Dylan Thomas is a Welsh poet who led a riotous yet short life from 1914 to 1953. He described himself as “roistering, drunken and doomed poet.” This piece “Do not go gentle…” was written in 1947 and first published in an Italian journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951.
It was later included in his collection In Country Sleep and other poems. Both thematically and figuratively, it perfectly represents Dylan Thomas’ lyrical and emotional capacities as a poet.
To categorize the poem and its poet is equally hard because Dylan Thomas altered almost everything he touched to his own individual tune. The poem is formally written as a villanelle.
It is no wonder that the poem is today sung almost everywhere because its form started as a ballad-like song but later fixed as a nineteen-line poetic form which consists of five tercets (a stanza of three lines) and a quatrain (a stanza of four lines) in the end.
The powerful recitation of the poem owes to this very form in which the first and third line of the first stanza is repeated alternately at the end of each following stanza.
The repeating rhyme of the form fits perfectly to the powerful lines such as “Do not go gentle into that goodnight” and “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It is perhaps the most widely known English poem written in this poetic form.
The title of the poem is also its very first line. If all great poems shock their readers and break them open, then this poem does the job perfectly in its very opening stanza.
To remind us of the tenacity of human life, it opens with a direct declaration that does not go gentle into that good night. As many suggest and the last stanza addresses, the poem was probably written for his dying father.
So, in the very first stanza, the poet reminds us of the time that in old age, we must rage against the dying of the light (of life). The probably particular message to his father becomes a universal message. Reminding us of a human spirit that can not be tampered with, the poet is asking us to not go gentle into that goodnight.
The second stanza speaks of wisdom. Those who are wise never give up even when their words seemingly show no grand effect (fork no lightning). They do not normalize that condition.
The poet is using words such as right, light(ning), night which alliterates flexibly and creates a powerful sound when read aloud. In the third stanza, the poet comes to the good men who give excuses that their deeds which look insignificant could actually be very bright in a suitable situation.
A green bay is a metaphor for an ideal condition whose absence becomes an excuse for many good people. The poet is discarding that too.
After good men, the poet speaks of wild men. The wild ones engage with life more playfully without realizing that the time is passing so fast, the sun is in flight.
They come to understand and regret later when the light of their life comes to an end that one shouldn’t take life for granted and go gently. The poet uses one single image of the sun in such a masterful way that by the time the stanza ends, one understands how the idea of the sun works metaphorically.
In the last tercet, the poet invokes grave men who are about to die. One is reminded of the human spirit again and how it can stand even against physical decay.
If one’s spirit is undefeatable then one can face anything, even the blind eye can blaze like meteors. Using the simile of meteors which give us a streak of light in the night sky, the poet demands us to be joyful even when the light is dying. It reminds us of Thomas’ own life.
In the last stanza, which is a quatrain, the poet addresses his father. It tells us of their turbulent relationship perhaps. W. S. Merwin found Thomas as a religious poet because he is a “celebrator in a ritual sense.” No wonder that this poem is recited in so many funerals.
The poet here prays to his father who is probably going to die sooner. The two refrains become the last two lines in the poem. He prays to his father and from readers equally to not go gentle into that good night and rage, rage against the dying of the light.