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An Analysis of "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas

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I enjoyed reading and analyzing both modern and classic poems in school, and now I write articles about them to help current students.

"Do not go gentle into that good night" is Dylan Thomas's best-known poem, and though interpretations vary, it is well-loved by the literary community at large.

"Do not go gentle into that good night" is Dylan Thomas's best-known poem, and though interpretations vary, it is well-loved by the literary community at large.

The poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” published in 1951 by Dylan Thomas, is a son’s plea to his dying father. The speaker seeks to show his father that while all men face the same end, they must fight for life nonetheless. This article includes a discussion of the poem's meaning, an examination of its structure and poetic devices, a look at the author, and more.

Full Contents

  • Video: Thomas Reciting the Poem in Full
  • Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis
  • Structure and Poetic Devices
  • Dylan Thomas's Life
  • Romanticism in Thomas's Poetry
  • Other Well-Known Poems by Dylan Thomas

Thomas Reciting the Poem in Full

Stanza-by-Stanza Interpretation and Discussion of Meaning

The poem comprises five stanzas of three lines each and a sixth stanza of four lines. Let's examine it one stanza at a time to get a more thorough understanding of what is being expressed and what it might mean.

First Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

First Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

1st Stanza

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day” is almost the thesis for this poem. Thomas classifies men into four different categories to persuade his father to realize that no matter his life choices, their consequences, or his personality, there is a reason to live. It is possible that Thomas uses these categories to give his father no excuses, regardless of what he did in life.

Second Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

Second Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

2nd Stanza: Wise Men

"Wise men" are the first group that Thomas describes. The first line in the stanza, "Though wise men at their end know dark is right," suggests that the wise understand that death is a natural part of life, and they are savvy enough to know they should accept it.

The next line, however, reasons that they nevertheless fight against death because they feel they have not gained nearly enough repute or notoriety in life. "Because their words had forked no lighting" is Thomas’s way of saying that they want to hold on to life in order to be able to leave their mark, thereby sustaining their places in history as great scholars or philosophers.

Third Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

Third Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

3rd Stanza: Good Men

Thomas moves forward and describes the next group as "good men." They too reflect on their lives as the end approaches: "Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright." This line can be broken down into two parts. First, by saying "the last wave by," Thomas may be remarking that good men are too few these days and that he believes his father to be a good man and thinks the world would be better off with him in it.

Second, "crying how bright" may refer to men telling their stories in a limelight. They proclaim their works as good, but as Thomas goes on into the next line, "their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay," he laments the idea of men knowing that their deeds will not be remembered regardless of how seemingly significant they were. "Green bay" refers to an eternal sea that marks men's places in history. After reflecting on the past, they decide that they want to live if for nothing more than to leave their names written down in history.

Fourth Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

Fourth Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

4th Stanza: Wild Men

"Wild men," however, have learned too late that they are mortal. They've spent their lives in action and only realize as time has caught up with them that this is the end. The line "Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight" exaggerates their experiences and how they have wasted away their days chasing what they could not catch.

Even more so, "caught and sang the sun" refers to how these wild men lived. They were daredevils who faced peril with blissful ignorance. They wasted away their lives on adventures and excitements. The next line, "And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way," refers to the realism of their own mortality. They grieve because they have caused much grief by living their lives in folly. Even though the end is approaching, they will not give in because they want more time to hold on to the adventure of their youth and perhaps right a few wrongs that they have done.

Fifth Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

Fifth Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

5th Stanza: Grave Men

"Grave men" are the last group Thomas describes: "Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight." In this line, his use of "grave" almost has a double meaning, referring both to men who are saddened and those who are physically near death.

They feel the strains of a long life, and they know that they are physically decaying. Their eyes are failing along with the rest of their body, but there is still a passion for existence burning within their eyes despite their frail state. "Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay" is an expression that represents man’s struggle for survival. The speaker suggests that even in this frail state, his father could be happy living longer.

Sixth Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

Sixth Stanza (Text by Dylan Thomas)

6th and Final Stanza

Finally, in the last stanza, the speaker's intent is presented. He claims that all men, no matter their experiences or situations, fight for more time. He urges his father to do the same. The line "Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray" describes the pain and passion he feels while begging his father not to die. The speaker watches his father fade and begs him not to give in.

Putting It All Together

Thomas's poem first refers to wise men, then to good men, then changes pace to wild men, and finally fades out with grave men. One reason Thomas uses this progression is to start with where he sees his father’s character then move gradually toward what he believes his father has resigned himself to. Thomas’s father was a military man, and his resignation to his current state is eating away at Thomas. He suggests that every man needs to make his mark in life and that his father has not done so.

It appears that his father has either peacefully surrendered or otherwise resigned himself to his fate. He is trying to postpone the inevitable by pleading for a little more time, feeling that his father is giving up and that maybe if he can prove to him that no one should give up regardless of their disposition, then his father will be able to get off his deathbed.

His final plea to his father ends the poem, repeating the passionate but ultimately hopeless expression, "Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

The use of the metaphor "that good night" (lines 1, 6, 12, and 18) gives the impression that Thomas knows that death is right. He calls it "that good night" instead of some other ghastly term for death. However, he also calls it "the dying of the light" (lines 3, 9, 15, and 19), which suggests a peaceful surrender. He urges his father to rage against a peaceful end and resist his own demise.

Thomas uses the words "night" and "light" as metaphors for death and life and alternates them to hammer his point home. Part of this poem seems almost lighthearted; when Thomas declares "Old age should burn and rave at close of day," it's as if he is saying that old people should be allowed to live long and complain so long as they do not give up. The purpose of his use of division into categories remains, however, to emphasize the importance of living as he presents his father with an unmistakable argument—choose life.

Structure and Poetic Devices

Now let's take a look at the poem from a more technical standpoint. What poetic devices are used? What form, rhyme scheme, and meter are used? What clues can these elements give us about the poem's purpose and meaning?

Villanelle Form

"Do not go gentle . . ." is a villanelle, a form that was originally popular in French poetry but became common in English-language poetry around the turn of the 20th century. Villanelles comprise five stanzas with three lines each, followed by a sixth and final stanza with four lines. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas. The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. The repeated lines in villanelles are commonly referred to as "refrains."

The villanelle form, by its nature, stresses repetition. In this case, the two refrains that are repeated throughout the piece are "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Since this poem is a direct address—that is, the speaker is appealing directly to a subject—it can be assumed that the villanelle form is used to stress the speaker's repeated demands of his father.

The villanelle form is well-suited to a poem that serves primarily as an urgent imperative. Here, Thomas urges his father to wrestle against the ending of his life and do all that one can to prolong it, however unnaturally.

Rhyme and Refrain Scheme

In general, the rhyme scheme of "Do not go gentle . . ." (and all other villanelles) can be expressed as:

ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA.

Since refrains are used systematically as part of the form, the rhyme-and-refrain scheme can be expressed more specifically as:

A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2

Here, "A1" represents the first refrain, "A2" represents the second refrain, lower-case "a" represents words that rhyme with both refrains, and lower-case "b" represents words that rhyme with one another.

Iambic Pentameter

Every line in the poem has 10 syllables except for a single anomaly—line 18—which has 11. Syllables alternate from stressed to unstressed, with five syllable-pairs per line. Therefore, the poem is written in iambic pentameter.

Each pair of syllables, or foot, is referred to as an iamb, and there are five iambs per line. Below is an excerpt from the poem with un-stressed syllables in lower case and stressed syllables in uppercase:

do-NOT-go-GENT-le-IN-to-THAT-good-NIGHT
old-AGE-should-BURN-and-RAVE-at-CLOSE-of-DAY

Metaphor

The poem's primary refrain (and de-facto title) incorporates a metaphor. In the poem, death is referred to as "that good night." Since this metaphor is repeated four times, it is fair to assume that this substitution is important.

So why, in a poem urging its subject to hold onto life, is death referred to as something so innocuous (and pleasant-sounding) as "that good night?" While the speaker clearly has a negative view of death (or at least of the impending death of his father), it's important to remember that the poem is not for the speaker—it is a desperate appeal to its subject.

The speaker knows that his father is tired after a long and full life and that death, to him, may appear as inviting as a good night's rest. He also knows that rest will inevitably come whether his appeals are successful or not; perhaps it is not his wish that his father live forever—only that he battle against death valiantly rather than submitting to it as one would a warm bed after a long day.

Perhaps the speaker knows that his pleas are in vain. Perhaps the poem isn't really intended to convince his father of anything. Perhaps it is simply a tangible way for the speaker to exercise his rage and despair at the fading of a wise, good, wild, and grave man he knows well.

Pictured here is the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, Wales, where Thomas and his family lived from 1949 to 1953.

Pictured here is the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, Wales, where Thomas and his family lived from 1949 to 1953.

Dylan Thomas's Life

Thomas, born in Wales in 1914, dropped out of school at the age of 16 to pursue a career in journalism. Nevertheless, his father's interest in English literature bled into his veins, and by 1932, Dylan had quit his reporting job to concentrate on composing poetry. During this time—his teens and early 20s—Thomas penned more than half of the poems that would end up published in his well-known collections.

In 1934, Thomas traveled to London and published his first collection, which included many of his early poems, and enjoyed widespread success. While in London, he married Caitlin Macnamara. After moving back to Wales with her and having children, Thomas spent the 1940s doing reading tours and radio broadcasts to earn extra money.

In the 1950s, Thomas began traveling to the United States to do additional readings. There, he became somewhat famous for his readings, heavy drinking, and boisterous-yet-gloomy disposition. On his fourth trip stateside in 1953, he became ill while in New York, slipped into a coma, and later died. His body was returned to his Welsh hometown of Laugharne where he was put to rest at the young age of 39.

Romanticism in Thomas's Poetry

While the romantic era of poetry, which most consider to have lasted from around 1800 to 1850, predated Thomas's career by almost a century, his poems had more in common with their romantic predecessors than they did with the more socially focused poetry that was common during his time.

His poems were highly emotional and instilled with a musical quality that showcased the beauty of language. Like many poems written in the romantic tradition, Thomas's works were visual, lyrical, and full of feeling. Nostalgic imagery and a strong sense of melancholy are common in his compositions.

When describing the visceral nature of his writing process, Thomas stated, "I make one image—though 'make' is not the right word; I let, perhaps, an image be 'made' emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual [and] critical forces I possess—let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict."

Other Well-Known Poems by Dylan Thomas

PoemYear Published

"And death shall have no dominion"

1933

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower"

1934

"Before I knocked"

1934

"Light breaks where no sun shines"

1936

"Poem in October"

1945

"Fern Hill"

1945

"A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London"

1946

"In my Craft or Sullen Art"

1952

"Our eunuch dreams"

1952

Resources

Comments

Luvo Ndlebe on June 25, 2020:

what a lovely and excellent explanation.

Fee Sadath on June 04, 2020:

Perfect explanation. Thank you

Rafael on April 01, 2020:

Excellent-splendid!

Ratnesh on March 06, 2020:

Nice analysis

Sarah on February 26, 2020:

Wonderful, thank you so much for analyzing this poem. It was really hard for me to understand what the author meant.

Alhagiesalif on February 24, 2020:

I was thinking differently before reading this quite sensible analysis in my opinion and now I am thinking differently again altogether.

This helps!

Stephanie, teacher. on February 21, 2020:

I always look at this poem as Thomas' not accepting his father's coming death! He wants him to fight it no matter what...'do not go into that gentle good night!'

Dumbledore on January 29, 2020:

Thank you. The analysis really helped me for my poem assessment.

youssef on December 15, 2019:

the analysis is very good and helpful. thank you so much

shannon briggs on November 11, 2019:

logan’s going to go back and film dead people in a forest

Sarah on November 06, 2019:

Really helped me with my English Essay, and understanding the meaning behind the poem.

Maya on October 26, 2019:

This was the pretty good! I would give it a 9/10

Chris Chan Chak Cheong on October 24, 2019:

excellent analysis ! it helped me to get a high mark in my englit essay

kavuma lawrence on October 10, 2019:

honestly helped in my esaay analysis and now im ready for the papers..... thnks

Hot Tamale on September 23, 2019:

Really helped my essay for english!!

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Annonymous on August 06, 2019:

Your analysis is really good ! Helped me pick out the details i never realised

Dilrukshi Foster on July 17, 2019:

Very good analysis. Good job. I understood it in a totally different way. Your analysis helped me a lot.

GORDEN on June 10, 2019:

Excellent analysis

Kani on May 24, 2019:

Thank you so much! very helpful. My professor explained it in class at least twice and I did not understand at, but now I do. Thanks alot!

Emily on April 21, 2019:

this is amazing and helped me soooo much!!!

Shadrach on February 06, 2019:

Good job

Sanaa Murray on January 31, 2019:

This is really good.

Joelle on January 23, 2019:

President Trump tweeted we should not "go gentle into that good night". No more apt literary reference could be applied at this historical juncture of The United States of America. Pray christians. Stand patriots.

labandoyakubu on December 29, 2018:

that's a great analysis...thanks

Jeanie on November 09, 2018:

Excellent explication!

Ranae on October 10, 2018:

Real good

sanele on August 22, 2018:

good work...nice and easily understand

Nate on July 21, 2018:

Nice work

Nico on July 05, 2018:

Actually, it is necessary to underline that his father was blind when he died. It emphasizes then much more on the last personality !

Nico on July 04, 2018:

Actually, it is necessary to underline that his father was blind when he died. It emphasizes then much more on the last personality !

rk on June 25, 2018:

really it works and easy to understand

Bob on June 14, 2018:

I like your comment and I like you

reshma on June 03, 2018:

really it works...easy analysis. ..good job

JeremyC on May 29, 2018:

This helps the poem make more sense to me. It is a fine and moving work whatever the interpretation.

Shravan on May 25, 2018:

Great job

Anonymous on May 16, 2018:

Very well done

Anonymous on May 07, 2018:

Makes much more sense now. Thank you!!

me on May 03, 2018:

nice

Zed Zuni on May 02, 2018:

Excellent analysis, thank you.

Rhombi on April 04, 2018:

Pretty dope stuff

DAV on February 27, 2018:

Thank you so much for this analysis! It has really helped my assignment.

A on February 25, 2018:

The best analysis so far!

k on February 24, 2018:

wish you could just write my analysis for me, thanks for all the help

j on February 21, 2018:

wish you could just write my analysis for me, thanks for all the help

holycow on February 20, 2018:

wish you could just write my analysis for me, thanks for all the help

faryalsiddiqui on November 11, 2017:

very enlightening, thank you!

annonymous on December 12, 2016:

one of the best analyses out there thank you!

Mahesh Kate on December 07, 2014:

Nice analysis

Anupam on August 22, 2014:

Great analysis. Thank you.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on June 21, 2014:

Wonderful analysis of Thomas' poem and so poignant. I agree with your entire analysis of the poem. It is one of the greats and so often quoted. Thanks for your lesson!

sud on May 23, 2014:

really helpful!

His on March 26, 2014:

I had a test on this poem and could not understand a word, came to this website, found this awesome analysis and passed my test with flying colours. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Voidementor on February 26, 2014:

Superb analysis of the poem. Absolute class:)

Thx on December 08, 2013:

OMG, this helped me so much…

Thanks for the easy language and all of the explanations!

vaibhav singh on November 28, 2013:

what a nice description ...................

i loved it

Deepak on May 09, 2013:

This is great stuff..given in simple comprehensible english.. well divided and presented too... makes for great reading and understanding!!

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