Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night: Summary & Analysis

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night: About the poem

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem. The poem was written in 1947 when the poet was in Florence with his family. It was first published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951. Then in 1952, it was published in Thomas’ volume In Country Sleep, And Other Poems.

‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is said to have been written for the poet’s sick, dying father. Dylan tried to give him some encouragement to hold on and not to lose hope. It is only at the last stanza of the poem that the poet addresses his father directly.

The main theme of the poem is that we should not surrender to death in a meek and gentle way. Rather, we should try to resist it with all our efforts. We should try to live as long as we can with the power of will. In the first stanza of the poem Dylan asks his father not to give in to death. In the next four stanzas the poet speaks about why and how all kinds of people (wise men, good men, wild men and grave men) try to defy death. And in the final stanza, he again asks his father to rage against the ‘dying of the light’ (death) like everybody else.

The title of the poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is just the first line and one of the two refrains (repeating lines) of the poem. This title itself makes the poet’s message clear. The imperative sentence simply instructs us not to go gently into the realm of death (‘that good night’).

But this poem has gone beyond its original purpose of inspiring the poet’s father. Now the readers and critics feel that this poem can apply not only to death or old age, but also to any kind of adversity we face. We should continue to struggle against the odds we face on our way of life. Moreover, as the poet himself was struggling to survive due to bad health, alcoholism and poverty, the poem applies to both Dylan Thomas and his father.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night: Form and language

In its form, the poem is a villanelle. (A villanelle is a pastoral or lyrical poem of nineteen lines, with only two rhymes throughout, and some lines repeated.) ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ are the two refrains in the poem. And the two rhymes are set with the words ‘night'(A) and ‘day'(B) in the first two lines. The first five tercets carry the rhyme scheme ABA while the last stanza has it ABAA.

The language is simple but highly suggestive and symbolic. The poet has used a number of metaphoric expressions for death and life.

Dylan Thomas: About the poet

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a popular modern poet and author born at Swansea, Wales. He is regarded as the most famous Welsh poet and one of the most important English poets of the 20th century. Dylan started writing poetry when he was a teenager. He is also known for his radio broadcasts at the BBC. Dylan gained immense popularity for his love of wordplay and for how he wrote about Wales. Philip Larkin once wrote about him: “no one can ‘stick words into us like pins’… like he (Thomas) can”.

However, the poet struggled a lot with poverty and an unhappy marriage, fell prey to alcoholism and died a premature death at the age of 39. Read more about him at Wikipedia.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night: line by line analysis

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.

The poem opens with the poet’s appeal to his father not to take death in a gentle manner. Rather, he suggests that even at this old age, people should strongly react and fight (burn and rave) against death as if they were still young. In line 3, his appeal is even stronger with the use of the word ‘rage’ twice. In short, we should not accept death meekly but raise a war against it, put up a furious resistance to it.

Here, ‘that good night’, ‘close of day’ and ‘dying of the light’ — all mean ‘death’. ‘Night’ is a metaphor for death while ‘day’ and ‘light’ are metaphors for life.

The first stanza is very important, for it introduces the main theme of the poem as well as the two recurring refrains in the first and the third lines. Though all the three lines basically state the same thing, the tone gradually becomes harsher.

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.

Now the poet tries to support his message of resisting death by saying that every kind of people try to resist death. He starts his reasoning with the ‘wise men’ who are generally scholars and philosophers. They all know that death is inevitable (dark is right). But their wisdom has neither made death any easier nor prepared them to accept the reality of death easily (their words had forked no lightning). So, they do not approach death in a gentle way. They also fight against death.

Here the expression ‘words had forked no lightning’ is open to interpretations. Besides the above explanation, it may also mean that the wise men could not see their words (speeches, literary or creative works etc.) make an impact in changing the world in such a short time. So they want to live longer to see their words come true.

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.

Now the poet shifts to the ‘good men’. The good men are those who have done many things for the humankind and believe that they can change the world into a better living place. But in reality they often see that their dreams and hopes are dusted (frail deeds). So they, when nearing death (the last wave by), shout out (crying) that their failed deeds might have been successful (might have danced), had they got some more time to live and some more opportunities (in a green bay). So they also rage against the death and try to live longer.

Here Dylan compares the last generation of good men to the last ocean wave which is about to hit the shore, i.e., about to die. ‘Green ocean’ is symbolic of the youth, the height of life. Those men feel that their works would have been successful if they were in their youth by now. So they wish to live some more time to see their hard work pay off. That is why they fight death.

Here, one should note that the three lines form a single sentence with the ‘good men’ as its subject and ‘rage’ as the finite verb. My point is that one should not take the last line of the tercet as an imperative sentence, but a part of the statement where the poet tries to support his idea.

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.

Another kind of men who don’t accept death meekly are the ‘wild men’. Those people have spent their lives by wildly enjoying and celebrating (caught and sang) the mortal beauty of this life (the sun in flight). Sun represents the beautiful aspects of life that they caught in their imagination. They finally learn that they have wasted their precious time (grieved it on its way), but it gets too late by then. That is why they want to stay here for some more time by putting up a fight against death.

‘The sun in flight’ means the moving sun that continuously goes from the east to the west. The wild men remain busy in celebrating the sunrise, but fail to notice that they are gradually nearing the sunset, i.e., end of their life. It is as if the wild men grieved the sun by wasting their time.

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.

The last group of men that Thomas presents are the ‘grave men’. The word ‘grave’ is here ambiguous. It possibly mean serious people with great insight. Again it may refer to the sick, dying people. The poet says that even when they near death and lose their eyesight, they remain strong in their mind. They realize that they have the passion within to pursue happiness. Hence, they also rage against death.

‘Blind eyes could blaze like meteors’ is a fine instance of simile. Here, the poet hints at how people’s passion and power of will can keep them strong at heart even when they become physically weak.

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.

Finally the poet addresses his father who is in a sad and dying situation (on the sad height). Dylan begs his father to cry passionately (fierce tears) in order to express and lighten his sadness. That will be both a curse and a blessing for the poet. Probably Thomas means to say that seeing his father cry would be heartbreaking (curse) for him, but it would also bring some good feelings (bless) that his father is fighting against the odds of death rather than submitting to it.

Finally, the two recurring lines end the poem giving the message again not to accept death in a gentle way. Rather, we have to fight furiously and resist it. Thus the poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ closes with the same message it started with.