BEYOND THE DYING LIGHT: A Christian Response to Dylan Thomas
By Rebecca Abdel-Nour
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is probably best known for his defiant villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, first published in 1951. The poem was written by Thomas as he faced his father’s impending death, and movingly explores the theme of mortality. Through stirring and visceral imagery, Thomas urges readers not to passively accept death when it approaches (“do not go gentle into that good night”), but to “burn and rave” as life wanes, and to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
The poem is Thomas’s most popular and continues to strike a chord with many modern readers. It is especially lauded by the secular world as a fiery assertion of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. But, as Christian believers, how might we engage with the poem? Is its core message entirely at odds with a biblical worldview? Or are the insights of the poem in some ways compatible with a Christian understanding of life and death?
I believe the latter is the case, as a careful analysis of some of the poem’s key ideas makes clear:
The Inherent Value of Life
The poem navigates a range of responses to the brute fact of death, passing through a range of archetypal perspectives – that of the wise, the good, the wild and the grave.
Each group has pursued different ends throughout their lives: the wise have pursued knowledge; the good: noble deeds; the wild: pleasure, and the grave: stoicism, but each find themselves resisting death with equal fervency as their time comes to an end.
The “wise”, for instance, are able to accept the inevitability of death in theory (“wise men at the end know dark is right”), but because they haven’t achieved all they set out to when it comes to contributing to knowledge and bringing about revolution (“their words had forked no lightning”), they find themselves incapable of “going gentle” into the night that awaits. There is a sense that they are pregnant with purpose and consider death a kind of cosmic interruption to the fulfilment of their plans.
The “good” are similar in that they, too, grieve unfinished business, though their focus is on the good deeds that were never brought into the world. If the voice of the wise is tinged with grief, the voice of the good is wistful as they lament: “how bright/their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay”. Their lives, it seems, were rich with meaning, and so it is with grief that they face the fact that not all of their plans will be realised.
Though they go about it in different ways, both groups (the wise and the good) are characterised in the poem by a fierce and relentless passion for life, and all the meaning and purpose it offers. In other words, life, Thomas reveals, is infinitely precious, and all the more so because of its brevity. In my book, this is a bracing and life-affirming philosophy, more than capable of jolting us out of the complacency that sometimes settles upon us as we go about the daily grind, and into a fresh appreciation of the gift of life we have been given.
Impending Death Brings Perspective
Thomas’s poem also reveals how an awareness of death can sharpen our perspective as it pertains to matters of life.
The “wild” in the poem are depicted as those who have single-mindedly followed their desires with abandon, and without awareness of the greater impact of their lifestyle on the world around them. But as they sense death drawing near and take stock of their lives, they experience an interesting shift in perspective: “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight/ and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way”. It is only when they consider their mortality that the wild learn that their actions have had flow-on effects of grief. With this realisation, they gain a truer and fuller picture of their lives. And like the wild, the “grave” are also depicted as “[seeing] with blinding sight”, once face-to-face with death.
I don’t think Thomas’s point here is that we can only conduct an accurate assessment of ourselves on our deathbeds, but he does show how an awareness of our own mortality can make us wiser. Clearly, this insight is not at odds with a biblical perspective:
In Psalm 90:12, the psalmist’s prayer is for the Lord to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. It seems that good judgment comes, at least in part, when our values, priorities and decisions are weighed up in light of our own mortality. Thomas’s poem reminds us that life is brief. Our mortal light does fade. We, like the psalmist, need the grace to “number our days” in order to learn to live wisely.
Rage: an Appropriate Reaction to Death
In his book On Death pastor and bible teacher Timothy Keller makes the point that death is inherently at odds with God’s design for human beings, who were made not to die, but to last; communing with God forever. Keller elaborates: “Death is the Great Schism, ripping apart the material and immaterial parts of our being and sundering a whole person, who was never meant to be disembodied, even for a moment”. It follows, then, that anger and grief may well be fitting responses to an evil that humans weren’t intended to face.
An interesting example of this can be found in John 11: the account of Lazarus’s death and resurrection. John makes it clear within the chapter that Jesus shared a close relationship with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. In fact, when his disciples informed Jesus of Lazarus’s illness, they did so with the words, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When Jesus returned to Bethany and met with Lazarus’s grieving family, the gospel account describes him as being “deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. Intriguingly, even though Jesus surely knew that he would soon after resurrect Lazarus from the dead, he wasn’t coolly restrained, emotionally contained or dismissive of the emotions of those who grieved. Rather, in the face of death in all its devastation, Jesus’ response was one of grief, anger and indignation. The gospel writer speaks of Jesus’ flowing tears and raised voice as he joined with the mourners at the tomb.
Jesus’ response surely points to the fact that death is inherently grievous and the epitome of our brokenness. To treat death as merely a benign bridge into another realm, is to deny one of the hardest realities that we as humans face. One could make the case that Jesus himself was moved to “rage against the dying of the light” – not only in the case of Lazarus, but more broadly in his self-giving sacrifice which would ultimately nullify death altogether.
But of course, for the Christian believer, the anger or despondency we may feel about death, whether our own or that of loved ones, is ultimately reframed by our faith. To quote Keller once more, “when we grieve and rage in the face of death we are responding appropriately to a great evil. But Christians have a hope that can be ‘rubbed into’ our sorrow and anger the way salt is rubbed into meat”. The hope that infuses our grief is of course the hope of the Resurrection.
In his epistle to the Thessalonians (4:13), Paul urges the early church: ‘‘we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
The apostle Paul thereby acknowledges the reality and importance of grief, while reinforcing that, for the believer, grief is distinctively different. The Christian holds that as we have died with Christ, so we will be raised with Him on the last day. Death is not the end. Jesus’ atonement takes away the “sting of death”.
When speaking with Martha after her brother’s death, Jesus offered reassurance with these words, which are just as applicable for us today: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die" (John 11:25-6). Ultimately, death has been eclipsed by resurrection life.
And so, to return to our initial question – should we Christians raise our voices in rage against the dying of the light? I would argue that we should indeed allow rage a voice, but never let it have the final word. For those in Christ, the last word must always belong to hope.
Rebecca Abdel-Nour is a secondary school English and humanities teacher, fledgling writer, and the social media editor for inScribe Journal. She is a wife and mother, a postgraduate student in Writing & Communication at Tabor College, and enjoys contemplating literature and spirituality from her garden – toddler and dog in tow.