A poem Dylan Thomas dedicated to his father, David John Thomas, a militant man who had been strong in his youth, but who weakened with age and by his eighties had become blind. The poem urges the older man not to give up and yield to the final ‘night’ of death. It is one of the most famous villanelles in the English language.
The rigid form, a villanelle, suggests the poet’s attempts to control his passionate emotions. It was first published in 1951, two years before the poet’s own death at age 39. For more on the villanelle structure see below.
An interesting comparison is Owen Sheers, another Welsh poet, who praised his grandmother for the opposite — her peaceful acceptance of death — in his poem On Going.
A villanelle is a poetic form with nineteen lines, a strict pattern of repetition and a regular rhyme scheme. It comprises five three-lined stanzas or tercets, and ends with a quatrain, or four-lined stanza.
The first and third lines of the opening stanza are repeated in an alternating pattern as the final line of each next stanza. The two repeated lines then form the final two lines of the entire poem.
The rhyme scheme requires the repeating lines to rhyme, and for the second line of every tercet to rhyme. The rhyme scheme forms the pattern ABA, ABA etc till the end, where the last stanza is ABAA.
The metrical rhythm is broadly iambic pentameter, that is five metrical feet or iambs per line, where a iamb is made up of one unstressed followed by one stressed syllable. The effect is solemn and measured, as suitable for the subject of this poem.
The overall effect is satisfying for its mathematical completeness. It lends itself to emphatic, strong themes.
Language and Imagery
The dominant metaphor is of ‘that good night’ as a euphemism for death. The ‘dying of the light’ is also a metaphor for death. Other metaphors derive from the idea, so ‘blind eyes’ and ‘blaze like meteors’ in the penultimate stanza pick up the theme of darkness and light, binary opposites —positive and negative.
Two key words convey the essence of the poem, the imperative form of the verb ‘rage’ and its opposite ‘go gentle’.
The poem has been widely quoted and adapted in other media. The composer Igor Stravinsky based a piece called In Memoriam Dylan Thomas on its text; John Cale (one of the members of the Velvet Underground, and like Thomas a Welshman) adapted it into a song on a 1989 album. It is also central to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Dr. Brand (portrayed by Michael Caine) motivates explorers searching for a new habitable planet with the poem, turning Thomas’s song to his father into a fight song for humanity as it faces extinction. The poem is quoted in Matched, a young adult dystopia by Ally Condie….and so on.