Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night": Through "Lapis Lazuli" to 'King Lear.' (William Shakespeare, William Butler Yeats)

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Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" has been noted to bear the influence of and even echo W. B. Yeats, especially "Lapis Luzuli," and, secondarily via this poem, Shakespeare's King Lear. One scholar notes its "Yeatsian overtones" (Fraser 51); another judges Thomas's villanelle to have "much of the concentrated fury of expression which the poetry of the older Yeats contained, but ... more tenderness and sympathy" (Stanford 117), and goes on to say., citing "Lapis Lazuli," that "Yeats described the poet as one who knows that `Hamlet and Lear are gay'" (118). William York Tindall cites not only "Lapis Lazuli" but also Yeats's "The Choice" as sources (204). Another scholar seems to skip over Yeats entirely (though his own phrasing echoes line 1 of "Lapis Lazuli"), seeing the "Grave men/blind" tercet (which contains the injunction to "be gay") as "perhaps invok[ing] the Miltonic" (Tindall also mentions Milton 205) and the effect of the phrase "be gay" as "rather hysterical sentimentality" (Holbrook, Dissociation 53); of the earlier "Wise men/lightning" verse, however, he says "The images are merely there, histrionically, to bring in the phrase `forked no lightning' to give a Lear-like grandeur to the dirge" (52).

I would like to propose that "Do not go gentle into that good night" bears a much stronger and more direct connection to Shakespeare's play than is suggested by references to Yeats or to "Lear-like grandeur." I would like to propose that the attitudes towards death--or, more precisely, the attitudes towards how one lives in the face of impending death--that Thomas explores in this poem--the implied attitude his speaker attributes to his direct audience, and the one he urges be adopted in its place--are similarly explored in King Lear and dramatized in the characters of Gloucester and Lear. I also propose that the voice we hear in "Do not go gentle" may not be a directly lyric speaker but an obliquely drawn persona, that of Gloucester's son Edgar. Further, when read in the shadow cast by King Lear, the tone of Thomas's poem grows dark indeed.

"Do not go gentle into that good night" is addressed to Thomas's father, David John, known as D. J. According to biographer Paul Ferris, D.J. was "an unhappy man ... a man with regrets" (27); born with brains and literary talent, his ambition was to be a man of letters, but he was never able to advance beyond being "a sardonic provincial schoolmaster" in South Wales, feared for his sharp tongue (26-33). After his first serious illness, though--cancer in 1933--"A mellowing is said to have been noticeable soon after; his sarcasm was not so sharp; he was a changed man" (104). As he grew more chronically ill in the 40's, mostly from heart disease and with one of the complications being trouble with his sight, the mellowing intensified: As Ferris puts it, "It must have been [D. J.'s] backbone of angry dignity that his son grieved to see breaking long after, when he wrote `Do not go gentle into that good night'" (27), and the poem is "an exhortation to his father, a plea for him to die with anger, not humility" (259).

The poem was first published in November, 1951, in Princess Caetani's Botteghe Oscure, on consecutive pages with "Lament," a dramatic monologue spoken by an old man on his deathbed who recalls his rollicking youth and middle-age spent in the pursuit (and capture) of wine, women, and song, but who has married at last in order to obtain a caretaker, and must suffer pious comforting in his final, helpless days. (Bibliographic evidence suggests the two were also composed, or at least finalized, more or less simultaneously; Kidder 188.) In the letter to Caetani that contained "Do not go gentle," Thomas remarked that "this little one might well be printed with ["Lament"] as a contrast" (qtd. in Kidder 188).

As Ferris suggests, it would be difficult to over-estimate D. J.'s influence on his son: ". . . the pattern of [Dylan's] life was in some measure a response to D. …