Conclusion to Chapter Four
0 “Do not go gentle into that good night” only just made it into the 1952 edition of Thomas’s Collected Poems: Thomas decided at the last moment that the villanelle should replace a poem titled “Paper and Sticks” (Letters 839).[i] The American edition of the Collected Poems came out in March of 1953, and Thomas died on November ninth of the same year, in New York, from a combination of asthma, alcohol poisoning, and a medically-administered overdose of morphine (Davies 94). Some time in that same year of 1953, probably before Thomas’s death, Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” was published in the anthology New World Writing IV. This eminent epigone with its memorable refrains (“I wake to sleep and take my waking slow / I learn by going where I have to go”) has come to be as much or more admired than “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There is little doubt that Roethke “picked up” the villanelle from his good friend Dylan Thomas, whether in person or from the appearance of “Do not go gentle into that good night” in the first edition of Thomas’s Collected Poems. Roethke’s bibliographer James Richard McLeod dates the manuscript of “The Waking” to June 25, 1952 (27).
0 A then-unknown college girl named Sylvia Plath also published a villanelle that year: her “Mad Girl’s Love Song” was printed in the August 1953 issue of Mademoiselle. Plath published another villanelle two years later in the New Orleans Poetry Journal (see Appendix II). Plath would later recount in The Bell Jar that in a non-credit chemistry course at Smith she “sat back enjoying the bright lights and the colored fires and wrote page after page of villanelles and sonnets” (40). Plath, too, in the wake of the notoriety that Dylan Thomas’s sudden death gave to his work, had speedily fallen under the spell of “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
0 The major poets of the mid-century period could and would have revived and revised the virelai or the triolet, no doubt, had one or two of them happened to produce one or two interesting treatments of either form, thus casually initiating a friendly challenge round. The sestina underwent a similar (though differently timed) revival starting with Ezra Pound’s “Sestina Altaforte”; interestingly enough, Elizabeth Bishop read Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity in 1936 and wrote her first sestina (“Miracle for Breakfast”) after noticing Empson’s attention to Sidney’s “Ye Goat-Herd Gods” (Fenton URL). There was nothing necessarily special about the villanelle, though of course its form did prove to be suggestive–but then all forms are suggestive. Philip K. Jason’s 1980 article “Modern Versions of the Villanelle” concludes that “the longevity and flexibility of the villanelle suggests that its form is near the center of basic experiential patterns,” but I prefer his less essentializing (and almost contradictory) assertion that some villanelles enable us to “glimpse the mood of a poetic era” (145). Jason’s article is based on seven major examples: Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle,” Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Roethke’s “The Waking,” Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” Levertov’s “Obsessions” (1959), Merrill’s “The World and the Child” (1962) and Tom Disch’s “The Rapist’s Villanelle” (1981). Jason’s observation that “the villanelle is often used, and properly used, to deal with one or another degree of obsession” is true of these villanelles, but not of the nineteenth-century villanelles he omits from his discussion (145). I would argue that theme does not inhere in form, as the mid-century modernists proved by their complete erasure of the villanelle’s previous “trifling” reputation.
0 After Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” the villanelle was firmly proved respectable. But it was still by no means common among poets, nor did scholars of poetry take much interest in the history or significance of the form–beyond, of course, the continued existence of brief definitions in handbooks. In the 1973 edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, for instance, only Empson’s “Villanelle” is annotated with an explanation of the form, even though both Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Roethke’s “The Waking” are also included. (Empson’s “Missing Dates” also appears.) Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” sports only a biographical footnote mentioning that the poem “was written during the final illness of Thomas’s father,” while Roethke’s “The Waking” appears without comment (726, 911, 758). Similarly, Paul Fussell’s well-known discursive treatise Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, originally written in 1965 and revised and republished in 1979, contains no reference at all to the villanelle–evidence that those scattered twentieth-century examples by Empson, Auden, Thomas, Roethke, the young Plath, and (by the second edition) Bishop had not made an indelible impression on the history of poetic form in general. Fussell does mention the originally foreign sestina in his chapter titled “The English Stanzas,” so the fact that the villanelle might not be considered an English form is not the reason for its omission.[ii]
0 The common, contemporary, emphatically postmodern villanelle was surely ushered in by Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” of 1976. With a full knowledge of the history of the villanelle, especially at mid-twentieth-century, we can see that one of the reasons “One Art” has been so influential is that it specifically and irrevocably demolishes the implicit modernist analogy between technical mastery of poetic form and psychological mastery of self and world:
0 Bishop’s villanelle shares the rational argument structure of “Do not go gentle into that good night”: the first tercet introduces a proposition, the next four supply illustrative examples, and the quatrain (in which a particular, individual addressee is revealed) restates and reasserts the original thesis. The important difference between “One Art” and “Do not go gentle into that good night,” however, is that by the end of “One Art” the poet has lost her own argument along with everything else. The poem begins with a seemingly confident “grave truth” that already subtly undermines itself with the casual contraction “isn’t,” a construction that Thomas would never have allowed. (“Don’t go gentle into that good night” is unimaginable.) The examples that the poet proffers in support of her argument are not equivalent to each other, as they are in “Do not go gentle into that good night”; instead they increase in affective significance until they threaten to overwhelm. Almost every technical feature of the poem is irregular except the bare bones of the villanelle structure: diction, meter, enjambment, rhyme, and even punctuation all heighten the sense that the poet’s relationship to language is distinctly nervous.
0 Bishop’s evocative “Verdigris” of 1950, though it did employ strong interstanzaic enjambments that were then new in the history of the villanelle, was technically and tonally aligned to a much greater degree with the mid-century villanelles of Auden and Thomas:
0 The refrains here assert a privileged truth that is not undermined by anything in the poem itself. And as in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” the poet interprets the lessons of art for the reader and comes up with a somber, faintly pedantic reminder of human mortality (“we get like that”). Bishop’s later “aviary villanelle,” with its polysyllabic feminine rhymes, may well have represented an effort to ironize the magisterial tone and form exemplified by “Do not go gentle into that good night,” but if so, Bishop judged the effort unsuccessful. Bishop’s eventual accomplishment, with “One Art,” was to call into serious question the possibility of imposing order on the disorder of human suffering. The implicit truth behind “One Art” might as well be that the masters of modern poetry at mid-century were frequently wrong about suffering.