The Fight for Life in Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night" and John Updike's "Dog's Death"
Death has proven to be an inspiration for many poets and has been written about throughout history. These poets look at death from differing perspectives and many have argued that it should be fought against while others are more submissive to the concept. In "Do not go gentle into that good night," written by Dylan Thomas (1951), and "Dog's Death," by John Updike (1993), take a stance that accepting death is unnatural and that a person or any living being should fight until the end. In "Do not go gentle into that good night," Thomas argues that death is something that should be fought against and that a person should only succumb to their end when he or she is ready. On the other hand, in "Dog's Death," Updike demonstrates that it is unnatural to give up and that living beings should fight until the very last. Dylan Thomas and John Updike have similar attitudes toward death, yet their respective poems depict the fight against death from different perspectives.
Dylan Thomas was born on October 27, 1914 in Wales. Thomas was greatly influenced by his father, an English literature professor, who not only helped to imbue the poet with a love of literature, but also became the inspiration for "Do not go gentle into that good night" (Dylan Thomas, n.d.). Thomas found success as a poet in his lifetime and was even described as "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.). Tragically, Thomas would not live past 40, something that his father had long prophesized, and in fact, passed away on November 9, 1953 (Dylan Thomas: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," 2008).
On the other hand, John Updike was born on March 18, 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania (John Updike, n.d.). Like Thomas, Updike was influenced by his parents growing up as his mother was a writer and encouraged him to write (John Updike, 2009). Updike grew to have a highly prestigious career as a writer and won several prominent awards including two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor (John Updike, n.d.). Throughout his literary career, Updike wrote more than fifty novels and published multiple short story volumes and multiple volumes of his collected poems (John Updike, n.d.). Updike passed away on January 27, 2009.
"Do not go gentle into that good night" is full of rebellious undertones, which help to establish the poem's tone and theme. In the poem, Thomas attempts to convince his father to fight against death (Dylan Thomas: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," 2008). In "Do not go gentle into that good night," Thomas maintains, "old age should burn and rave at close of day" and that his father should not give into death so easily (Thomas, 1959, line 2). Thomas reasons that everyone should fight against death irrespective of who they are and what they have or have not accomplished in their lives. Because Thomas is making a supplication to his father, he focuses his attention on other men whom refuse to give in to death and instead choose to fight to live. Thomas describes "wise men" whom "at their end know dark is right" and how they fight to live even though they may realize that it is illogical for them to try and avoid the inevitable yet "do not go gentle into that good night" (Thomas, 1951, lines 4 & 6). Thomas then proceeds to describe other men that have rebelled against death and "rage against the dying of the light" (Thomas, 1951, line 3). These men include "[g]ood men…crying how bright/Their frail deeds might have danced in the bay;" "[w]ild men who caught and sang the sun in flight/And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way;" and "[g]rave men, near death, who see with blinding sight/Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay" (Thomas, 1951, lines 7-8 & 10-11 & 13-14). Finally, Thomas addresses his father as a person that is worthy to be compared to these different types of men and argues that he too should "rage against the dying of the light" (Thomas, 1951, line 18).
"Do not go gentle into that good night" highlights Thomas' fears concerning death and is coupled with his fear of losing his father. Through his descriptions of the men that fought against death it is evident that he fears his father will soon lose his battle against "the dying of the light" (Thomas, 1951, line 19). In the poem, Thomas (1951) pleas with his father so that he can "curse" and "bless" him with his "fierce tears" (line 17). A paradox arises through Thomas' juxtaposition of the terms "curse" and "bless." Through this paradox, Thomas' use of the term "curse" may be referencing the present pain that his father is in and the future pain Thomas himself will feel once his father passes away. The use of the term "bless" may reference an extended period of time that Thomas will be afforded with his father if his father fights against death while also referencing the peace that his father will finally be able to attain once we passes away. It can be argued that there is a level of jealousy towards death that Thomas is experiencing; Thomas urges his father to live, which would only prolong his suffering, in an attempt to stave off the inevitable and the endless. Thomas' inability to cope with the fact that his father is dying and accept that his father has not necessarily given up, but rather accepted that it is his time to die, may indicate that Thomas was unprepared to deal with his father's death at a personal, psychological, and emotional level.
The influence that Thomas' father had on the poet can be seen in the structure and content of the poem. For instance, Thomas wrote "Do not go gentle into that good night" as a villanelle, which is a poem where only two sounds are rhymed such as night and light and day and they. A villanelle is also made up of nineteen lines where the first and third lines rhyme with an alternation of the third line in each of the subsequent stanzas; a villanelle ends with a closing couplet. The villanelle is a unique poetic structure that was inspired by French poetic structure and began to be used in English poetry during the 19th Century (Poetic Form: Villanelle, n.d.). Additionally, it can be surmised that his father's literary background and the impact that it had on Thomas heavily inspired the subject matter and style of the poem with John Donne being a poet that clearly influenced Thomas. Parallels between Donne and Thomas' poetry can be seen through the comparison of "Do not go gentle into that good night" (1951) and "A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning" (1633). Like "Do not go gentle into that good night," "A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning" takes a look at how people have a desire to hold on to their friends and family at their last moments. Much like "Do not got gentle into that good night," Donne writes "As virtuous men pass mildly away,/And whisper their souls to go,/Whilst some of their sad friends do say/The breath goes no, and some say, No" (Donne, 1633, lines 1-4). Unlike Thomas' poem, which places the focus on his personal desires, Donne focuses on the reactions and wants of those that surround a dying person and appears to remove himself from the situation. Additionally, the overarching tone of rebellion against death that is depicted in "Do not go gentle into that good night" is evident in Donne's Holy Sonnets, specifically "Death be not proud" (1633). Thomas' belief that death is something that can be conquered can be seen in this sonnet. In "Death be not proud" (1633), Donne states that Death, personified, is a "slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men" and that it has no will of its own but must bend to the demands of others (line 9). Like Donne, Thomas maintains that death can be controlled and that an individual has the power to say when and where they are going to submit to their end. Instead of encouraging his father to accept death as a natural phenomenon, Thomas urges his father to attempt to conquer and defy death. Thomas argues that a person should fight for what they want in life, including the ability to live longer, not because they have to, but rather because an individual is overcome with a desire to do so.
Similarly, John Updike explores a similar theme of rebellion against death in "Dog's Death" (1993). In the poem, an unnamed narrator recollects how a…