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.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, Dylan Thomas’ best known poem, has become so familiar, and its refrain so popular, that quoting or reciting it runs the risk of triteness.  Certainly, the poet’s most famous line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” could come off as a bad commercial about burning life’s candle at both ends until the bitter end,  if it is over-quoted, out of context.  Yet we do a huge disservice to Thomas and to ourselves when we do not listen closely and critically to his particular protest against mortality that makes his poem a classic.  Grieving the impending death of his own father, Thomas almost howls, not against the inevitability of death, but against allowing one’s life to fade away quietly.  Old men, wise men, good men, grave men, his own father, should die as they lived:  full of power, passion, and rage.

Thomas, who encouraged his widespread reputation as a “roistering, drunk, and doomed poet,” died young in much the same way that he lived: exploding with poetic intensity and emotional energy.  He embraced in image and substance the almost stereotypical lifestyle of the tormented artist.  I suspect that when he wrote this poem to his dying father, he was also writing it to his very young self.

We can certainly identify with Thomas’ enraged protest, and that is what makes the poem great.  We would love to go out of the world full of energy, with a bang and not with a whimper.  Nevertheless, the poet’s perspective can easily degenerate into a kind of juvenile Hollywood-esque picture of dying.  As we eventually deal with our own mortality and the impending deaths of loved ones and friends, we experience too often what the late Sherwin Nuland expressed in his book, How We Die:  “For too many of us, the manner of death will prove to be beyond control, and no knowledge or wisdom can change that.”

Yet Nuland also teaches us that, “The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives.”  The Talmudic rabbis’ insights into Abraham as an old man approaching death underscore this very Jewish wisdom beautifully.  Genesis 24 opens by describing Abraham as a zakein ba ba-yamim, an old man advanced in years, who God had blessed in all things. Our sages were struck by this redundancy of language:  if a person is old, we already know that he was advanced in years, so why does the Torah need to tell us this twice?  Through a variety of verse interpretations, they argued that zakein, an old man, refers specifically to a person who has acquired wisdom, especially in old age and through a life of Torah study.  The Talmud teaches that Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob, all spent extensive amounts of time learning Torah in a yeshiva, an academy of religious study.  Based upon these and other earlier teachings, Maimonides writes that Abraham spent his entire life stamping out rampant idolatry by peacefully witnessing and teaching the truth about the one God to throngs of people.

Taken literally, these images of Abraham as a long time student and teacher of Torah are obviously anachronistic. The Torah did not yet exist as a physical document of study and discussion in his time. Further the picture of Abraham as a charismatic, pious preacher of monotheism to the masses is likely more reflective of the Talmud’s concerns than of who Abraham actually was: a far from perfect devotee of God.  Yet the point of these teachings is to recast Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, as the preeminent role model for a life of faith guided by the Torah, those values most highly esteemed by Judaism.  The rabbis of the Talmud are saying that one’s quantity of years or even one’s ability to drain every drop of marrow from life’s many offerings is not necessarily what matters when we come to the end of life.  What matters most is our ability to look back and say with confidence, “I did not live perfectly, but I did live with and grow in wisdom, which has made a difference in the world.”

I do not know if Dylan Thomas ever read these biblical stories of Abraham or the Talmudic interpretations of them.  Yet I imagine that if he had done so, he might have written the opening lines of his poems in this way, for his father and for all of us:

Rest gentle now for you’ve fought the good fight,
Though old age brings us death at close of day;
Sage, sage, your life’s been full of lasting light.