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); it has been described as his most famous work. 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 poem currently remains under copyright,[note 1] although the text is available online.
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 their 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, they proceed 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 their father, whom they observe 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. English composer Will Todd's Choral Symphony No.5 is based on the poem, and invokes the words "Rage Against the Dying of the Light" as its title; the work received its world premiere at Barbican Hall, London in 2014.
The poem or snippets from or references to it turn up from time to time in films: Norma Rae (1979, where it's recited by Beau Bridges' character); Back to School (1986, where Rodney Dangerfield's character recites it during his college evaluation); Independence Day (1996, where the American President vows to fight the invaders with "We will not go quietly into the night"); 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, with leading actors Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway being sent into hypersleep with the final words "Do not go gentle into that good night.")
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. The first line is the title of a chapter set just before the 1778 Battle of Monmouth in Diana Gabaldon' book "Written in my Own Heart's Blood" (2014).. Lines from the poem appear in Doctor Who episodes ("The Shakespeare Code" (2007), where the Tenth Doctor quotes "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" to William Shakespeare (played by Dean Lennox Kelly), and "The Magician's Apprentice" (2015), where Jenna Coleman quotes the first line when she discovers the location of the Twelfth Doctor), and episodes of Mad Men (2009, "Out of Town") and Modern Family (2016, "Grab It"). George R. R. Martin’s first novel Dying of the Light is named after the third line, as is Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant: The Dying of the Light.
"Do not go gentle into that good night" was featured as a voiceover by Iain Glen in a 2018 British television advertisement for the Ford Motor Company. The advertisement was subsequently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for encouraging driving as a way to release anger.
The American band, Parsonsfield, made obvious reference to the poem in the chorus to their 2018 song, "Kick out Windows," which repeats, "In the light dying, we’ll rage and fight. Go kickin’ and screaming’ into that good night."
The atmospheric death metal band, Anachoret, includes a complete reading of the poem in their song, "Chasing the Night Sky," released on their 2022 album, Syndrom.
- COPYRIGHT: from The Poems of Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions. Copyright 1952, 1953 Dylan Thomas. Copyright 1937, 1945, 1955, 1962, 1966, 1967 the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright 1938, 1939, 1943, 1946, 1971 New Directions Publishing Corp.
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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).