Please Go Gentle into That Good Night

Edvard Munch, "Dead Mother and Child"

Edvard Munch, “Dead Mother and Child”

I’m at that stage in life where I and a number of my childhood friends are losing our parents. Classmates who attended Sewanee Public School and then Sewanee Academy are returning to Sewanee to help their parents move into retirement homes, support them as they lose a spouse, and be with them as they die.

I have witnessed the death of two friends’ mothers—these women were also my friends—over the past three weeks and, perhaps like countless others in the presence of the dying, have found myself repeating lines from Dylan Thomas’s best-known poem. One of them went fairly gently into that good night and the other did not, but I now think that Thomas gives terrible advice. In fact, eloquent though the poem is, it is currently pissing me off.

Its one virtue is that it gave me something to push against. Here it is:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is a “should” in the first stanza, as though the speaker is prescribing how one is to die:  since “old age should burn and rave at close of day,” therefore you should “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But what of those instances where old age isn’t burning and raving and where it doesn’t want to rage? Isn’t it at least acceptable, and probably even preferable, to go gently? Certainly I found myself wishing for gentle acceptance as I watched one old friend struggle against her daughter trying to help her and then, when she finally became oblivious to her surroundings, hang on day after day.

If one adds a “should” to the subsequent stanzas, then it’s almost as though the poet is angry that people aren’t struggling as much as he would like them to. Isn’t he saying, in stanza two, that those who haven’t said or written memorable things—whose words have “forked no lightning”—should be filled with regret and rage? And, in stanza three, that those whose “frail deeds” haven’t danced as brightly as they might have should feel the same? As should the wild men (stanza four) who lived for the moment and the grave men (stanza five) who are resigned to death?

In short, it sounds like Thomas is agonizing over his own regrets and wants the dying to suffer as he is suffering. I suppose this is an honest description of his feelings and maybe he’s using the presence of death to add new urgency to his own life. Still, he sounds narcissistic as hell. Why should others behave a certain way just so he can deal better with his own anxieties?

Does he want, out of his psychological neediness, for the dying to suffer the regrets of Doctor Faustus, who dies in one of literature’s most excruciating death bed scenes? Hell is redundant for Marlowe’s protagonist since he suffers hell when he (appearing to follow Dylan Thomas’s advice) looks back at his wasted potential, his missed opportunities and his misspent life.

So no, Dylan, don’t wish those regrets on anyone. Here’s what you should wish for instead, from a Tolstoy character whose words haven’t exactly forked lightning and whose deeds haven’t danced in a green bay:

“Yes, I am making them wretched,” he thought. “They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.” He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter. “Besides, why speak? I must act,” he thought. With a look at his wife he indicated his son and said: “Take him away…sorry for him…sorry for you too….” He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”

He turned his attention to it.

“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

“It is finished!” said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Why wouldn’t you wish for those you love to experience Ivan Ilych’s last moments? Enough with demanding fierce tears.

This entry was posted in Marlowe (Christopher), Thomas (Dylan), Tolstoy (Leo) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Robin

    “Clickety Keys” sent in the following comment (which was erased by the cloud storage shift):

    I feel like Thomas is talking to his older self here. He was in his early 20s when he wrote this, and I think that is evident both in his passion and his lack of understanding. There is so MUCH that is wonderful and amazing in this world that it is inevitable we will miss out on a lot, and while we have to accept that, it’s still sad.

    Additionally, “the dying of the light” doesn’t necessarily mean just death? As we get older, we often can’t do some of the things we used to be able to. But if rather than giving up, we continue to challenge ourselves, we can continue t o burn brightly awhile longer, rather than letting our light dwindle and sputter out.

  • Robin

    This is certainly how I read the poem when I was younger. And I definitely think that we should challenge ourselves to burn brightly for as long as we can. (I suppose the ultimate articulation of old people not giving up would be Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”) But seeing people who were on the verge of going into that good night gave me a different take on the poem. And from what little I know of Thomas’s biography, it sounds like his father died a bitter man because he hadn’t been the poet he had wanted to be. If that’s the case, I wonder how consoling he would have found this poem, which could have reminded him of his regrets. I’d rather have my dying father loving and forgiving me, as Ivan Ilych does, than cursing/blessing with fierce tears. But as I say, I was in different setting than those I knew when I was young.

    Another line that comes to me is Milton’s “they also serve who also stand and wait.” Or who accept the end, in this case. I agree, however, that premature acceptance is the equivalent of just giving up and is not good either.


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