Do not go gentle into that good night
"Do not go gentle into that good night" is a poem in the form of a villanelle by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914–1953), and is one of his best-known works. Though first published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951, the poem was written in 1947 while Thomas visited Florence with his family. Subsequent publication, along with other Thomas works, include In Country Sleep, And Other Poems (New Directions, 1952) and Collected Poems, 1934–1952 (Dent, 1952).
It has been suggested that the poem was written for Thomas's dying father, although he did not die until just before Christmas 1952. It has no title other than its first line, "Do not go gentle into that good night", a line that appears as a refrain throughout the poem along with its other refrain, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
The villanelle consists of five stanzas of three lines (tercets) followed by a single stanza of four lines (a quatrain) for a total of nineteen lines. It is structured by two repeating rhymes and two refrains: the first line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of "Do not go gentle into that good night" can be schematized, as shown below.
Refrain 1 (A1)
In the first stanza of "Do Not Go Gentle", the speaker encourages his father not to "go gentle into that good night" but rather to "rage, rage against the dying of the light." Then, in the subsequent stanzas, he proceeds to list all manner of men, using terms such as "wise", "good", "wild", and "grave" as descriptors, who, in their own respective ways, embody the refrains of the poem. In the final stanza, the speaker implores his father, whom he observes upon a "sad height", begging him to "Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears", and reiterates the refrains once more.
While this poem has inspired a significant amount of unique discussion and analysis from such critics as Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Westphal, and Walford Davies, some interpretations of the poem's meaning is under general consensus. "This is obviously a threshold poem about death", Heaney writes, and Westphal agrees, noting that "[Thomas] is advocating active resistance to death." Heaney thinks that the poem's structure as a villanelle "[turns] upon itself, advancing and retiring to and from a resolution" in order to convey "a vivid figure of the union of opposites" that encapsulates "the balance between natural grief and the recognition of necessity which pervades the poem as a whole."
Westphal writes that the "sad height" Thomas refers to in line 16 is "of particular importance and interest in appreciating the poem as a whole." He asserts that it was not a literal structure, such as a bier, not only because of the literal fact that Thomas' father died after the poem's publication, but also because "it would be pointless for Thomas to advise his father not to 'go gentle' if he were already dead ..." Instead, he thinks that Thomas' phrase refers to "a metaphorical plateau of aloneness and loneliness before death". In his 2014 "Writers of Wales" biography of Thomas, Davies disagrees, instead believing that the imagery is in more allusive in nature, and that it "clearly evokes both King Lear on the heath and Gloucester thinking he is at Dover Cliff."
Use and references in other works
"Do not go gentle into that good night" was used as the text for Igor Stravinsky's In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (Dirge-Canons and Song) for tenor and chamber ensemble, which was written soon after Thomas's death and first performed in 1954. It is the subject of a 1979 tone poem for wind ensemble by Elliot del Borgo entitled Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, and was set to orchestral music by John Cale for his 1989 album Words for the Dying. Vincent Persichetti wrote a work for organ pedals alone after the poem called Do Not Go Gentle; it was premiered by Leonard Raver at Alice Tully Hall on Feb 7, 1976. In 1999 Janet Owen Thomas set the poem to music in the 2nd (final) movement of her work Under the Skin.
The title of George R.R. Martin's sci-fi novel Dying Of the Light, published in 1977, is based on one of the two refrains present in "Do not go gentle into that good night". The book deals with topics of the resistance and acceptance of death, on a planetary scale. In the book, the planet is slowly on course out of the region of its neighboring stars, experiencing both literal and metaphorical "dying of the light".
The poem or snippets from or references to it turn up from time to time in films, including Independence Day (1996), where the American President vows to fight the invaders with "We will not go quietly into the night"), Back to School (1986), and Interstellar (2014) where the poem is used repeatedly by Michael Caine's character Professor John Brand, as well as by several other supporting characters.
The poem has also been referenced in other media: "Do not go gentle into that good night" was the inspiration for three paintings by Swansea-born painter and print-maker Ceri Richards, who drew them in 1954, 1956, and 1965 respectively.
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He took his family to Italy, and while in Florence, he wrote In Country Sleep, And Other Poems (Dent, 1952), which includes his most famous poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night."
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- Hear Dylan Thomas Recite His Classic Poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (posted at Open Culture, September 19, 2018).