Going Gentle to the Good Light

Today we have a special guest writer here at Humility and Doxology: my son, Joshua!

Joshua Sloan is a homeschool teen and rising Junior in high school. When he’s not reading Tolkien you can find him playing baseball, strategizing his next chess move, or listening to his extensive music playlists.

He recently finished an online literary analysis writing class with Kristen Rudd (which we highly recommend, btw, if you’re looking to outsource writing in your homeschool). I so enjoyed reading one of his essays that I asked if I could buy the rights to publish it online. 😉

It was especially meaningful to read as his mom since I have fond memories of him running the halls of our home as a small child proclaiming this particular Thomas poem at the top of his voice. (Poetry memory work for the win!)

(There’s another essay he wrote in this class on the dark forest motif in fairy tales that I may negotiate for later this summer. Let me know in the comments if this is something you’re interested in!)

Here is Joshua’s explanation of the writing assignment that led to this essay: “This was a paper I wrote for my writing class this year, in which I was supposed to explicate the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” I perhaps enjoyed my assignment too much and got a bit carried away, so I ended up synthesizing that poem and comparing it to another, Psalm 27. This is the result.”

“Going Gentle to the Good Light” by Joshua Sloan

“Do not go gentle into that good night,”
Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Psalm 27
A Psalm of David

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked came against me
To eat up my flesh,
My enemies and foes,
They stumbled and fell.
3 Though an army may encamp against me,
My heart shall not fear;
Though war may rise against me,
In this I will be confident.

4 One thing I have desired of the Lord,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to inquire in His temple.
5 For in the time of trouble
He shall hide me in His pavilion;
In the secret place of His tabernacle
He shall hide me;
He shall set me high upon a rock.

6 And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me;
Therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His tabernacle;
I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice!
Have mercy also upon me, and answer me.
8 When You said, “Seek My face,”
My heart said to You, “Your face, Lord, I will seek.”
9 Do not hide Your face from me;
Do not turn Your servant away in anger;
You have been my help;
Do not leave me nor forsake me,
O God of my salvation.
10 When my father and my mother forsake me,
Then the Lord will take care of me.

11 Teach me Your way, O Lord,
And lead me in a smooth path, because of my enemies.
12 Do not deliver me to the will of my adversaries;
For false witnesses have risen against me,
And such as breathe out violence.
13 I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
That I would see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.

14 Wait on the Lord;
Be of good courage,
And He shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the Lord!

“Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

These two sentences define the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas. They are the words of a son to his father, calling him to not give in to either blindness or death but to fight against it with all the strength left in him.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” is a villanelle, five tercets followed by a quatrain. Two repeated lines characterize villanelles, and it is these two lines which characterize this poem. Each line alternates a place in the final line of each of the tercets, and in the quatrain both make up the final two lines, giving the ending of the poem a great sense of fervor, and that is especially true in this poem. The point Thomas emphasizes by these lines is that death is an evil that leads to final Darkness. David in Psalm 27 provides a completely different outlook on life and what happens after death. In contrast to Thomas, who must rely on his own strength to deliver him, David trusts in God in the time of trouble, and God redeems him and brings him to His Holy City.

The first stanza of “Do not go gentle into that good night” introduces the poem, and contains both repeated lines, one at the beginning and one at the end: “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The long a vowel sound at regular intervals in the second line forces you to slow down and contemplate the anguish of the old man whose days will soon come to an end.

The next four stanzas of the poem are a series of examples of other men who will not go gentle into that good night but will rage against the dying of the light. The first group of people we see is the wise men. Interestingly, wise men “at their end know dark is right,” and yet they still do not go gentle into that good night “because their words have forked no lightning.” The metaphor shows what the wise men desire: to be remembered in years to come. This suggests that what Thomas references here as “wise men” are not so wise after all. If they were truly wise, not raging against that good night but recognizing that the night shines as the day, they would not rage against the dying of the light. No, they would rejoice in the coming of the Light. As David says with true wisdom:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; 
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom shall I be afraid? (New King James Version, Ps. 27:1).

Thomas then describes the “good men.” They are “crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay.” These “good men” are self-righteous, thinking solely of their own “frail deeds” and never once considering the great deeds, indeed the perfect deeds, of Christ Jesus. No mere man can earn God’s favor after the fall, and even our best works are but filthy rags in comparison with the Thrice Holy God. Yet we do not rely upon our own righteousness, but we stake our eternity upon another’s life, and another’s death: 

For in the time of trouble
He shall hide me in His pavilion;
In the secret place of his tabernacle
He shall hide me;
He shall set me high upon a rock (Ps. 27:5).

Third, the “wild men, who caught and sang the sun in flight, / And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way” are presented. These are those who find all their pleasure in material things, whether in far-flung primitive clans or among the very elite of high society. Investing all their time, energy, and resources in this life, they do not store up for themselves treasure in heaven. They searched for joy in this life, and at the end it slipped from their grasp: they learned too late that the only ones who can ascend to the hill of the Lord are those with clean hands and a pure heart. “And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me; / Therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His tabernacle; / I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord”  (Ps. 27:6) rejoices the psalmist, exalting in He who brings eternal joy to those who diligently seek Him.

Finally, we have the “grave men.” These solemn, dour men do not just rage, but “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The weight of their gravity does not prevent them from unbridling in every fibre of their being rage. A stark contrast to their apparent temperament, to be sure. Another raised up his voice to heaven once, but not in rage: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice! / Have mercy also upon me, and answer me” (Ps. 27:7). David raises his hands to the skies and pleads for mercy, in contrast with the “grave” men who shake their fists at God and fight him tooth and claw, more like wild men than grave. These will not go gentle into that good night. The others? David has the answer: “When my father and mother forsake me, / Then the Lord will take care of me” (Ps. 27:10).

The final stanza of ”Do not go gentle into that good night” is the words of one who is utterly hopeless: 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  

Nothing can be done against the dying of the light except rage. The harsh s in the second line even sounds like a curse against the night. At the last, Thomas loses heart. That is all Thomas’ worldview, a worldview without an end for man, allows for. David recognized that without the grace of God, there is despair:  

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
That I would see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.
Wait on the Lord; be of good courage,
And He shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the Lord! (Ps. 27:13, 14). 

What is “the land of the living” but where there is no death? The darkness does not have the last word! He shall surely bring us to the land of the living!

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; / Whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1).

Works Cited

Sproul, R.C., gen. ed. The Reformation Study Bible. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2016.New King James Version.

Thank you, Joshua, for allowing me to share your words!

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6 thoughts on “Going Gentle to the Good Light”

  1. Malinda H. McGill

    This is very helpful for when I reach that poem. I’ve always loved the passion of the poem but know it is wrong, and comparing it to Psalm 27 helps so much in seeing what the Christian has in store. (And verse 4 has been a favorite of mine for a while – mission statement!)
    I would love to see the forest/fairy tale essay. We are taking Angelina Stanford’s fairy tale class this summer, so it would fit in perfectly with our studies.

  2. This is so wonderful! Way to go, Joshua! I can only hope my son’s essays will be this *jackpot* when he is a teen!

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