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Poetry and Medicine XVIII Dylan Thomas

A young man’s view of death.


Dylan Thomas was a Welsh poet, and this is his most famous poem.

The poem follows the structure and rhyming pattern of a villanelle. Villanelles have the extra impact that comes with repetition of their two key lines which rotate according to a prescribed schedule, great for adding punch to an emotionally charged topic. Dylan Thomas’s strident attitude to death is unforgettable, whether we share his views or not.


Do not go gentle into that good night


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.

 

 

Thomas urges everyone to angrily resist, rather than accept, the inevitability of death. Old folk should passionately rage against it. Wise people, aware that their words have sparked no lightning, cannot rest easy. People who realise how frail their good deeds were, reckless adventurers, serious thinkers – all can see how little they have achieved in life and according to Thomas, deserve to be angry that their opportunities are ending.

 

Yet these are generalities about broad categories of people. (The use of the word “men” in the poem is grating today, and Thomas probably was sexist, but it was common usage in the past for “man” or “men” to refer to all humanity.) But it is not until the last stanza that the poem becomes very personal, as we discover the poet is directly addressing his own dying father, urging him to rage against death. Hopefully, the older man is more at peace with reality than his eloquent son.

 

Poetry seeks to convey universal truth and human experience, but it often does so most powerfully when it comes into focus with a specific incident, person or observation. This is like using a case study to illustrate a therapeutic principle in medicine.

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