This is a poem about the joy and sadness that comes with the flash of burning life soon blown out with nothing more than a sigh. It focuses on the sadness as those we care for go far too gently into that good night. Of those who left before their time.
As this poem was written specifically for Thomas’s dying father it is even more poignant in the emotional weight the words convey. This poem radiates with intensity, in particular, the verse beginning: “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight” is simply beautiful poetry.
Addressed to the poet’s father as he approaches blindness and death. The relevant aspect of the relationship was Thomas’s profound respect for his father, tall and strong in Thomas’s passionate mind but now tamed by illness and the passing of time. The acceptance of death and a peaceful rest afterward are pushed aside in favor of an ungentle rage so blind it almost mirrors the vigor of childhood frustration at the nature of things we are powerless to change.
Furthermore, the poem speaks as much of the loss of love and the feelings of one left behind as of death itself. The meaning of the poem stays shrouded in metaphors like the references to night as “good”. He acknowledged his father stood somewhere he had not, and perhaps saw what he could not.
Thomas was not ready to let go of such an important part of his life even though his father was facing an irreversible course, and Thomas’s grief was perhaps all the greater. His statement of this love and grief remains touching. Perhaps the feelings of his fading father should have been more important than his own rage.
These emotions seem to run unchallenged throughout the poem even though the style beckons structure and discipline within the theme of “night” and “light”. In the tercet’s Thomas gives examples of men who meet death differently yet alike. The first is “wise men,” perhaps philosophers. They know “dark is right” because they know what to look for at the end of life. In spite of their wisdom, however, they “do not go gentle” because their words “had forked no lightning.” This phrase has the force of a symbol suggesting that wise men had lacked the ultimate power of nature.
Thomas, therefore, seems to be saying that the wise men were not wise enough, that their words created no ultimate linguistic reality but vague speculation of death as a good thing. Subsequently, the good men of the third tercet permitted life to pass them by. The festive imagery of “bright /Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,” evokes a wonder world of joyful activities in contrast with the “frail deeds.” Why we wonder, do the good men regret the past just as the last wave goes by? As for the style, it is most definitely an elevated style of poetic diction within a villanelle format.
The term originated in Italy (Italian villanella from Villano: “peasant”); and later used in France to designate a short poem of popular character favored by poets in the late 16th century. Five tercets are followed by a quatrain, with the first and last line of the stanza repeated alternately as the last line of the subsequent stanzas and gathered into a couplet at the end of the quatrain. The stanza is repeated for dramatic effect and tone: “ Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. In this case, this particular stanza, gaining much of its impact from repetition and variation, paints a clear a definite picture of the author’s strong emotions.
And all this on only two rhymes. Thomas further compounds his difficulty by having each line contain about the same amount of syllables. The villanelle seems like a very regimented and difficult form; the effortless ease with which Thomas makes it appear adds clarity to the complex emotions describes in the poem.
The rhetoric is never jumbled or ruff, and always profoundly moving; the images are far-reaching, yet terribly true; the complicated rhyme scheme simply adds to the many dimensions of the poem. In conclusion, the events surrounding Thomas at the time do not make up all the characters of this poem.
As is often the case, this work stands on its own. It either speaks to one or not. But no matter what personal reasons inspired Thomas, the poem speaks to our need to make our lives count against our inevitable deaths. Though the theme is paradoxical, it declares to all: Live your life while you are actually dying. Do not accept death passively. Live intensely and resist death passionately. All the beautifully contrasting metaphors were Thomas’s way of gracefully asking his father not to leave him alone, in the dark.