of night and darkness—and life, which he represents through images of light. For example, take a look at the second line of the poem. When Thomas says “close of day,” he’s referencing death. But he also says that people should “burn” against it—and as we all know, things that are burning produce light!

The act of putting two unlike things, like light and dark, in close proximity to one another is called juxtaposition. In this poem, the juxtaposition emphasizes the contrast between life and death. If death is dark and inevitable, then the juxtaposition helps readers see that life is powerful and full of energy.

Let’s take a closer look at lines seven and eight to get a better understanding of how this works. The lines read, “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright/Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay.” There are two instances of light imagery in these lines: “bright” and “green bay” (water often appears to be green or blue on a sunny day). These words help describe the “good” man’s life, which is full of light and energy. After all, even though his deeds are “frail”—which means “minor” or “insignificant” in this instance—they still might have “danced.” In this passage, we can see how the living are full of a vital, powerful energy. Through this, Thomas tells readers that the true tragedy of aging and death is that it takes away the vitality of life.

 

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Theme 3: The Limit of Time

The speaker of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” is an anonymous narrator whose father is dying, and he represents anyone who’s ever lost a loved one.

But the speaker isn’t the only character in “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Each stanza of the poem features a different person at the end of his life: the “wise” man in stanza two, the “good” man in stanza three, the “wild” man in stanza four, the “grave” man in stanza five, and Thomas’ own father in stanza six.

In each stanza, the type of man mentioned is looking back at his life. He’s reflecting on what he did—and what he didn’t do. In most of the stanzas, the men express regret at what they didn’t do. For example, the wise man worries that his “words had forked no lightning.” In other words, the wise man—a teacher, scholar, or some other educated person—worries that his ideas will not live on. Each of the characters in this poem, in his own unique way, regrets the things he left undone.

Thomas includes the idea of regret in his poem to show readers how short life truly is. When we are young, we have grand plans for everything we want to do, and we feel like we have all the time in the world to accomplish our goals. But Thomas argues that time goes by quickly. Too often, we “grieve” time “on its way,” which is Thomas’ way of saying that people often want for time to move faster. But if we do that, we miss out on the opportunities of life. Instead, Thomas is telling readers in a roundabout way that it’s important to seize the day. Time is short and death waits for us all, so Thomas reminds readers to embrace life rather than let it pass them by.

 

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The Top 2 Poetic Devices in “Do not go gentle into that good night”

You couldn’t build a house without tools like hammers, wrenches, and saws. The same goes for poetry: when a poet is “building” a poem, they need the right tools for the job!

That’s where poetic devices come in. A poetic device is a linguistic tool that a poet can use to help convey their message or theme.

We’ve already talked about a few poetic devices already—like imagery and juxtaposition—but now we want to focus on two other poetic devices that are important to Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

 

The Villanelle

A villanelle is a type of poetic structure. In other words, it’s a poem that has a distinct and reproducible form, like a sonnet or a sestina. The villanelle as we know it today dates back to the Renaissance, but the form didn’t gain widespread popularity until the 1800s. Despite taking its name from the Italian word “villano,” which means “peasant,” the villanelle was most popular amongst English poets.

So what makes a poem a villanelle, exactly? In order for a poem to be considered a villanelle, it has to follow a very specific structure.

First, a villanelle has to have nineteen lines. Any more or less, and the poem isn’t a villanelle!

Second, villanelles have five tercets and a concluding quatrain. That’s a fancy way of saying that the nineteen lines are divided into five stanzas with three lines each (tercets) and one stanza with four lines (a quatrain).

Third, a villanelle must have two refrains and two repeating rhymes. A refrain is a set of lines that repeats itself in regular intervals throughout a poem, especially at the end of a stanza. In Thomas’ poem, the lines “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” are refrains. In villanelles, the refrain comprises the last lines of the poem. Repeating rhymes are words that rhyme the same way.

Repeating rhymes occur throughout the poem, and a villanelle has two sets of rhymes that do so. In “Do not go gentle into that good night,” the “a” rhymes are “night,” “light,” “right,” “bright,” “flight,” “sight,” and “height.”  The “b” rhymes are “they,” “day,” “bay,” “way,” “gay,” and “pray.”

Thomas uses a villanelle because villanelles often dealt with pastoral, natural, or simple themes. In this case, death—although scary—is a natural part of life. Since villanelles deal with nature, it makes sense that Thomas chose to use that form for his poem.

Furthermore, repeated refrain echoes the way in which grief works. Even though we know our loved one can’t escape death, our minds often find themselves returning to the possibility that they might not die. If only they fight a little harder, maybe they will live just a little longer. The refrain helps juxtapose the hope of the living against the inevitability of death. Thus, Thomas uses the villanelle to capture what death is like for a loved one, too.  

 

Enjambment

Enjambment is the poetic technique where the line breaks in a poem happen in the middle of a sentence. (When a line ends with a punctuation mark, it’s called an end stop.)

Enjambment works as a way for a poet to build both tension and motion within a poem. The tension comes from the fact that the poet’s thought isn’t finished at the end of a sentence. Each line with enjambment is a mini-cliffhanger, which makes the reader want to keep reading to find out what happens! (If you watch Game of Thrones, then you’re really familiar with how cliffhangers work!)

Because readers want to keep reading, enjambment gives the poem a quick—and sometimes frantic—pace. It’s almost like the poet can’t finish their thoughts fast enough. Sometimes enjambment can also create drama, especially when the following line isn’t what the reader thought it would be.

In “Do not go gentle into that good night,” enjambment happens in about half the stanzas. One good example of enjambment and how it works comes in stanza five, where Thomas writes, “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight/Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay.” In these lines, enjambment creates drama and allows Thomas to play with words a little bit. In the first line, the grave men can see with “blinding sight,” meaning they can look back on their lives and see it with extreme clarity.

But instead of telling us what the men see, Thomas twists things in the next line. When Thomas says “blind eyes,” he means literal blindness. In old age, people often lose their eyesight, but it doesn’t mean they can’t see their past clearly in their own memories. Their memories “blaze” in their blind eyes; in other words, the joy of a life well lived reflects in their face, despite their age. In this instance, enjambment creates drama and lets Thomas a) put an unexpected twist into his poem, and b) reflect the rush of excitement and joy the “grave men” feel in the structure of his poem.

More importantly, each instance of enjambment in “Do not go gentle into that good night” gives the poem a sense of forward motion. Even though the speaker wants to stop time—and as a result, stop death—both time and the poem march toward an inevitable conclusion.

 

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What's Next?

Need some help with your other AP tests? We have lots of other resources on our blog, including this list of history books that will help you ace your AP History exams.

Just like any exam, you should definitely study for the AP tests you decide to take. But what’s the best way to study for an AP exam? Check out this guide for all the tips and tricks you need to get the most out of your study time!

Did you know that you can take practice tests for AP exams? Here’s a list of AP practice tests to get you started.

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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