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.
BBC Wales Resources on Dylan Thomas
Resources on "Do Not Go Gentle" and Dylan Thomas from the BBC, including a detailed multi-part biography.
Dylan Thomas Information at Poets.org
The Academy of American Poets provides a biography, texts of poems, and audio recordings related to Dylan Thomas (though he's not an American poet, of course).
Dylan Thomas and Swansea, Wales
This page, hosted by the Swansea, Wales local government, describes Thomas's connection to local Welsh culture and lists other resources.
The Official Dylan Thomas Home Page
This website, maintained by Thomas's son, gives biographical information and details of all Thomas's published works.
Thomas Reads "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"
Listen to Dylan Thomas reading his famous poem.
Rodney Dangerfield and "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"
Dylan Thomas's villanelle plays a crucial role in this scene from the movie Back to School.
Photograph of Young Dylan Thomas
See how the poet looked in his youth.
Portrait of Mature Dylan Thomas
This portrait photograph of Dylan Thomas was taken in 1945.
Dylan Thomas: The Biography
This recent biography by Paul Ferris explores the complicated web of relationships underlying Dylan Thomas's life.
Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices
If you like Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle, try his unusual play, considered by some to be his greatest work.
The Edge of Love, 2008
This recent biopic about Dylan Thomas mostly explores his love life.
Do Not Go Gentle, 2002
This contemporary Welsh film (original title Oed Yr Addewid) uses Dylan Thomas's poem as an inspiration as it explores issues of aging and rebellion.