Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night"
0 On the 28th of March 1951, Thomas sent “Do not go gentle into that good night” to his friend Princess Marguerite Caetani, founder and editor of the journal Botteghe Oscure. “‘I have just finished the short poem I enclose,” he wrote, adding a brief despondent postscript: “The only person I can’t show the little enclosed poem to is, of course, my father, who doesn’t know he’s dying” (Letters 800):
0 Some speculate that Thomas may have begun “Do not go gentle into that good night” in 1945, when his father’s ill-health first began to seem serious, but there is little reason (other than a somewhat inflated contemporary estimate of how difficult it is to write a villanelle) to suppose that Thomas took six years to write his famous villanelle.[i] Walford and Maud, editors of the Collected Poems, remark that “It is not a poem that was written quickly, one suspects.”[ii] Yet Thomas’s repeated introduction of diminutives to describe “Do not go gentle” (“the short poem,” “the little enclosed poem”) imply a certain embarrassment, indicating that he might not consider the piece to be as highly-polished as some of his other works. He suggested to Princess Caetani that it be published with “Lament,” which he described as “rough,” referring either to its coarse content or to its degree of incompleteness or to both. (Letters 800). “Poem on His Birthday,” by contrast, had taken Thomas almost two years to complete, and in July 1951 he called the nearly-finished hundred-and-seven-line birthday poem “a much, much better poem than the ‘Lament’ and the villanelle to my father” (Letters 800, 802). “Do not go gentle into that good night,” moreover, shares a remarkable number of its key words with “Poem on His Birthday,” which was written between October 1949 and August 1951: “bay,” “blind,” “rage,” “bless,” “waves,” “dark,” “light,” “sun,” “green.” Many of these words recur throughout Thomas’s oeuvre, of course; the word “green” figures prominently in his poetry as early as 1933 in “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” But it nevertheless seems likely that Thomas began “Do not go gentle into that good night” about 1949 or 1950.
0 On March 9, 1950, Dylan Thomas went to the Library of Congress to make archival recordings of some of his poems; there he met Elizabeth Bishop, who was then the Library of Congress’s Consultant in Poetry.[iii] Bishop wrote her first known villanelle, the unpublished “Verdigris,” sometime in 1949; the refrains run, “The catalogues will tell you that they mean / The time to watch for is when Time grows green.” It is tempting, though perhaps extravagant, to imagine that the villanelle germ had been communicated from one poet to the other when they met at the Library of Congress. Perhaps Thomas told Bishop he was writing a villanelle; perhaps Bishop told Thomas she was writing a villanelle–there is no telling which way the influence ran, if there was indeed such an influence. Bishop’s biographer Brett C. Millier quotes her unpublished journals on the subject of “Verdigris” and speculates on the possible influence of Thomas:
0 A few months earlier, she had seen moss growing on the façade of the post office building in Washington. “Quite bright green.–How wonderful this place would look if all the facades were like that. (Ver-de-gris–one definition is vers de Greece) (Those green green roses in the Freer) (Time is sometimes green–I want to write a villanelle & that sounds like a possibility.)” [...] She had Dylan Thomas on her mind at this time, perhaps ‘Fern Hill’ specifically. (224)
0 Notably, Bishop writes, “I want to write a villanelle & that sounds like a possibility,” not “I want to write about Time growing green and I think the villanelle might be the best form to express the idea.” The latter would probably also have been true enough. But Bishop’s notebook entry raises a question: Which formulation would describe the impulse behind “Do not go gentle into that good night”? Would Dylan Thomas have put the poem’s subject or its form first in a narrative of its origin? Commentators, at least, have almost always treated “Do not go gentle into that good night” as though its primary (if not sole) trigger was the illness of Dylan Thomas’s father, D. J. Thomas. It would be foolish to deny that Thomas wanted to write about his father’s illness and death and that this desire resulted in both “Do not go gentle into that good night” and the later “Elegy” (1952). Still, we should take seriously the motive of “wanting to write a villanelle.”
0 Apart from any relationship of particular matter to particular form, why might Thomas have wanted to write a villanelle? Nineteenth-century poets who wanted to write a villanelle had generally had particular aesthetic agendas in mind. Wanting to write a villanelle for French poets was then the same as wanting to “burst open the ancient oyster of the Alexandrine,” as Gautier put it; for British poets, wanting to write a villanelle was then the same as wanting to introduce “naïve grace” or the “exotic” into the poetry of Victorian Britain. Joyce and Pound in the earlier decades of the twentieth century had alluded to the villanelle only to repudiate such ineffective and outgrown impulses with proper scorn. With the fading of these aesthetic debates, writing a villanelle ceased to be a sectarian activity. Empson, Auden, Thomas, and finally Bishop might more truly be said to have demonstrated the range of the villanelle, as McFarland puts it, than Pound and Joyce–but the reputation of the form was not a serious concern for them, as it had been for the post-Romantic poets and their modernist conquerors, and as it would be again in nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties in the debates sparked by New Formalism (96). The mid-century poets approached the form ahistorically and apolitically.
0 The chief reason that mid-century modernists wanted to write villanelles was to demonstrate their own technical mastery. This shared impulse did not have the exact character of a movement because it was purely individualist. At the same time, it did reflect an underlying premise: that the solitary poet’s job is to impose order upon, or at least reveal order within, a reality whose central characteristic is disorder–chaos, mess, modernity, emotion, life. The key word for this mid-century approach to politics, criticism, and poetry is “master,” as in “Master of Arts,” or as in the famous opening “grave truth” of Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940): “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters” (Collected 1945 3). The mid-century poets themselves aspired to such consummate infallibility. Technical mastery, for the mid-century modernists, amounted to a metaphor for or signifier of the intellectual and emotional mastery of the poet over existential uncertainties. Auden also imposed order on his life; his biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes that around 1940, “He was in fact beginning to become obsessive about his timetable. Certain hours were fixed for writing, certain hours for reading, certain points of the day for eating, and certain times for receiving his friends or going out. Interruptions of this schedule were treated with ill-concealed irritation, and friends quickly learnt not to bother him except at the permitted hours” (279). Eventually Auden would return to Christianity as the most stable of philosophical ordering systems.[iv] For Auden the source of disorder was in the external world of society, politics, war, suffering, his faithless lover; for Thomas the source of disorder was himself.
0 Accepting the idea of Dylan Thomas’s rapport with order and mastery is complicated by our knowledge of his chaotic and inept life, but not at all by our knowledge of his poetry.[v] His tone is as authoritative as Auden’s (those “grave truths”), and his intricate and conspicuous technical embellishments demand as much admiration from the reader as do Auden’s quieter but equally meticulous (or obsessive) technical devices. Particularly in his last poems, Thomas was setting himself complicated formal challenges, and his adoption of the villanelle form for “Do not go gentle into that good night” seems to be part of this drive. Of his last completed poem, the verse prologue to his Collected Poems, Thomas wrote in September 1952, “To begin with, I set myself, foolishly perhaps, a most difficult technical task: The Prologue is in two verses–in my manuscript, a verse to a page–of 51 lines each. And the second verse rhymes backward with the first. The first & last lines of the poem rhyme; the second and the last but one; & so on & so on. Why I acrosticked myself like this, don’t ask me” (Letters 838). Critics such as R. B. Kershner and John Ackerman have attributed Thomas’s technical elaborations to the influence of the Welsh bardic tradition, but Thomas himself (who did not speak Welsh) generally denied this influence, and many Welsh critics considered Thomas to have been corrupted past repair by English poetry.[vi]
0 Such self-acrosticking might also be described as obsessive, a term implying that elaborate poetic form can represent an attempt to gain control over a perceived threat. Of “Prologue’s” various technical excesses Davies writes, “It is as if Thomas, in poor health, dragged down by drink, possibly drying up as a poet, is saying to his readers, ‘Look what I can still do!’” (213). Certainly after World War Two both Thomas’s art and his private affairs seemed to be in ever-greater danger of complete disintegration. Love, money, family, health, reputation: Thomas had serious trouble with them all in the years 1950 to 1953, as the many biographies of him recount in relished or fastidious detail.[vii] Only Thomas’s live and recorded readings were going relatively well. Perhaps most worrisome of all, Thomas had long been struggling to finish writing projects: he had reneged on promises to publishers, to journals, to the BBC, and many therefore refused to advance him money or refused to work with him at all. In 1953, he wrote crazily away at his play Under Milk Wood until just before the curtain lifted for the first performance, “concocting the play’s ending at the last moment” (Davies 96). In one of the many letters Thomas wrote apologizing profusely for not delivering manuscript when promised, he averred that “the confused symbols grow leaden and a woolly rust grows over the words [...]. The symbols have wet-brain, the words have swallowed their tongues” (Letters 844).
0 One of Thomas’s customary solutions to such moldering was to return to his earlier works and revise or recycle them. When younger he had had the habit of returning for inspiration to the notebooks he had written at the age of eighteen, in what seemed to be the least labored episode of composition of his life. Some of Thomas’s poetry, as a result, has almost the character of self-plagiarism or self-parody: we remember those uncomfortably brilliant parodies in The Death of the King’s Canary that Thomas would not acknowledge. Even the aural progression of “age” to “rave” to “rage” in the first tercet of “Do not go gentle into that good night” disturbingly resembles the derisive transformation of “girl” to “bird” to “gourd” in the third tercet of “Request to Leda.” Thomas also often prominently featured and re-featured characteristic words in his poetry, some of them unusual, such as “fuse” and “dogdayed,” some of them ordinary and elemental, such as “green” and “grave” and “womb” and “tomb.” He mined his own poetry for ore with which to load the rifts. I detailed the correspondence of vocabulary between “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Poem on His Birthday” above; “Elegy,” similarly, seems to pick up on the word “blind” he had used in “Do not go gentle,” as well as “night,” “light,” and others, repeating the familiar words many times throughout the poem: “I prayed in the crouching room, by his blind bed, / In the muted house, one minute before / Noon, and night, and light” (Collected 156).
0 Thomas’s return to the villanelle form, then, might be seen as another instance of his practice of salvaging new poetry from old. Always a victim to the fear that he could not accomplish anything new, perhaps he returned to something he knew for certain he had accomplished once before–even if only in jest. Caitlin Thomas’s judgment of her husband’s decline in output, expressed in a letter of February 1953, was as follows: “And since he has, as good as, given up writing, for the actor’s ranting boom, and lisping mimcry, anything he sells is either a rehashed bubble and squeak of adolescence, or a never to be fulfilled promise in the future” (Letters 865). Caitlin partly blamed what amounted to Thomas’s new career in poetry performance for his writing problems; whether or not that was the case, it may well be that Thomas’s recent emphasis on reading poetry aloud was another factor in his choice of the villanelle form for “Do not go gentle into that good night.” His recording of it for Caedmon Records remains famous.[viii]
0 Thomas built another ordering principle besides the villanelle form into “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The lyric is constructed on the classic model of rational argument: an initial proposition is supported by four equivalently weighted examples and then urged again in the conclusion. By an arbitrary grammatical accident, the imperative mood and the third-person plural present tense of regular verbs are the same; the first stanza of “Do not go gentle into that good night” is imperative, but the next four tercets are declarative, and yet the refrains do not alter. The concluding quatrain becomes imperative again, and yet the refrain does not alter. Every refrain is thus generically explicable according to the rules of argument and is at the same time syntactically appropriate, even apparently necessary. This highly logical structure of “Do not go gentle into that good night” doubles the air of order and mastery already present in the strict form. And Thomas, unlike Auden, does not attempt to loosen that strict form: the refrains do not vary, the meter is simple (if heavily-stressed) iambic pentameter, and the rhymes are perfect and masculine. In the magisterial recording of “Do not go gentle into that good night,” too, Thomas assumes an almost godly tone of stately authority that is hard to reconcile with reports of his showing up to a recording session with “bloated features, a cut eye, vomit on his clothes” (Davies 97).
0 Perhaps largely because of its exploitation of the grammatical accident that motivates and enables the refrains, “Do not go gentle into that good night” does not give the impression that order has been artificially imposed upon unruly disorder. In 1964, critic Harvey Gross admired the poem’s technical naturalness: “I can think of no other villanelle in the language which seems so little contrived,” he wrote (qtd. in Willis 226). Similarly, the lyric does not suggest that the fixed forms of civilized social behavior have been or should be imposed upon unruly emotion. The lyric instead makes rage in the face of imminent and inexorable death seem natural, reasonable, inevitable. (As, surely, it is.) In Thomas’s line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” there is even an echo of both the idea and the syntax of Empson’s “It is the pain, it is the pain endures.” The angry, painful order of the universe seems revealed, not imposed–and at the same time, the orderings of the villanelle come somehow to seem as natural, as given, as immortal as the fearful symmetry of tiger stripes.[ix]