Thursday, December 09, 2010

Dylan Thomas--"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1952)

This seems like one that might draw in the seeking-help-with-homework crowd, so I'm giving myself the assignment of giving it my best imitation of an academic treatment.

To commence with some pedagogy that everyone at all familiar with the tradition, including doubtless the young lady in the photograph above, already knows: Dylan Thomas is considered by many literature experts to be the most "natural" poet of any quality who wrote in English during the whole of the 20th century. By natural it is meant, or at least I take it so, that his verses give the impression of arising very nearly out of the form and language of thought with which he ordinarily processed his perceptions of existence, similiar to the sense one detects in Burns or Blake or any number of Elizabethan poets. Personally I am not as confident in attributing this level of bard-hood to Dylan Thomas, though I have known or been exposed to several people, almost all a generation or two older than, whose understandings I consider worthy of regard, who were very enthusiastic about his gifts and achievements; so I do not discount that some aspect(s) of his particular world-view may not strike certain contemporary readers as being terribly profound or ingenious, which is a phase the fortunes of many renowned authors pass through 50-100 years or so after their heydays, as I have written about before.

Dylan Thomas is especially famous for the care with which he constructs his poems, so one should always be attentive to that in writing about him. "Do Not Go Gentle, etc..." has a basic simplicity that is reminiscent of Wordsworth both in sentiment and construction, so I am going to approach the way I would a Wordsworth poem.

There are six stanzas, the first five of which have three lines, and the last effectively the same, only with one final line that has already appeared three times in the poem (the "rage, rage" line) added for extra emphasis. The first and third lines in each stanza rhyme both with each other and with their correspondents in each of the other stanzas, and the middle line in each stanza rhymes the middle line in all of the other stanzas. In short, the entire poem operates on two rhyme-sounds, words that rhyme with "night" or words that rhyme with "day", the "day" rhymes being half the number of the "night" rhymes and bound in by them within each stanza. Of the 19 lines which constitute the poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night" is repeated four times, and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light is repeated the same number. Both lines appear in the first and last stanzas, and they alternate as the closing line in each of the middle four. Clearly they are the pillars of the poem, the other lines serving to play off or complement them, and while they appear to be saying largely the same thing they are in fact in opposition, which I will explain further below.

As for other constructive elements, the pattern and setup of the six stanzas, as in many celebrated poems, is extraordinarily simple, rooted in an understanding of poetry as a primarily oral form that is intended to be memorized (and memorable). The first stanza gives the two main lines of the poem, as noted earlier, bracketing a succinct summation of its dominant theme. The middle four stanzas each introduce a category of men--wise, good, wild, grave--who are presented in various images of light and darkness ("dark is right", "crying how bright", "the sun in flight", "with blinding sight", etc), with the last lines alternating in repetition of the "gentle" and "rage" lines, all of which again assists greatly in memorization and the consequent internalization of the language and sense of the poem. All this is also very characteristic of many of Wordsworth's poems, which are well worth studying for their simplicity and economy in communicating an idea that is more wholly realized than at first appears He begins the last stanza by addressing "my father, there on the sad height,/Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray" before closing the poem with the repetition of the two lines that have contended with each through the whole of the poem. Knowing nothing of the biographical background of the poem, my impression would be that he is not referring exactly to his literal flesh and blood father here, but to a universal idea of, I would even call it a craving for, a father, an older, more experienced, wise, knowledgeable, etc, male human who serves as a model or guide that exists in the collective imagination of men even if they do not have fathers or fatherlike figures who are direct influences in their own lives.

With regard to the two main contending lines my inclination is to suspect that the suggestion is that "night" is apparently so overbearing and inevitable through most of the poem, but that the "light" which keeps insinuating and asserting itself up to the very last can and will be triumphant over it. Of course the reader must make of all this what he will.

As to my personal opinion of the poem, I am impressed with the construction of it--if people hold any positive views of poetry at all anymore, they probably think of it in terms of something that is above all memorable, and therefore fairly simple in its execution. A piece this concise, that also has a distinct narrative structure to it and a dramatic and insistent underlying sentiment that commands one's attention, is a significant achievement. It is at the moment probably what I find most interesting in Dylan Thomas. Separated from questions of poetic technique and sensibility I don't think that his particular ideas or thoughts on anything are very provocative or likely to change anyone's mind. But I'm falling asleep at the computer. I've got to move on.

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