Dylan Thomas's most famous poem, known by its first line "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," is also the most famous example of the poetic form known as the villanelle. (See "Rhyme, Form, and Meter" for an explanation of the villanelle.) Yet, the poem's true importance lies not in its fame, but in the raw power of the emotions underlying it. Thomas uses the poem to address his dying father, lamenting his father's loss of health and strength, and encouraging him to cling to life. The urgency of the speaker's tone has kept the poem among the world's most-read works in English for more than half a century.
Dylan Thomas was an introverted, passionate, lyrical writer (lyrical = a kind of poem or work that expresses personal feelings) who felt disconnected from the major literary movement of his day – the high modernism of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Thomas was born in Wales in the year that World War I began, 1914, and his reactions to the events of the two World Wars strongly influenced his writing. His first book of poetry made him instantly famous at the age of twenty. Thomas embraced fame in much the same way that another passionate poet, Lord Byron, had done two hundred years earlier – by adopting wild rock-star behavior and intense displays of feeling, especially in his public poetry readings.
Thomas was also known to be a heavy drinker. Sadly, only two years after writing "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" about his father's approaching death, Thomas himself died, probably from alcohol poisoning and abuse, although the exact details of his death are controversial. His premature death at the age of 39 is reminiscent of the early death of another Romantic poet, John Keats. Like Keats, Thomas died before he fully expressed his literary potential; but, also like Keats, he left behind a few enduring works that promise to last through the ages.
Imagine this: your team is down by an unbelievable number of points and there are only a few minutes left in the game. You've pretty much decided that you're going to head out there, stand around for a bit, and let it end as quickly as possible so that you can just go home. But then your coach pulls you aside and gives you a pep talk. You need to finish strong! Even if you can't win, go out there and put up a fight. Put your heart and soul into it! Even if you're on the verge of losing, you still need to play your hardest, because that's what great athletes do!
Sound familiar? Well, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" is like that inspirational coach's speech. In just the way that a coach encourages athletes to keep playing their hardest even when a loss is certain, the speaker of this poem encourages his father to fight the inevitability of death. Sure, the father has grown old and frail. Sure, he's definitely going to die. But that doesn't mean he should let himself fade away. The speaker wants him to wage a war against death, using all his strength and power as long as he can, even when things are completely hopeless.
So, if you've ever given your best when you knew it was useless, or you've known someone who has, or if you are disturbed and frustrated by the way that death comes to everyone – then, yes, this poem is for you.