Going raging into the night

My introduction to Dylan Thomas was as a teenager. I heard Richard Burton reading “Do not go gentle into that good night” on radio (though as with all things Burton, “declaiming” would be better than “reading”) in the 1960s. Then I watched Under Milk Wood in the West End and I fell in love with the sound of Dylan Thomas. I read all I could find of his and I read them aloud to myself (irritating my room-mates at my students hostel no end). But it was very much later that I penetrated beyond the mesmerising, chant-like quality of the sound and began to understand the words.

But I observe that my understanding of (or more correctly the meaning I ascribe to) his writings are changing with time. At one time I saw “Do not go gentle ..” as an exhortation and a plea to an old and dying man (his father) to not give up; to keep fighting; to not go quietly. The poetic form used is a villanelle which is a nineteen-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The two repeating refrains are both hypnotic and melodic.

But understandings shift and now, that I have passed 70, I read it much more personally. I take this poem as being addressed to me.

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.
Of course Dylan Thomas has to be read aloud and of course he chooses words for the sound as much as for the meaning. What gives me most satisfaction now is that I am still conscious. It is not a rage against dying but it is a rage against the dying of the light. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”.

Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”



 

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