I sometimes quote a favourite Joseph Campbell saying, “Follow your bliss”. My bliss, at the moment, is Dylan Thomas. Having written 3 successive posts, I’ve decided to delete and update 2 previous ones. “Do Not Go Gentle” is a counterpart to the “Elegy”, both having to do with his father. “Elegy”, which I recently wrote about, was later, and was left unfinished at the time of Thomas’s death.
“Do Not Go Gentle” is a villanelle. Two of the lines in the first verse are each alternately repeated in the next four, then come together at its conclusion. It was written five years before his father’s death. At first sight, it seems quite simply to urge his father to face the inevitability of death with a raging protest. With Thomas, however, things are rarely simple. Fruitful ambiguity and ambivalence are invariably waiting in the wings, if not already on stage. His use of words is always precisely intentional, so we should notice that he doesn’t describe death as a ‘goodnight’, but separates the two words. The message seems to be that though death is a ‘night’, it is a ‘good’ night. Support comes in line 4, where we’re told that if death is ‘dark’, ‘dark is right’. Further support is found in the earlier poem, “Elegy”, in which death brings “rest .. in the kind ground.”
it seem to me, then, that it is not death as such that should be raged against. Death is ‘right’ – it brings ‘rest‘ from life’s ‘sound and fury’, its inevitable worries, upsets, sorrows and pain, and it creates the necessary space to accommodate the ‘up and coming’ generations. If we’re to ‘rage‘ against something, it should rather be about what we’ve made of our lives, given the fact of death’s inevitability. How have we used, or misused, the time given to us before the ‘dying of the light”? Thomas suggests some examples of misuse …
There are those who are ‘wise’, but whose wisdom has failed to find the ‘words’ that might have “forked .. lightning” – that might have hit a decisive mark, stimulating unthinking minds, challenging uncaring hearts, and making a difference to the world for the better.
There are those who are ‘good’ in their intentions, but whose ‘frail deeds’ have been too tentative and too few. They are the ‘if only’ people. If only the bay had been ‘green‘, their good deeds might have plentifully ‘danced‘ in it. The fault, they tell themselves, was not their own.
There are those who are ‘wild’ – people who do dare to do and to say what others draw back from. They may well hit the mark, and the headlines, and yet discover ‘too late‘ that their exuberance masked a recklessness that wrought more harm than good.
There are those who are “grave’. There are weightily assessing and chronically disapproving people, who take themselves and their opinions over seriously. Their ‘eyes‘ have failed to light up, to ‘blaze‘ and be ‘gay‘, and to see that a censured stranger could instead become a valued friend.
And what of Dylan Thomas’s father, who figures in the last verse? David John Thomas was a grammar school teacher who’d wanted to be a poet, but lacked the ‘vital spark’ his son possessed. How rewarding, and yet how galling, that his son should succeed where he had failed, though not in a way that he, an upholder of the social and academic ‘proprieties’, would have wished to emulate. Hence the ambivalence of, ‘And you, my father .. curse, bless me now with your fierce tears‘, as the time of your death approaches.
What I take from this poem, then, is this : that if we should “rage“, it should not be on account of death as such, but rather the ever-diminishing time we have in which to make the most of our potential. ‘Carpe diem’, seize the hour, find and follow your bliss, and do it now, for tomorrow we die.