Death and Poetry

¡Hola! Everybody…
I digging through some old files and I came upon a paper I had written years ago – probably an English 101 course. Sometimes I find it strange when I run across something I’ve written and I’m confronted by my own “voice.”

On another wholly unrelated note, I’m preparing to appear on a radio show (on Pacifica’s WBAI) as a panelist on the topic, “Latino/s and Criminal Justice.” I’m not clear if the show will be taped to air on another date, or if it’s going to air live. In any case, if you live in the NYC metro area, I would encourage you to tune into Eddie Ellis’ show, On the Count, his focus is on criminal justice issues and if you think it doesn’t affect you, think again.

(click here to visit On the Count’s page)

* * *

-=[ Thanatos and Poetry ]=-

In the two poems, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas and, Because I Could Not Wait For Death, by Emily Dickinson, we find two distinct treatments of the same theme, death. In the former, Thomas uses an elaborate form and rhyme scheme along with radiant imagery and metaphor to present us with a passionate plea to cling to life; while in the latter poem, Ms. Dickinson composes, with the use of four quatrains written in a predictable, almost laid back rhythm, a kinder, gentler look at death.

Thomas employs an intricate verse form known as the villanelle that a careless first reading may find excessively ornamental. However, upon reading this piece aloud, one finds that the form serves to create a grand dramatic effect. For example, lines one and three are repeated alternately in the following tercet’s third lines, rhyming with the respective first lines, creating the same effect that a classical music composition would produce. Consequently, Thomas creates an intensely lyrical, musical pathos that adds to the dramatic aura to the theme of this poem, which could be summarized as: “hang on to life, man!”

By contrast, Emily Dickinson employs a structure and rhythm that could not be any more different in tone and temperament. Missing here is the elaborate rhyme and scheme of the Thomas villanelle. Instead, we find a seemingly spartan six quatrains that do not rhyme. There is a more subtle approach here, for Dickinson does not want to portray the more grim aspects normally associated with death. The first quatrain contains an eight syllable first line, a six syllable second line, an eight syllable third line, with the fourth line composed of eight syllables. The poem proceeds in this fashion for the next two quatrains, lulling us with a steady, secure rhythm, somewhat akin to the rhythm one may experience riding in a horse-drawn carriage like the one mentioned in line three. When we come upon the fourth quatrain (line 13), we discern a change in structure and mood. The change in rhythm is more pronounced, while the change in mood is more subtle:

Or rather – He passed us-

The Dews drew quivering and chill-

For only Gossamer – my Gown-

My Tippet – only Tulle

For the first time we encounter, if briefly and ever so subtly, the more harrowing aspects of death: the burial gown and shawl. However, even this look at our transience is given a soft treatment, the “gossamer” gown and “tulle” shawl imagery being soft in nature: perhaps Death has a gentle touch. The change in rhythm accompanying this subtle introduction of our mortality has the effect of a pause — a momentary reflection. Continuing, the last two quatrains of the poem go on in the same fashion as the first three, adding to the effect that one has been riding in a carriage, paused for a moment, only to proceed on one’s journey.

Another significant difference between these two poems is in the contrasting use of rhetorical devices that the respective authors implement to state their primary messages. Dylan Thomas, whose overarching message is about the preciousness of the gift of life, implements rich imagery and metaphor to execute his goal. He uses the night and the “dying of the light,” as a metaphor for death. Radiant imagery such as, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day,” and “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,” vividly convey the impotent anger one feels at confronting the powerlessness one experiences when facing death. When he tells his father curse and, “bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night” (lines 17,18), you get a sense of the passion this man feels for life and how he wanted desperately to transmit this powerful emotion to his dying father.

Dickinson, on the other hand, whose message is that inevitability of death requires that we all eventually must accept our fate, uses personification to portray death as a man of “civility” (line 8) who “knew no haste” (line 5). Through Dickinson’s deft use of symbolism such as the carriage (line 3), immortality (line 4), the setting sun (line 12), and eternity, we are able to take a ride and come upon the patient, “kindly” face of death.

We have two poems and two entirely different treatments of the same theme. One poem is elaborate in structure, passionate in its desperation and message. The other is sedate, subtle, almost too kind. It is enlightening to note that the Thomas piece was, in actuality, written for his dying father. On a personal note, this was a poem I shared with my own father who was at the time suffering from a disease that would eventually take his life. . Having had the opportunity of hearing this piece read by a professional actor and understanding its structure, I will risk over dramatization by stating that sometimes I can hear the wind howl when I read this poem. Dickinson, diametrically opposed, beckons us on a ride that gently brings us towards the end, “towards eternity” (line 24). She teaches us about acceptance and peace; a stark contrast to Thomas’ angry, desperate rail against the injustice of fate.



Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night
(click here to hear an audio clip)

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.
— Dylan Thomas

Because I could not stop for Death
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.


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