Death and Dying in "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"
and "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"
Death is a common theme in poetry and has been written about and personified throughout history. Among some of the most recognizable poems that deal with the subject are "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," by Dylan Thomas (1951), and "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," by Emily Dickinson (1890). Thomas contends that Death is something that should be fought until a person can no longer resist it, while Dickinson is more accepting of the event and does not seek to fight the inevitable. Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson have different perspectives on death, yet both are able to demonstrate why the topic and theme are so commonly written about and how the subject impacts the writer.
Dylan Thomas was a Welsh poet born on October 27, 1914. He was heavily influenced by his father, who was an English literature professor, and who helped to instill a love of literature and poetry in Thomas (Dylan Thomas, n.d.). Thomas was a well-known and successful poet during his lifetime, writing "more than half of his collected poems" during his teen years and publishing his first book at the age of twenty (Dylan Thomas, n.d.). Through his work and his life, Thomas came to encapsulate the American definition of a Romantic poet and was "flamboyantly theatrical, a heavy drinker, engaged in roaring disputes in public, and read his work aloud with tremendous depth of feeling and a singing Welsh lilt" (Dylan Thomas, n.d.). There is speculation that his father, his greatest influence, repeatedly insinuated that Thomas would not live past the age of 40, a resonating prophecy that came to pass on November 9, 1953 when Thomas died at the age of 39 (Dylan Thomas: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," 2006). Thomas' father's influence, and admiration, is demonstrated in his most well-known poem, "Do not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
On the other hand, Emily Dickinson was an American writer and poet whose work began to gain recognition after her death in 1886 (Emily Dickinson, n.d.). Unlike Thomas who was known as outgoing, Dickinson led an extremely reclusive life and "she seldom left her house and visitors were scarce" (Emily Dickinson, n.d.). Despite her reclusiveness, Dickinson actively kept correspondence with her friends and people that she admired. These acquaintances became familiar with her writings before anybody else did. In fact, Dickinson's poetry was not published until 1890, approximately four years after her death. After Dickinson died, her family "discovered 40 hand bound volumes of nearly 1800 of her poems, or "fascicles" as they are sometimes called" (Emily Dickinson, n.d.). The last of her poems were published nearly sixty years after her death.
"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1951) is structured as a villanelle. A villanelle is a poem in which only two sounds are rhymed. In the poem, the sounds that are rhymed include "night" and "light" and "day" and "they." Moreover, a villanelle is comprised of nineteen lines, with the first and third lines rhyming and alternating the third line of each following stanza, closing with a couplet. The villanelle was first used in English poetry during the 19th century and is inspired by French poem structures (Poetic Form: Villanelle).
Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is a poem about rebellion with the opening line setting the tone for the rest of the poem. In "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," which was written for his father, Thomas pleads to his father to fight against death (Dylan Thomas: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," 2008). In the poem, Thomas tries to argue that "old age should burn and rave at close of day" and that a person should not give up so easily (Thomas, 1951, line 2). Thomas contends that all men should fight regardless of who they are and what they have accomplished. In the poem, Thomas illustrates how "wise men" who "at their end know dark is right" fight against death, even though they know it is illogical, and "do not go gentle into that good night" (Thomas, 1951, lines 4, 6). Thomas also argues that wise men are not the only ones that should rebel against death, but also lists "good men," "wild men," and "grave men" as individuals that should "rage against the dying of the light" (Thomas, 1951, lines 7, 10, 13, 3). By choosing to list his father last in the poem, Thomas implies that he fits the category of wise, good, wild, and grave and that he, too, should fight against death.
"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" illustrates Thomas' fears regarding death and the fear of losing his father. In the listing of the men that have fought death until they could not longer resist, Thomas remains fearful of losing his father too early and believes that his father is losing his fight against "the dying of the light" (Thomas, 1951, line 19). Through his pleas to his father, Thomas (1951) appeals to his father to "curse" and "bless" him with his "fierce tears" (line 17). In his contradictory use of the terms "curse" and "bless," Thomas may be referring to the curse of pain that he will feel once his father dies -- which is accompanied by the curse of pain that his father is presently feeling -- while the blessing may refer to allowing Thomas to spend more time with his father -- which would be accompanied by the blessing feeling that his father would finally get once he accepted death; both of the terms, curse and bless, have opposing meanings to each man. Despite the fact that Thomas knows that death and dying would be welcome relief to a suffering person, he cannot help to be jealous of Death, because his father will spend more time with him than he ever spent alive, and wants to prolong his father's suffering for selfish reasons. The inability to accept that his father is going to die, and perhaps accept the fact that his father has resigned himself to dying, highlight Thomas' lack of preparation to deal with death at a personal level.
In "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," it is evident that Thomas has been heavily influenced by John Donne. Thomas' influence can be seen through Donne's poem "A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning" (1633). "A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning" begins "As virtuous men pass mildly away,/And whisper to their souls to go,/Whilst some of their sad friends do say/The breath goes now, and some say, No" (Donne, 1633, lines 1-4). Donne's opening lines appear to mirror "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and has parallels that show a mutual desire of others to have their dying loved ones fight against death. However, Donne's poem concentrates on the desires of people that surround an individual, whereas Thomas chooses to focus on his personal desire and his unwillingness to accept that his father is going to die. Thomas insinuates that the power to overcome death comes from within an individual and contends that if one is determined enough, he or she can overcome and conquer death.
Tones of rebellion, which is a central tenet for Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," can be seen in Donne's Holy Sonnet that personifies Death, better known as "Death be not proud" (Donne, 1633). In this sonnet, Donne argues that Death is a "slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men" (line 9); Thomas, similarly, believes that Death is not in control, but rather the individual holds the power to say when and where Death can do his duty. In lieu of submitting to the natural order of life and accepting death as a natural part of life, Thomas wants to encourage his father to conquer and defy Death. He believes that Death should only be accepted when the individual acknowledges that it is his or her time to die and willingly succumbs to the natural phenomenon.
Thomas contends that a person should not submit to their fate willingly, but instead should fight for what they want in life, not because it is something that they have to do, but rather because it is something that they want to do. He accepts that there are different reasons why a person would want to hold off dying and wants to convince his father to find a reason to fight to live. While Thomas does not argue that Death is inevitable, he does argue that it should be delayed for as long as possible. Thomas' inability to understand the phenomenon and process of death highlights his anxieties as he struggles to find a way to accept that his father is going to die and consequently accept his own mortality.
Emily Dickinson, similarly, explores death, however, she does not seek to avoid or escape the natural…