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The Poets

September 07, 2009

Rage, Rage (A Thomas Villanelle)

The previous post skimmed over the style and structure of the villanelle, a poetic form whose completion doesn’t come easy. The reason for that post was deliberate and planned, as I wished to introduce a popular poem written by Dylan Thomas and one of the most famous villanelles to date:

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.



Of the Poem (Notes):

I have no doubt that our poet was writing about and towards his father. Indeed, in words that are hardly cryptic he says: “And you, my father.” Stanzas 1 and 6 are the only direct appeals that the poet makes to his father (these are also the only stanzas that he speaks from the perspective of the second person). The poem can almost therefore be consolidated so that the ‘meaty’ aspects of it are all that’s left:

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.
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.

The remaining sections (stanzas 2 through 4) speak about the wise, the good, the wild, and the grave man’s position in relation to death- all of whom seem to deplore it.

It’s interesting to note the deteriorating scale from the moral stature of the wise man down to the wretched state of the grave man … it is as if our poet would have us aware of the general tendency humans (good or bad) have in relation to death, the tendency of resistance.

But the tendency, if we grant our poet’s conclusion, is not only futile- it is impossible. Death and dying are inevitable. One may resist the fruition of it, deny its lingering possibility, or even deny it as a possibility altogether … the fact is it will occur. The poem seems to beg resistance towards it: rage against the dying of the light (where light is meant to mean life).

It is precisely because the poet wishes to rouse his father to this impossible tendency that I sense desperation and a denial of reality. This isn’t to chide or diminish the character of the man- far from it. If anything it reveals his humanity, a man who doesn’t want to see his father die (especially passively). And so, by this, the poem is held in a specific light: stanzas 1 and 5 show the poet’s literal (albeit, poetic) plea to his father to actively resist death, whereas the remaining stanzas- all of which speak from the third person- become a sort of subconscious justification or premise for the plea in the first place.

What I love most about the poem is its high complexity- the poet employs so many techniques in a poem whose metric frame and rhyme scheme are already a challenge. The poem type- the
villanelle- has already been treated of in the previous post. In addition to the high and challenging task presented by the villanelle, Thomas uses oxymoron, metaphors, assonance, and alliteration to convey antipathy toward passively perishing beneath death’s crushing inevitability.

His use of oxymoron coveys a sort of defiance and absurdity:

Line 1: good night
Line 13: blinding sight
Line 17: fierce tears

Even the apparent point of the poem- resisting inevitability- is an oxymoron.

It can hardly be said that this is a coincidental byproduct of the poem or poet himself, but the poem is riddled with metaphors. Here’s just a few (and all of them seem quite intentional):

… the poet refers to death as a good night (throughout)
... wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight
… words had forked no lightning
… frail deeds might have danced


In line 2 and 14 Thomas uses the poetic technique of assonance (where one or more words within the line itself share a similar sonorous value, as in line two: age, rave, day).

Another technique, alliteration, is employed beautifully (and a lot) in the poem...

Line 1: go and good.
Line 4: through and their
Line 5: deeds and dance
Line 10: sang and sun
Line 11: learn and late
Line 13: see and sight
Line 13 and 14: blinding, blind, and blaze

Notice, however, that go and gentle of line 1 don’t fit the criteria for alliteration: there’s a ‘guttal’ sound to the first g; whereas the g of gentle almost sounds like a j.

The first time I hear this poem, a time when poetry meant very little to me, was in the movie Dangerous Minds, where a teacher (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to educate wayward kids about symbolism and life through song lyrics and poetry. The above villanelle played an important role in the movie, and in retrospect probably contributed to its overall popularity.

Now that I know the poem (apart from the movie), how hardwired and how difficult a structure it is, I have a greater appreciation for Dylan Thomas as a poet. What impresses me the most is that he took this difficult form and increased its complexity by jamming it full of poetic devices. I might even be tempted to say that this is the only poem (so far) I’ve read that has made me feel the intensity and labor of its production … since I’m not quite certain of that, I won't.


To hear the audio of this poem click on the following link:
Poets.org

2 comments:

Nancy said...

Stop, John! I'm running out of adjectives!

Seriously, I am really enjoying these past posts. I honestly had NO idea that poetry was so technical. I thought it was just a bunch of rhyming sentences that I usually couldn't understand... or worse yet, a bunch of non-rhyming sentences I couldn't understand. I didn't even understand how those were poetry. Thank you so much for opening my eyes and helping me enjoy this form. I am having so much fun reading and commenting on your posts.

I truly, truly enjoyed this commentary and analysis. So interesting and so inspiring. I think I will try to write my own villanelle. Stay tuned!

Doris said...

i like your blog!!!

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