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Mapping Your Retirement

Go Gentle Into That Goodnight?

category_bug_journal2.gif For more than a week I’ve been pondering the recent musings of Wally Blue (who blogs at The Resident Curmudgeon) about the Dylan Thomas poem most of us know so well:

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.

I hadn't known, until Wally explained, that Thomas wrote the poem for his father who “was strong and fierce in his youth, but had become weak and gentle in old age,” and I wonder now at the arrogance of a son claiming to know what's best for the old man.

Youth, filled with ancient, hormonal urges to carve out and then battle to maintain a place for itself in the world, is built for burning and raving. And having no experience yet at the waning of energy that gradually comes over a body as the decades pile up, youth does, likely, interpret the gentling of elders as giving up - and no one likes a quitter. Hence, "rage, rage."

But with Wally's bit of biographical perspective, the poem can be interpreted as Thomas’s mistaken idea of what he thinks, in youth, old age ought to be. It is impossible, when we are young, can take the stairs two at a time and still have dragons to slay, to imagine settling into the dying of the light.

I don’t believe that means we cannot or should not rage against inequities and mistakes of our government, for example, or misguided leaders and in fact, our experience allows us to see them with more clarity than young people. But I am coming to think now that we, the elders, are better suited to being guides, pointing the way while leaving the passion and action to still-energetic younger folks. That way, we have the time and space for the more natural talents of age…

…as Wally eloquently explains them:

“As elders of the tribe older men need to be strong, yet gentle pillars for their grand kids to lean on. We are the story tellers, the joke tellers, and the ones that can be depended upon to set aside our dignity for any silliness that will bring a smile to a toddler...

“So, as time goes by, I'm going to allow myself to go gentle in the area of approachability, vulnerability, and kindness, while maintaining my strength to act as a family protector, advisor and loyal friend. And when it comes time for me to leave the planet, I'll simply slip out the back door unnoticed.”


[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Fran aka Redondowriter nicely evokes 1950s America as she sets the stage for My First Kiss.]


Lillian Rubin refers to that poem in her book "60 On Up" with a somewhat different emphasis. Here is a quote from my review of her book in my blog "Never too Late!":

Lillian Rubin quotes the Dylan Thomas poem she originally planned to make the epigram of her book:

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.

However, in writing this book, she learned that "It’s one thing to ‘burn and rave’ at old age and another to do so ‘against the dying light.’" She came to understand "How much our fight against the ‘good night’ costs, how our fear of death imprisons us . . . and contaminates our life, how our denial of it closes us off from the full affirmation of the life we could be living."

The poem was all about Dylan. And not wanting to let go of his father who represented Dylan's youth in Dylan's memory. It's a hell of a realization to find yourself moving to the front of the line! And maybe, if he loved his father, he didn't want him to go. That would be in there too.

I am only 60 but appreciate Wally's use of the verb "go gentle" as appropriate to the lower energy levels my husband (70) and I are experiencing.

I have always loved the first line of that poem without giving it much thought. I think that poetry is often like good art; we interpret the meaning in ways that conform to our own understanding or beliefs. To me, the poem said that we shouldn't become jaded in our old age. I don't know whether Dylan Thomas was arrogant or not. Maybe he just didn't want his father to change because it frightened him.

You pose an interesting dilemma. My neighbor at 85 is a loving and kind person. Like all of us, she has invented a few tales to stay in the game . . . Increasingly, she is awakening to myriad ways her family uses her even now, and that she is complicit in maintaining an ancient pact (she made with the world) of almost never saying NO. . . or I WOULD LIKE. I encourage her to go for it, to take her turn at declining what she shuns and asking for what she wants. My encouragement is of no avail, of course. Reading your post, I wonder, whether my "support" is more selfish and mean than anything else. As physical energy ebbs, her emotional energy perhaps, does, too, and speaking her truths could be far too exhausting to take on. Am I like Thomas, urging on an elder what she simply cannot take on? I want to be a good friend, and maybe I am not. I wonder about this a lot.

It is so complicated. We come to old age with such diverse personalities, needs, and experiences that there are probably many whole ways to approach the end of life. I meet with groups of elder women to have conversations around the questions and concerns that we do not often speak about with others. Many share what they cannot with partners, children, friends about past abuse, tests of faith, sadness at the "dying of the light" Some rejoice, some rage, some accept, and some walk the delicate line between all of these approaches.

I think it's so important to give and receive uspport in the ways that feel right for you *and* the other. Like everything else in life, no one knows what it's like until they get there.


I know I am not sophisticated in the "Arts" but I have always thought that Dylan Thomas' poetry was very elusive and unclear.

In fact, I once told a teacher that his poetry sounded as if it had been written in crayon in a rubber room .

BUT, This one piece" Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night " is as clear as one could make it. There is no mistaking the fact that Thomas wanted to be sure that his father understood what he was saying to him.
Usually, DT couldn't care less whether or not you understood his poetry, but his father mattered to him and he wanted him to know how he felt. So he took pains to make himself clear.

Read his other poems and you will see what a psycho he really was.

So, this poem was really a letter to his father telling him that he didn't want to lose him and that he should do everything in his power to live a long life. Maybe, as Darlene pointed out, he was seeing signs that his father was getting old and it frightened him.

Re Ronni's comment that elders "are better suited to being guides," I can't resist posting this quote from Joan Halifax: “The wisdom that we need to solve our problems lies encoded in the depths of our unconscious minds, but it must be evoked by elders who reveal our potentials. Without realized models to evoke our archetypal depths, we are literally lost in the world. We have no map; we have no guide; we have no song; we have no Ariadne’s thread to lead us out of the labyrinth.”

I've always loved Dylan Thomas, but have never agreed with the philosophy behind this poem.

Strangely, I just finished reviewing Dr. Rubin's book as well and enjoyed her re-consideration of the poem.

The idea of aggressiveness being invariably admirable is much of the western culture.
By such an idea as the peaceful person being weak, what are we inherently defining for our future.

Is water weak?--that which overcomes all things in due time

From Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
8. Water
The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
Which flows in places that others disdain,
Where it is in harmony with the Way.

So the sage:
Lives within nature,
Thinks within the deep,
Gives within impartiality,
Speaks within trust,
Governs within order,
Crafts within ability,
Acts within opportunity.

He does not contend, and none contend against him.

Funny, I've been thinking about this poem quite often since my mother's death in May at age 90. Unable to walk, unable to express herself as a result of multiple strokes, racked with dementia, all she seemed to have left was rage, which she vented unstintingly on her caretakers. I often wonder if her rage was directed toward the "dying of the light" or at something in the life she was leaving behind.

I just went back and re-read the whole poem here: .As a whole, it sounds more as if it's about the regrets of the dying as well as being about a son's unwillingness to lose his father.
But its sense--"Rage, rage, against the dying of the light"--is what lingers. That injunction poses difficult questions in a time, unlike Dylan Thomas's, when that twilight between living and dying can be prolonged medically for a very long time. And, like others who have seen a loved one journey far into dementia, I find myself thinking that we need new ways to think about death and choices and life.

I know the poem, read it and took an entirely different meaning from it. My perspective was, live until you die and bring the same energy into your own death that you brought to your life.

The most gracious person I know died at 23 and if I can only go with as much courage, insight, class and wisdom that person had - I will have considered my life as lived well.

Death isn't an 'old person' disease, it is a step forward into the extent of what it means to live. Does being 2 months old at death any different than being 82? I don't think so. We carry with us at death what we brought with us at birth, nothing more nor less.

I have always had a different interpretation - to me, the poem has always meant don't give up without a fight. My mom was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease when my brother was only 2 years old and her doctor told her she would not live to see him grow to adulthood. She made a decision that she was not going to let this happen, armed herself with as much knowledge as she could and proceeded to control her condition for another 20 symptom-free years. She not only saw both me and my brother grow to adulthood and happily married, but she witnessed the birth of her first grandchild.

The poem has always reminded me of the way she approached her life. Thanks for starting such an interesting discussion Ronni!

I agree with the blogger who essentially suggested we project ourselves onto the meaning of DT's words (and other art,) thus we each may derive a different meaning -- what we need, want, is applicable in our own lives and within our experience.

Audrey, I wonder if your mother's rage and other dementia-type behaviors may be nothing more or less than a reflection of the dying or death of critical brain cells that would normally facilitate or moderate those less kind actions and words? We sometimes analyze our loved ones undesirable behaviors, even personalizing them, when the cause is simply neurological, chemical, hormonal -- may have nothing to do with thought, memory, relationships, etc.

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