Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Father's Death and Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night"

The Dylan Thomas poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," has always deeply affected me. So, this past February in the moments before my father died with his wife and children there beside him, I spontaneously quoted the title of the poem and its refrain: "rage, rage, against the dying of the light." My brother Drew, who ironically is more the Agnostic in contrast to me the Christian, said "No, no, that's not appropriate." And he began to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." We all joined in, and as we sang our father's breathing stopped and the death pallor fixed his features.

My brother captured the sacred moment, and I was glad he had done so. Yet within me I still felt the other lines.

[Here is Dylan Thomas himself reading "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night":]



Why do I -- and for that matter Dylan Thomas, who was a Christian as well -- find the refrain "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light" so compelling? Is that not a cry of futile despair rather than one of muscular faith? Where was my trust in God's heaven?

Jesus wept. He stood, looking at a grave with a man he knew he would raise from the dead, yet he wept. Why? All the sorrow of this life seems to me rooted in the knowledge we understand immortality, at least dimly, yet experience our mortality. On the face of it, to cling to life so fiercely seems the act of a pagan; shouldn't we welcome death's embrace as the entryway to everlasting life? Yes... but. Jesus not only wept at the grave of Lazarus. In Gethsemane He sweated blood and pled His Father would deliver Him from the trials he faced. "Not my will, but Thine be done."

Thomas' poem was specifically about his own father, something I'd forgotten until after my own dad's death -- and my spontaneous quoting of the poem's title -- I had to go back and revisit it. To me, the outcry against death is the response of a whole person, a deeply Christian person who nonetheless understands how outrageously wrong death is. Yes, it is "the good night" for the believer... but it is not what we were meant originally to experience. Death is not an everlasting night, morning will come. But death itself is only good because it has been defeated by Christ's perfect obedience, which suffered death in order to break death's bonds. Raging against death is in a deep way an affirmation of sanity, and of goodness, and of a faithful despair not unknown to the Biblical writers.

There is one more layer, I think, to this poem that I'd not have known before experiencing my own father's death. The raging against death is something for the survivors of the one dying as well as -- and perhaps moreso than -- the one doing the dying. Thomas urges his father to resist death, and why? Because he does not want his father to leave him, and there is a terrible surrendering to death that those left behind may have to watch occurring. The irrational but wholly sane response of the lovers to the beloved is "No. Do not go. Please, stop this." It is rage, but an impotent resigned rage.


Dylan Thomas - "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 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.

1 comment:

Julie M. said...

"Thomas urges his father to resist death, and why? Because he does not want his father to leave him..." Perhaps that's a of of why you spoke up at his bedside? I'm surprised at myself, at how I feel this same way, even though my relationship with my Mother (who passed on March 11) was a often a struggle. Thanks for sharing this, Jon.