‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is a powerful poem about how important it is, despite death’s inevitability, to fight against it until the bitter end.
The poem was initially published in a literary journal in 1951. It later appeared in one of Thomas’s own volumes the next year. It is a noticeably dark poem, concerning itself with the end of life and the personal struggle to hang onto that life for as long as possible. Fans of Dylan Thomas have speculated that the poem was written for his ailing father, who passed away the year after the poem was first published. But, without clear evidence, it’s important to consider the speaker as separate from the poet.
It is interesting (albeit very sad) to note that in the two years following the poem’s publication, Dylan Thomas himself, along with his father, unborn son, and three of his friends, would also pass away, giving the work a grim, real-world aspect of foreshadowing to it.
Explore Do not go gentle into that good night
The speaker spends most of the poem telling readers, and it as it turns out their own father, not to give into death peacefully and calmly. One shouldn’t just accept that it’s coming and go to it willingly. Good people resist until the last moment, knowing that there’s more that they could to improve the world. The same can be said for daring and energetic people who know how exciting and beautiful life can be. In the final stanza, the speaker turns to address someone personal in their lives– their father. This person is facing old age, and the speaker wants them to “rage” against the dark like everyone else.
You can read the full poem here.
Do not go gentle into that good night Meaning
The principal idea for this poem is that human beings should resist death with all of their strength before the end.
The poem includes the repetition of the line “do not go gentle into that good night” several times, a great example as a refrain. These lines act as a mirror for each other concerning their connotation. The first refrain has a calmer and more positive connotation to it, specifically by using the phrases “gentle” and “good night.”
The second one, on the other hand, repeats the word “rage” and references “the dying of the light,” two much more grim ideas that are both expressions of the same idea as in the first one. The repetitive nature of these lines, as previously mentioned, conveys an aspect of obsession from the narrator on the topic.
If the narrator is meant to be the voice of Dylan Thomas himself, then this could make sense in the light of his father’s illness at the time of his creation for the work.
Thomas engages with themes of death, defiance, and old age.
All three of these themes are wrapped up in the speaker’s declarations about death and how one should confront it. Throughout the first five stanzas of the poem, the speaker spends the lines generally talking about death and how one should stand up in the face of it. One should not “go gentle” into the darkness but “rage” against the “dying of the light.”
Despite this, the poet acknowledges that death is universal. There’s no way for someone to avoid death forever. It’s always going to catch up in the end. The speaker tries to teach the reader, and it turns out, one specific person, how to deal with death.
It’s not until the last stanza of the poem that the subject goes from broad to specific. It becomes clear that the poet is addressing his or her father and had him in mind the whole time. The poem is at once universal and specific. It applies to everyone, but at this moment, it is for one person–the speaker’s father.
In ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ Dylan Thomas uses light, meteors, and lightning.
- Light. Light is the most important symbol used in this poem. It symbolizes a will to live and a desire to change the world for the better. When the listener and reader fight against death, they are headed towards the light and away from the darkness. Light symbolizes the best parts of life and everything worth fighting for.
- Meteors. In lines, thirteen through fourteen, the poet describes “Grave men, near death” and how blind eyes “could blaze like meteors and be gay.” They can still experience joy like a bright flash across the sky. The meteor symbolizes hope and the potential for a lasting effect on the world.
- Lightning. Lightning symbolizes inspiration and is seen in lines four through five when the wise men realize that their “words had forked no lightning.” They realized there was no they could’ve done to improve the lives of those around them. The men continue to fight for their lives with the hope that they’ll experience that flash of lightning and be bettered because of it. Lightning also symbolizes power. It is beyond the touch of death, just like these men would like to be.
Even though Thomas is often cast as the speaker in ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ the speaker is actually anonymous. They do not have a name, gender, or age. The only piece of personal information available is that they have an ailing father whose near death. They care deeply about this person and use the broad descriptions of death in the first five stanzas as a prelude to their main intention–speaker to and about their father.
Structure and Form
‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is an example (and probably the most famous English example) of a villanelle, a form of poetry first conceived in seventeenth-century France.
Today, it is an uncommon poetic form but still an effective one when used properly. The villanelle has a rigid form to it: it is a poem written in six stanzas, where the first five are tercets, and the final one is a quatrain. Furthermore, it is characterized by the appearance of two repeating refrains.
The first refrain is always the first line of the first verse and is repeated at the end of the second and fourth verse; the second refrain is the last line of the first verse and is repeated at the end of the third and fifth verses. The first refrain is also the third line of the fifth verse.
The refrains must rhyme with each other; as well, the second lines of each verse must rhyme with each other, and the first lines must rhyme with the refrains. As such, the rhyming pattern of a villanelle is always ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA.
The villanelle is an uncommonly seen form of poetry because of the rules and requirements associated with it. Typically, this kind of poem takes advantage of its rigid repetition and is used to express some form of obsessive thought process. This poem is a strong example of the latter.
Dylan makes use of several literary devices in ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ These include:
- Refrain: the two repeating refrains in this poem, naturally enough, form the primary message that informs the meaning of the work. When Dylan Thomas references “that good night,” he is using it as a metaphor for the end of life and as a parallel to “the dying of the light,” which is a symbol for the same idea.
- Alliteration: seen through the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “learn” and “late” in line two of the fourth stanza and “Blind” and “blaze” in line two of the fifth stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines two and three of the second stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially effective description. For example, these lines from the third stanza: “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay.”
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In each stanza of ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ Dylan Thomas addresses a different aspect of the dying process before repeating one of the central refrains of the work.
In the first stanza, the speaker expresses the desire to live as something fierce. Old age, they say, is a process of “burning and raving,” two images that are not commonly associated with old age. The conflicting images create a call to action early in the piece because Thomas and his speaker are willing to challenge typical associations in the minds of the readers.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
The second stanza takes on a different approach, reminding the reader that despite the earlier commands, death is both inevitable and natural.
It uses lightning as a symbol to describe the feeling of incompleteness that can accompany the aging process — when the wise men referenced feel that their words have “forked no lightning,” they are feeling as though they have not accomplished everything they set out to in their life. Because of this fact, they “do not go gentle into that good night.”
Stanzas Three and Four
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
The next two stanzas succinctly discuss a nearly opposite idea, namely that resisting death is also a natural phenomenon.
Wise men, good men, and grave men all resist dying. Thomas continues to use a wide variety of symbols, with both positive and negative connotations, to reinforce the image of an aged man looking back on his life and realizing they have more to contribute to the world. In the third stanza, the good men cry, imagining how much more they could have done, too late, now that they’ve realized they’re dying. Following that, the grave men realize something similar, seeing with their blinding sight — looking back on their lives now that their mortality has granted them perfect clarity in retrospect.
Stanzas Five and Six
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The poem concludes with an address to the speaker’s father, with a conflicting plea to both curse and bless them with his tears.
The conflicting images of the father’s tears being both a curse and a blessing echo the earlier idea that death is something that is both natural and something to be railed against. The tears of the father are a curse because they strike the fear of mortality into his child and a blessing because they remind that child to live their life to the fullest extent possible.
Ultimately, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is a poem that attempts to describe the author’s complex relationship with his own mortality. This is certainly one of the most complex emotions an artist can attempt to describe in their work, and yet ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ remains one of Thomas’s most famous poems for how well it succeeds in that endeavor.
Why Did Dylan Thomas Write ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’?
As mentioned above, Dylan Thomas is thought to have written this poem while considering his father’s impending death. His father, David John Thomas, died in 1952, the year after Thomas published the poem. Due to the fact that the speaker mentions a “father” specifically in the final lines has led many to believe that this is Thomas’ father, making Dylan Thomas the speaker of the poem. There is no complete evidence that this is the case though. More likely than anything, Thomas probably wrote this poem as a way of dealing with mortality more generally. It’s something that everyone, no matter their profession, social status, or personal history has to face. This is also the primary reason the poem has withstood the test of time and is as popular today as it is.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ should also consider reading other Dylan Thomas poems. For example:
- ‘Fern Hill‘ — depicts time, the speaker’s past, and views times gone by with nostalgia.
- ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion‘ — looks at the way death controls humankind and the fact that even though it is powerful, it can’t control everything.
- ‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines‘ — describes the effect of hope that springs in a place where there is total hopelessness.