Tell me the truth about death

For many years I have taught the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, regarded by most to be a textbook example of a villanelle. I have discussed the use of refrain lines with my students, and the importance of getting two that stay in the mind, that can withstand repetition, so that they carry the poem forward, both musically and thematically. I have analysed the poem – written when Thomas’s father was on his deathbed – read those words over and over. But I realise that I have failed to comprehend the poem. I am a careful reader, I’d like to think, so the failure isn’t so much in my understanding, as my inclination to be moved. Sometimes words are simply words until you allow them to have the ability to strike you, like an axe to break the frozen sea within us, to quote Kafka. So much poetry relies on joining a secret club, having shared whatever crucial life-changing moment or emotional epiphany the poet is revealing. We enter the poem once we have entered the experience. Since the recent loss of my mother, only now do I get it.

Because the way to really understand ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is to watch a parent in his or her last days. Thomas is imploring his father not to die, to fight against it, despite the impossibility of winning, to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ (it could be said he neglected to take his own advice – intent on his self-destruction, he died only two years after the poem was written, at the age of 39). The word ‘rage’ appears eight times over 19 lines, as well as ‘fierce’ and ‘rave’. Thomas is spitting with anger – death makes him angry, its useless waste, its unnecessary suffering.  Death is not gentle, nor, I suspect, for Thomas, is it a ‘good night’ (although ‘goodnight’ also means ‘goodbye’). For the most part, it is not peaceful, nor dignified, nor pleasant. It is not the Victorian damsel waiting for the guy with the scythe to come and get her, nor is it the noble lady of the manor stretched out in her canopied bed in all her finery. Nothing fine, nor noble, about it.

As I have mentioned before here, my sister-in-law gave me Ariel for my fifteenth birthday. It was, as they say, a damascene moment. I realised Plath was speaking to me directly from beyond the grave, telling me to write  my anguish. Of course, I had nothing to be anguished about, but it was an attractive subject. I returned to Plath over the years but never with the same youthful vigour as I encountered her as a teenager, with her sharp tongue and curt turn of phrase. The more I learned about poetry, the more I understood her technical gifts (I teach her too now), the way she pares her lines to the bone. My mother’s last illness coincided with the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death (and made me realise they were near contemporaries – there is a photo of my mother when she first arrived in New York that could do for a cover illustration for The Bell Jar). I found myself going straight from the hospital one night to a reading of the Ariel poems at the South Bank. Sitting there in the dark, listening to the voices of various poets and actresses reciting lines that I had once to heart, I found myself getting annoyed with Sylvia, her appropriation of death as an art, as a piece of theatre. I am not denying that she was a very troubled and unhappy woman whose death was tragic, but there is something in the poems, a bravado, a seduction (perhaps a way of fooling herself into health?) that suddenly bothered me. I thought of my mother, who had lived a long and happy life which she valued, and I measured that against a woman who, in poem after poem, seemed to make death into a fetish. This is a gross simplification, I know, but in my fragile mood, it was how the poems struck me, for the first time, and I thought her selfish, willing death to make her ‘pure as a baby.’ I thought of the way I have romanticised death in my own poems, naïve as I have been, and I resolved to treat the subject with greater respect. It may have been another damascene moment.

I find this is the poem that gives me comfort at the moment. It is one of those poems handed down from generation to generation, from stifling classroom to dog-eared anthology. It has become so familiar that perhaps it has begun to lose its power. But now that I am ready to hear it, it is my axe.   

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 that 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.