Here’s to the readers, the adventurers, the young-at-hearters
If Dylan Thomas’s 1947 poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, could be summed up in one line, it would be:
“Old age should burn and rave at close of day”.
But it can’t be. Although short and concise as it is, Thomas crafted every single word to try and convey the full power of his feelings on a very personal matter, his father’s imminent death, and get across exactly why he shouldn’t give up on life and instead “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Thomas’s father no doubt had plenty of reasons to do just the opposite. To not kick up a fuss but fade away quietly. To not make the most of his final days but squander them away in helpless self-pity. To not live according to how he felt inside and what he truly desired but what he was told by others and what he could see in the mirror.
The poem has become common in pop culture and a favourite of many, and although its words are powerful in their own right, it’s likely been so popular because this message, and the situation Dylan’s father found himself in, resonates deeply with many, if not all of us.
Nobody wants to waste their latter years away, succumbing to the idea of being “old” and restraining ourselves from living a full life. Of course, sometimes due to circumstances we have to make compromises. But when the choice is in your hands, and we’re left with the decision to “go gentle into that dark night” or to fight against it and “burn and rave at close of day”, we know what’s right. Yet, it can be difficult to be that person and a whole lot easier to get the granny readers out and put on the heated slippers.
Thomas understands this dilemma, and he comforts his father by first suggesting there are four types of people. There are the wise that “at their end know dark is right” — the ones who recognise getting older is a natural part of life and are wise enough to accept it. The good, who “the last wave by, crying how bright.” These are the people who are too humble to demonstrate or accept reverence for their skills or achievements. The wild, who “caught and sang the sun in flight” — the ones who spend their lives chasing the sun and learn too late they are mortal. And finally, the grave, who, “near death see with blinding sight.”
The grave are those people who are feeling the strains of life and who’re seeing signs of old age creep in. Their eyes are failing, along with other parts of their bodies, and this causes their spirit to feel as equally hampered and frail.
It is this final group which Thomas wants his father to so desperately avoid. “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay… And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.”
And if anyone could manage it, it’s Thomas. His message to his father is paralysing in its elegance. He talks about the end not as an unholy evil or some horrible event, but as a good night. And in doing so, and in suggesting that going quietly towards it could be just as respectable, if not understandable, as any other way to go out, he shows there is nothing to fear, and thus brilliance can still be achieved.
Thomas knows only his father can make such a choice. But what he does is make him more aware that it is still within his power to do so. He shows that old age can burn and rave and blind eyes can blaze and tears can be fierce and that he need not resign himself to his fate, but instead, if he should be so brave and choose, go out loudly and well and truly alive.
“Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”