Kevin Saving on

‘Do not go gentle into that good night’
by Dylan Thomas
(1914-1953)
 
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should rage and burn 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 shine like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
 
And you, my father, there on that 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.
 
'Do not go gentle into that good night' was written in the spring of 1951 when Thomas was thirty-six. It was composed in a draughty garden shed -a sort of adjunct to the poet's residence, 'The Boat House', both of which still look out over the estuary of the river Taf at Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. Thomas, his wife Caitlin, and their three children had been living at the six-room, three-storey Boathouse since 1949, courtesy of a benefactress, Margaret Taylor (first wife of the historian and television presenter A.J.P.Taylor). The latter had put up with the Thomases for a long time: they'd lived in 1946 in a summerhouse at the bottom of his Oxford garden and made regular attempts to wheedle money from him. No admirer - unlike his wife - of the poetry, Taylor observed that Thomas would commence his poems using plain language before quite intentionally clouding them in successive layers of obscurity. Thomas did, indeed, habitually write using legions of worksheets (his shed at Laugharne was usually left littered with their crumpled remnants until he discovered that they could be saleable). Alongside obvious shopping-lists, certain enigmatic numberings in the margins of drafts initially perplexed literary scholars - until it was determined that they related to Roget's Thesaurus listings.
  By 1951 Thomas had already begun the series of four drink-fuelled American tours which so bolstered his legend. The first (from February 1950) established the template for self-indulgent, self-destructive, absent-minded and shirt-stealing boorishness. Though immensely popular with audiences (and seemingly lucrative) little of the money found its way into the Thomases' two bank accounts: the final destination of his earnings and royalties has proved elusive for both biographers and the Inland Revenue. Almost half of Dylan's collected correspondence consists of attempts to borrow money or apologise for not delivering work/ repaying debts.
  A typical day at Laugharne would involve a late lie-in followed by a short stroll along a coast-hugging lane to 'Brown's Hotel' in the village. He would usually drop-in to his parent's rented house, 'The Pelican' in Mainstreet, where he and his father would do The Times crossword together. After lunch he would spend the afternoon trying to write in his little shed, where neither wife nor children were allowed. At seven o'clock sharp (pub opening time) he would retrace his steps back to 'Brown's', accompanied this time by Caitlin. There were frequent, intoxicated bouts of violence between them, often with their mutual infidelities as a subtext.
  Dylan Marlais Thomas had found literary recognition early. His first collection, Eighteen Poems, was published (as a prize-award) in 1934, a little after his twentieth birthday. The influential Edith Sitwell (after some dithering) became the first of a succession of older, female sponsors and patrons when - barely two years later - she praised his work as being 'on a huge scale, both in theme and structurally ...nothing short of magnificent'. Thomas's pouty, cherubic looks, coupled with his artfully-constructed act of slightly bewildered enfant terrible could arouse some women's protective, maternal feelings. After his apprenticeship on a local newspaper, and with the occasional interlude working on film scripts (which were seldom shot) or radio broadcasts (which were sometimes made), he would never really find conventional employment - and would always be short of money.
  'Do not go gentle' is a villanelle (an Italian pastoral form originating in the sixteenth century and first popularised by the French poet, Jean Passerat [1534-1602]). It comprises five tercets followed by a quatrain and may be expressed as follows: A1, b, A2/ a, b, A1/ a, b, A2/ a, b, A1/ a, b, A2/ a, b, A1, A2 (numbered capitals being refrains). The poem is (for Thomas) written in a straight-forward style, and has been read at numerous funerals - particularly in the United States. It exhorts Thomas's father - with whom he had a complicated relationship - to meet his end with defiance, not to fade quietly into the dark.
  'D.J.' Thomas was an ex-schoolmaster, aloof, irascible and fastidious. An agnostic and a thwarted poet himself, D.J. had gained a first-class honours degree in English from the university college of Wales at Aberystwyth before descending into a career which he felt was 'beneath' him. Thomas senior, for whom Dylan never lost his respect, had inculcated into his son a love of poetry equal to his own. Before Dylan could read, D.J. would recite Shakespeare to him. He was to die, after a prolonged illness and resolutely dry-eyed, on 16th December, 1952, aged 76, from heart-failure. Contrary to Dylan's repeated assertions, his father's sight failed only at the very end; his final recorded utterance was 'It's come full circle now'. Dylan vomited during the cremation service.
  Thomas sent 'Do not go gentle' to Marguerite Caetani (a wealthy American who'd also commissioned Under Milk Wood) for inclusion in her Roman magazine Botteghe Oscure. In a postscript to his covering letter of 28th May, 1951, he wrote 'the only person I can't show [the poem] to is, of course, my father who doesn't know he's dying'. Of this foreign debut one should not infer too much altruism: American publishers paid far more generously than their British counterparts. The villanelle was included (before D.J.'s demise) in Dylan's Collected Poems, out that November. It is one of only six poems in that volume completed in the period between 1946 and the poet's own death late in 1953.
  Dylan's own 'close of day' would occur in st. Vincent's hospital, New York (where he'd been taken with suspected alcoholic poisoning). His mother thus lost her husband, her adored, spoilt son and her only other child, Nancy (from cancer) all within a year. There is strong evidence that Dylan's death was caused by Iatrogenesis (that is, medical incompetence). An American doctor had injected him with half a grain of morphine (three times the recommended dosage) as a sedative and analgesic. This rather unjustifiable intervention would yet further have depressed the poet's already compromised respiratory system. Always something of a hypochondriac, Thomas had often said that he would never reach the age of forty.
 
Further reading:

Brinnin, M., Dylan Thomas in America, Ace (1957)
Ferris, P. (Ed.), The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas, Dent (1985)
Ferris, P., Dylan Thomas, The Biography, Dent (1999)
Jones, D. (Ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Poems, Dent (1971)
Sinclair, A., Dylan The Bard, Constable (1999)

Kevin Saving © 2008