Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” was influenced by William Butler Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” and William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ but the villanelle bears a stronger resemblance to Shakespeare’s play. The attitudes toward how an individual lives in the face of impending death, explored by Thomas, are similarly examined with the portrayal of Gloucester and Lear. 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. J. Thomas and his wishes. For the early books that Dylan Thomas read, the rhythms he absorbed, and probably for his obsession with the magic of the poet’s function, he was indebted to D. J. ” (283). Prominent among those “early books” read by Thomas are the works of Shakespeare.
In 1948 (and Thomas might have begun his, as usual, protracted drafting and revision of “Do not go gentle” in 1945, after D. J. suffered a nearly fatal illness; Tindall 204), Thomas wrote a journalist that D. J. ‘s “reading aloud of Shakespeare seemed to me, and to nearly every other boy in the school, very grand indeed; all the boys who were with me at school, and who have spoken to me since, agree that it was his reading that made them, for the first time, see that there was, after all, something in Shakespeare and all his poetry. . . ” (qtd. in Ferris 33; his ellipses).
That Thomas was familiar with and admiring of Shakespeare is, of course, no surprise, but his direct linkage of his father with Shakespeare, particularly at this point in time, is interesting, and he demonstrated more than familiarity with King Lear: In 1950, during one of his reading tours in America, he spent an evening with novelist Peter de Vries (who would later use Thomas as the basis for the poet Gowan McGland in Reuben, Reuben) and, among other conversational gambits, “declaimed some Lear” (de Vries, qtd.
in Ferris 233). That he was equally well-immersed in Yeats is verified by the fact that poems by Yeats were among those he performed on his 1950 tour of