A Conversation with Two Hospice Nurses
So often I am reminded how great literature accurately mirrors the true complexities of real human struggles. Recently, I had an interesting conversation with two longtime hospice nurses, Nancy and Debbie, about their experiences with people nearing death and the family members who cared about them. Most often, family included the adult children of the patient, who not surprisingly had a very different attitude toward the death that was approaching than the patient who was in the act of dying. These women’s report from the front lines between life and death made me think immediately of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” As I read this poem, “Do Not Go Gentle” portrays the same differing attitudes toward death that these hospice professionals observed in patients and their families.
Debbie recounted her experiences this way: “I can’t tell you how often I’ve had this conversation: An adult child of the patient will say to me, “Dad’s just giving up! Why doesn’t he fight?” I try to explain that there’s a difference between ‘giving up,’ and ‘accepting.’ ‘Giving up’ means a person still has some choices, some way to change what happens in their life. But when there is nothing that will change anything, and a person has reached the end of life, accepting this situation is a good, not a bad thing.” Nancy nodded, saying her experience had been similar.
Is “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” Advice for Everyone?
Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” (click here to read it) focuses on this same end-of-life time experienced by my friends’ patients and their families. Through all the first five stanzas, the speaker, possibly Thomas himself, has some strong words for people nearing the end of life: When your time comes, he exhorts, don’t die quietly, but fight death to the last breath! This plea sounds so much like the relatives of the dying who wanted to see their loved one fight death, not just “give up.” Through most of the poem, though, the speaker doesn’t appear to have a personal stake in the question as these relatives do. Only at the very end, in stanza 6, do we find out differently. As we shall see, that moment causes us to re-examine everything the speaker has said.
Before that point, we follow a general argument through the middle four stanzas that seems to be addressed to all people in general. The speaker argues why four very different kinds of people should not just die quietly, but ought to go down swinging.
- “Wise men,” despite knowing that “dark is right,” (presumably, knowing that death is right and inevitable) should still fight it, because “their words had forked no lightning.” That sounds like these wise men have not made the impression on the world that they might have, and should hang on to life to grab a last opportunity to convey their wisdom to the world.
- “Good men” should “rage, rage against the dying of the light” because they see that their deeds were “frail.” They should try to set more of their good intentions “danc[ing]” in the world’s “green bay,” that is, to accomplish more good in the world.
- “Wild men” realize that they are dying too soon, having “grieved [the sun] on its way” through high living or destructive behaviors. Presumably, they should fight death to try and reclaim more of the time they wasted.
- Finally, “grave men,” or overly-serious people, see “with blinding sight” that they have worried about the wrong things, missing their opportunities to enjoy the real beauty of life and to be happy.
All four of these kinds of people have just realized there are important things they still have not accomplished in their lives. How terrible it is to die just at the point when you are receiving life-changing epiphanies!
Rage Like Lear?
It’s interesting, though, that the speaker in Thomas’s poem doesn’t exhort people to hang on just so they can accomplish a few more things. He wants them to get really angry, to outright rage that they are being asked to die. Why would he want that? Critic Mark D. Cyr published an excellent article in 1998 in which he traces the echoes in “Do Not Go Gentle” to Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” and especially to Shakespeare’s play King Lear.1 Cyr makes a convincing argument that Thomas had these works in mind as he composed this poem, especially King Lear.
In the play, the aged King Lear eventually loses everything that most people believe makes life worthwhile—his power over others and even himself, his family, along with any possibility of setting right his mistakes with them, almost all his friends, his fine clothes, reliable food and shelter, his kingly or fatherly identity, even his sanity. Despite all his loss and suffering, Lear is heroically defiant, raging not just at his own fate, but at the unfairness that death should be the fate of any human. Is this kingly defiance what Thomas wants from every dying person, especially since it can’t stop death from coming? Why would he? We might also ask why some relatives of the dying are so disconcerted when their loved ones seem to be accepting their deaths gently, to be disconnecting too early from the world and from their earthly relationships.
Stanza 6: We Learn that This is Personal
Now we can note the stunner in the poem’s last stanza that makes us completely reconsider what has been going on in the poem up to this point. In stanza 6 we learn that Thomas is not speaking generally at all, but most personally. He is speaking to his own dying father who is wavering on the “sad height,” presumably meaning that he is at the point of death. That puts Thomas exactly in the position of the adult children of hospice patients who observe their parents “giving up” as they approach death.
Like these grieving children, Thomas does not want his own father just to give up; moreover, he seems to want this for his own sake at least as much as for his father’s. His father might be fading and acquiescing in his own demise, but Thomas is not ready to give up a living connection with his father. He wants something more from him–it could be anything really, whether curse or blessing. Either one would be an expression of his father’s living personality in this world where Thomas can experience it directly. Likewise, grieving relatives at the side of the deathbed must find it excruciatingly difficult to acquiesce in the coming loss; a sign of fighting would be a sign the loved one is not yet gone.
The speaker in “Do Not Go Gentle” seems to have another issue. He seems to feel he has unfinished business with his father. Before his father passes away, the speaker would like him to offer some closure, some final comment on their relationship. The speaker doesn’t seem to be getting that. In his argument throughout the poem, he mentions different types of men who all have different reasons to fight death. But they do have one reason in common: they have unfinished business in their lives. Thomas exhorts each kind of person to try to finish some of it. Perhaps he is saying the same thing to his father.
Discussing “Do Not Go Gentle” in classes with many thoughtful students over the years has long led me to interpret this poem not so much as literal advice to people on how they should behave when dying. Instead, this poem enacts, through a process, the personal, human feeling about how hard it is to watch a parent fade away, especially without some final word on the meaning of their relationship.
Rage? Perhaps, but Mostly, Grieve
We certainly can read this poem as a strong, general exhortation that all people should fight death to the last breath, either to accomplish one last good thing or merely to register their objection to Fate to this personal violation that death entails. Thomas does indeed seem to cherish a Lear-like resentment against death. What an inappropriate fate for humankind! The unfairness of it seems to call for rage rather than gentle acquiescence.
But if we also read this poem as a presentation of the feelings of a son watching his father die, we can perceive a different observation about life and death: how hard it is for people who are not actively dying to imagine any other reaction to death than anger, fear, or resentment. Perhaps we must come right up to the sad height ourselves before we can understand what accepting death really means. For whom is this height really sad? For the dying person, or for those who are left behind? This poem seems to make the case why death is sad and enraging for dying people, but at the end of the poem we can see that the emotions portrayed are more those of the speaker than of the dying parent. When the speaker pleads with his father, “Rage, rage!” what he might really mean, even subconsciously, is “Don’t leave me.”
For more background about Dylan and this poem, visit this article on Brainpickings.org.
1Cyr, Marc D. “Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’: Through ‘Lapis Lazuli’ to King Lear.” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, vol. 34, no. 2, 1998, pp. 207-217. EBSCOhost. Web.
Lear: By Anonymous (Galerie dramatique) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Template:PD-1923.