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Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night?

As you might imagine, in 20 years of researching what it's like to grow old and writing about it for nearly 13 years, I think about death and dying now and then.

At the most pratical level, we who are still above ground have a lot more to arrange in regard to our dying than the people of our parents' generation and earlier.

In additon to wills, we have living wills, durable powers of attorney, DNRs or POLSTs or MOLSTs, advance directives, health proxies, instructions, perhaps, for cremation or burial or some combination of all this paper.

I had one friend who even left instructions for her memorial lunch including guest list, food to be served, music to be played (she made the tape herself) and which photographs of her to be displayed.

The legal documents are important particularly, in my case, the ones related to what level of care I want toward the end. It is unnerving, however, to know that even with properly executed documents, it is questionable whether relatives and health professionals will honor them (more about that another day).

As I told my new primary care physician recently, our job together is to get me to my demise as close to as healthy as I am now – which is generally good - and without a drawn-out medical drama at the end.

26_dylan_thomas175What brought this to mind over the weekend was Maria Popova's weekly Brain Pickings newsletter with a short (for her) section on Dylan Thomas's most famous poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

An editor Popova quotes says it is read at two out of three funerals. It's hard to believe that number (at least by the funerals I've attended) but the point he makes is not wrong: that since its English publication in 1952, the poem has taken on the force of immutable directive; the only acceptable way for anyone claiming membership in the human race to approach death.

The first stanza says it all:

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.

Metaphorically, as all the critics and pundits tell us, the poem extolls the tenacity of the human spirit and the obligation to live at all cost, but I don't buy it. At the close of my day, when the light is dying, I will not burn or rave or rage. I want to go gentle.

That was the point of my post a couple of weeks ago about how my great Aunt Edith prepared for her death and how I would like to emulate her:

”Over time it felt to me as if, perhaps, interest in her own world and in the world at large was diminishing because they were becoming fuzzier, less clear - metaphorically, not physically - and she paid less and less attention.

“Her time to leave was coming nearer and she did that in 1984, at age 89 after what was to my eyes, decade long period of preparation, an unwinding if you will, and a letting go of her attachment to the world.”

None of what I am saying takes anything away from power of Thomas's beloved poem. I would just like it not to be the only culturally acceptable way of death it has become.

In her post, Maria Popova included a video of Dylan Thomas reading his poem. I checked around YouTube and there are a lot of different recordings. I prefer this one by Richard Burton whom, I used to say, I would listen to reading the phone book. (You can read along with the text below the video.)

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.

* * *

Several times I have pointed you toward the Indivisible Guide – written by a volunteer group of former Congressional Staffers - as the best, smartest, most definitive guide about how to resist President Trump and the Republican Congress.

The guide is free to download and they now have a printable version that won't use up so much printer ink as the original.

Already, thousands of local groups have been founded. You can find one near you here or start your own.

The group is now publishing an Action Calendar – what actions to take when. Bookmark it and check back regularly. It is a good way to keep national resistance actions throughout the country on topic together on the same day.

And, a couple of days ago, the group published its first video:


About 6 years ago, when I was in a nursing home and not feeling well, I thought about death a lot. I even went so far as to pre-arrange my funeral, even paying for it. I now know where I'm being buried an the box I'm going there in.
Also, at that time, I thought I would like to go out kicking and screaming to the last. I wanted to fight death as long as I could. Yes, I would not go gently into that good night.
However, now that my health and my lifestyle have improved considerably, the thought of fighting the inevitable seems less important.
Hopefully, when the time comes, and after all that can be done is done, I'll take death's hand and let it take me wherever it wants.

I agree with you: “At the close of my day, when the light is dying, I will not burn or rave or rage. I want to go gentle.” Physican assisted death is now legal in Canada and knowing it is an option has brought comfort to many of us. Someone very dear to me has recently used this option, and, as hard as it was to lose him, I fully support the decision. I enjoyed the article in Brain Pickings, but I find the PhRMA TV Commercial using Dylan’s poem deeply offensive.

My mother at 96 has had a card on the entry table for 25-30 years saying, "When Naomi dies call this number xxxxxx for cremation". She has outlived two or three cremation societies, and the number keeps changing!

I really appreciate the Resistance posting. I've joined the local Indivisibilitiy group and have visited my legislators' offices once so far, regularly call (often to full malboxes), email, and tweet. At least we're trying.

Love the succinctness of the How to Resist the Trump Agenda. Have been calling and e-mailing a lot, but can I really join a group??? Oh, noooooooooo........but maybe.

I LOVED Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," I was definitely going to rage and burn right up to the end. But with age and meditation/contemplation, I want to be healthy to the end, as Ronni mentioned.........and then surrender to whatever journey comes next. Babies come into THIS world crying, upset, they do not want to leave their home of 9 months. Then, after not too many years, they learn to struggle against the next big transition, in this culture, to fear death very much.

I agree. I hope to go gently into that good night. But before then I am going to RESIST. I have joined a local political action group in SC, and I have made so many calls to Senator Graham that we are soon to be BFF. Love the blog.

Gentle works for me too, although I have to tough it out to survive and care for my spouse with Alzheimers. Also I hope to be able to rage long enough to deal with Trumpism....

I want to go gentle.

Ronni, me too!

Remember when we all were kids, how our parents and grandparents used to talk about elder acquaintances with terminal illnesses. They would say, with a sigh of dismay, "He/she just GAVE UP."

What was weird was that they wanted us, their children, to GIVE UP IMMEDIATELY on any thoughts of rebellion, individuality and independence. (Doesn't happen, as any parent of teenagers knows.)

I thought then, and still do, that they had it backwards. The time to give up is when the fight is a pointless medicalized nightmare--not when you're full of energy, with tons of things to look forward to.

I can see "giving up" as realistic and a relief, and I hope to "go gentle."

I am sooo trying to do the right things(exercise and eat right) so my chances of having a good life and then quickly die is my final exit.

I sometimes fear though, that all this healthy living might prolong my life and create a slow trudge toward death and --that is not the plan.

Blitzkrieg --is the term that comes to my mind as we experience these first days of the Republican's takeover

Dear Ronni, (Defender of Us Silver Surfers) I'm with you. It may be ideal for MEN but as a member of the human race of WOMENKIND, I hope to and plan to transist with a smile of gratitude and joy at having lived a "long" life as best I could and in anticipation of Life to come. I wish you daily joy and a peaceful heart....Nancy

There's an ad on MSNBC evenings that began recently in which the opening lines are taken from Thomas' classic poem. It must not be meant for old folks with failing eyesight like me, since the graphic is a line of print, white on black that is too tiny to read. By the time I get the binocs on it it's gone, so I have no idea what it's about. I do know I resent it somehow. Perhaps it's because I last heard the voice of the man who recites the poem selling Nissans.

I want to go gentle, too, preferably at a time of my own choosing. Maybe I should solve two problems, Trump and assisted death, by moving to Canada.

I am ambivalent about telling this story. However, it does contribute to Dylan's poem and since it's a first hand experience with dealing with whether to rage or go gently I think it's relevant.

I am now in the process of recovering from another fall that was so painful and debilitating that my children and I thought it was to be my "good night" and I was fully determined to go gently. I accepted the fact that I have already been granted more years than I ever expected to have. I did not rage and knew that "No one gets out of this world alive" (Yogi Berra quote) and it was, surprisingly, my time. (The doctor had told my son that it could go either way.)

By this time I was on a narcotic pain killer and it may have distorted my thought processes, but I do not think so. Of course, my first reaction was anything to stop the pain and I just wanted it to be over.

But after that I started preparing for my demise. I gave my daughter final instructions on people to notify and items to give away to others, etc. (I thought I had taken care of everything with my medical power of attorney, living will, etc. but there were things I had not thought of and as they came to mind I was anxious to give instructions to my daughter.)

After I had taken care of every thing I could think of I was waiting for death to claim me. I told my children that I loved them and was proud of them. Then I dictated a letter of goodbye to my granddaughters and burst into tears. I think it took that long for it to hit me that I would be no more. And that was not something I had dealt with before. It surprised me.

I would love to tell you that I felt peace. I did not. It seemed to be chaotic and not at all how I had envisioned my death to be.

Obviously I lived and I am grateful for yet more time, but I hope my death is sudden when it finally arrives, as it will. I do not look back on my trial run with pleasure.

Got my assorted papers in order and my children seem to agree. Mostly about letting me go, nothing but pain control. In a perfect world, I'm hoping for a gentle, immediate exit, I would just like to set like the sun some summer evening and leave behind a gentle glow for the kinder. Too bad I can't write that up and make it stick.

Not quite two years past cancer surgery, I'm still dealing with a lot of anxiety. I was greatly cheered when Colo. recently approved an end-of-life options law ... until my daughter-in-law said she couldn't have voted for it. I'd forgotten she and my son became Catholics a few years ago. I assigned him my medical power of attorney years ago and now need to rethink all that. Plus, last week, some 30 hospitals in Colo. announced they would not honor the new law. I hope to die suddenly and painlessly in my sleep because right now anything else looks very complicated.

I'm inclined to think it's not we elders who "rage against the dying of the light" but our loved ones who can't bear to let go. Frankly that scares me.

Great post and comments. "Gentle" definitely would be my choice. I've said many times that spending my last hours in a state-of-the-art ICU hooked up to beeping machines that can't save me anyway is Worst Nightmare territory for me. I live in a death with dignity state, and when my time comes to die--if it doesn't come suddenly and I have a painful and/or gravely debilitating illness--I hope I meet the legal requirements. I appreciated Darlene's comments on her trial run. The concept of being no more is very sobering to contemplate.

However, I feel strongly that how I go into that good night should be determined by ME (and my husband if he outlives me), not by medical personnel who never knew me or by religious fundamentalists who think "life" must be preserved at all costs. I think we've done all the necessary paperwork; our cremations were arranged and paid for many years ago. (Haven't yet decided what should be done with my ashes, though--I need to do that.)

I'm glad to hear that at least a couple of other TGB readers are deeply offended by the MISuse of Dylan Thomas's poem. I'm confident that he didn't envision it being used as a sales pitch. Based on that ad, I would make a point of NOT buying that make of car (if I could afford a new car).

Enjoyed this post. Something I know I need to start thinking more about. My husband and I have a will, but that is about it. My parents were so prepared when they died. Us kids knew where they were going to be buried, the caskets had been chosen, the songs they wanted played at the services were selected, living will was current, and mom even had the foresight to write us each a love letter. At the time of their deaths, we all truly appreciated the fact that so much of this painful time was made easier because of their initiative.

I have been a Dylan Thomas fan since my high school years when I discovered a recording of Under Milkwood, with Richard Burton. I acquired my own copy a few years later, plus a collection of poetry, including Do Not Go Gentle, and the recording of A Child's Christmas in Wales, all magnificently read by Thomas. I am also offended by the use of his work in the PhRMA ad. They seem to have made a deliberate attempt to put the content of that ad into poem form, line by line, but not only is it not poetry, it feels as though they've co-opted someone else's for their own profit. We boomers do add up to quite a big cash cow.

My husband and I did our pre-pay years ago. Just have to pay to open and close the ground, wasn't in the contract then. 7 years ago we buried our son and told daughter we would pay for her cremation and burial, we probably won't be here then. But I'm hoping I go gently done enough raging in 78 yrs. of life. :-)

While I appreciate the work to hold Congress feet to the fire I cannot attend public meetings now or find offices to visit. Phone call or email is about all I can do and since all my church friends seem to be Republican or non political I can't enlist their help.

PiedType's warning about hospitals and even relatives who will not honor end of life directives is extremely important. The new nominee for SCOTUS has written a book against aid-in-dying. He is also for "freedom of religion," by which he means Hobby Lobby shouldn't have to cover contraception (he wrote the opinion in that case). But what the rest of us need and have to demand, is freedom FROM religion and from the kind of people who want to dictate our last days. As an ex-Catholic, I know what they want: they want you to suffer, so you will turn to God and atone for your presumptively sinful life. They can't stand the idea of human autonomy, which is seen as rebellion against God. The power of Catholic hospitals is growing through various mergers, like those in Seattle where I live. Something has to be done, but physicians are as bad as Catholics in most cases, insisting on prolonging life at almost any cost.

Thomas' poem read at 2 out of 3 funerals. Hmmmm...As a mortician for a quarter of a century at 12 different funeral homes in various towns, I don’t recall ever hearing this poem used for any services, however, Dylan Thomas did not agree with the Christian view that death is all in God’s hands and that one should accept death and not inquire into it or try to avoid it. He opposed the dishonesty of this quiet giving-in to death as if death is good. As a poet he turned his inquiry into death into metaphors which allow wonder, paradox and mystery and get rid of traditional limitations which promotes insight into death. "Death is all metaphors."

I had a look at the video, and am impressed and comforted to know there are groups that are 'on watch'. The resistance is alive and well—how great that they are well-organized as well!

I admit I do think about dying once in awhile. And like most of you, I hope I die in my sleep but just not too soon. My children know I want to be cremated and I have a will. But after reading your post, I may have a few things I need to button up. Thanks for the post.

"Dying is absolutely safe"
Ram Dass

I too want to chose my own end at my own time. I fear being kept alive when I want to go more than anything!
My SIL is my health proxy and feels the same way, but there can be problems as has been expressed. Why oh why do religious people think they have a right to control the rest of us? They can chose as THEY want, but it is terrible and so unfair that we can't! Hospitals are probably afraid of lawsuits.

I asked a lawyer in my state(not a right to die) if it was legal to refuse food and water. He said yes as long as you can communicate this and are deemed in sound mind. But the minute you become incoherent, no matter your living will, they can and will force feed you and hydrate you.

I also feel advanced dementia should be considered terminal because it is. I'm talking late stages where the person has already "gone."

If you have the money and some capabilities left, you can go to Switzerland or there's always plain old suicide. It's a crime in this country that we let this right wing fundamentalism rule everyone else. And you can bet it's gonna get worse with the Repubs!

When my fiance died almost 17 years ago, I thought about death alot. I joined a grief support group so that I could talk about death. Friends & family couldn't hear me without looking startled. You know that line about walking in the valley of death? I was there for 2 years.

I thought Dylan Thomas' poem was a very masculine view of death? Thank you, Diane, for your insight into his poem.

At my age, I'm kind of tired of being angry. This doesn't mean I don't get angry. I am not going to stop resisting. But, as a personal choice, I prefer an alternative to anger.

Yes, I do want to go gentle into that good night.

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