The child crept closer to the strange bed. So many bizarre machines and tubes. Her mother was crying, but her mother’s mother was dying. The child doesn’t know what to think, it this good or bad? Her mother said it was good, that Grandma had been sick and this will make her suffering end. But if this is so good, why is everyone crying? This is the scene in many children’s lives that cause them to begin pondering the importance of death. Some children never stop wondering about it, and as adults write poetry to help explain the complicated emotions associated with death. Two such poems are “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. The two poems use very different tones to form similar arguments, while varying slightly in their use of family roles and views of aging and death.
The different tones used in these two poems each compliment its own respective argument. In “Ulysses”, the tone is one of acceptance and perseverance while in Thomas’s work, the tone is rebellious and commanding. Acceptance and perseverance are perfect moods for Tennyson’s argument which is that while aging and death are a part of life, you shouldn’t let your age be an excuse to stop being active. It is also fitting because the speaker in this poem is an older man, weak and frail. Similarly, Thomas’s argument is that there is no excuse for giving in to death instead of fighting it. His tone, which commands rebellion, helps to emphasize the importance of this argument and comes from the youthful energies of a son who is emotional over the expected loss of his father . Both of these poems try to convince us to look at old age as not merely being close to the end, but as a stay of execution. They want us to celebrate life up to it’s last moments.
Even though their arguments have much in common, their use of family members differs. Tennyson’s poem is narrated by a dying king who is leaving his son to rule in his place. He states in the poem that he loves his son, but that the son has new ideas that will have a great affect on the kingdom after the King is dead. He says of his son, “Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere/ Of common duties, decent not to fail/ In offices of tenderness… /He works his work, I mine” ( Tennyson p. 409). He is saying that it is good that his son will succeed in his goals, even if he does not share them.
In Thomas’s poem, however, the speaker is the son rather than the dying father. It is not until the end of this poem we find out why the speaker is so adamant about speaking against death. But he does not give much detail. He merely says, “And you, my father, there on the sad height,/ Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray”(Thomas lines 16-17). This line speaks to the variety of complicated feelings that the death of a loved one can invoke.
Death, or the realization that it is coming soon, also produces complicated feelings in the person who is facing it. The two authors of these poems offer advice to the elderly saying that you shouldn’t give up on live before it is actually over. In Tennyson’s poem the message is that even “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,” ( Tennyson p. 410) older people should lead rich lives and savor every moment, because to breathing does not constitute living. For the speaker of this poem, death is an inevitable end, but he is not going to sit around and wait for it.
The speaker in Thomas’s poem, however, sees death as an enemy that must be met bravely, without regret or self-pity, and fought against. Instead of seeing old age as a physical deterioration that can be dealt with, as Tennyson portrayed it, Thomas’s speaker thinks that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day” ( Thomas line 2). It should be a grand finale rather than a quiet end.
The arguments in these poems are derived from our most basic survival instincts. It is by far more pleasing to live out your last years actively, challenging yourself each day to gain knowledge and experience while you still have the opportunity to do so, then to sit and sulk and wait for death to come get you. We are all afraid of death; it is part of the instinct to stay alive. Yet we are also intrigued by it because it is one of the few mysteries we will never be able to solve. Even though poets can put their feelings into words that move us toward an understanding, they know little more than the small child watching her bed-ridden grandmother sink into a permanent sleep.
Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “Ulysses”. Literary Culure: Reading and Writing Literary Arguments. L. Bensel Myers. Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing: 1999.
Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. Class Handout. http://www.pressroom.com/~tae/gentle.htm.