Fear Not the Reaper: Death and Dying in the words of Dylan Thomas

Charlotte Perkins Gilman once said “Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil.” What she was saying was, in short, that life is meaningless if it is not confined. The sole reason that life is so precious is the very possibility that it could be taken away at any one moment. However, she also makes it a point to say that this shouldn’t be daunting, it should make life all the more precious. Although part of the beauty of the statement is the concise nature in which Gilman describes such a complex issue, Dylan Thomas tackles the same topic in a much more eloquent manner n his famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. Originally written for his dying father, Thomas attempts to broach the subject that is largely considered to be a taboo topic in American culture. Part of his ability to do so is his own cultural upbringing as a Welshman. There’s a different understanding of death throughout various cultures, only one of which Thomas discusses in his poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”.
The topic of death and dying is something that is rarely talked about, specifically in the United States, but even when discussed, death is understood differently by Americans than it is by other cultures. In order to understand how Americans deal with death, it is important to consider how death is talked about before considering how it is written about. This can be communicated quite simply, as previously stated, by accepting that it is very rarely mentioned. This is largely in part due to the American denial of negative emotions. There’s a tacit understanding among Americans that if it is not talked about, it in no way affects us. This is, of course, not at all true, yet it remains a common practice in modern day America.
Thomas breaks this cardinal rule in his poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. The whole poem is about death, not as this horrifying thing, but as a very real and natural process in our world. He accepts it which is something that very few Americans, American writers included, have been able to do. Not only does he bring the discussion to the table, but he manages to do it with such eloquence that this alien philosophy became a staple in English classes throughout the United States. It takes an undeniable talent with words to introduce such a heavy topic with such beauty. Not only is this a testament to his abilities as a writer, but to his understanding of the fickle nature of life. His own understanding of it helps in his communicating the message that death is a natural part of life.
Also, another aspect of American culture that differs greatly from specifically Welsh culture is the acceptance of death. Although it’s true that each person deals with death differently and it’s not entirely fair to characterize all Americans by a specific attitude, there is a preconceived idea of how we, as people, should deal with death. When most people think of death, they think of the visitation and the burial, the tears, and the pain that the loss of this person or these people causes those around them. As painful as it is to say, essentially as soon as a person dies, they became a burden to the people that they left behind, they became a painful reminder of what is no more. The memories we have of that person as a living being are tainted and have a distinct sorrow to them. More importantly, the mourning process, while a natural one, does little to facilitate the healing.
Thomas promotes an alternative method of healing. Rather than mourning, the poem discusses remembrance. He proposes that there is a fate worse than death and that is not being remembered. Without saying in so many words, he encourages positive reinforcement of memories rather than grieving or keeping personal artifacts locked away. He asks us to embrace the people who are gone now and remember how they lived.
Thomas lived in a different culture, a culture that found comfort in remembrance as opposed to being plagued by the pain that memories seem to bring to his American audience. “Do Not Go gentle Into That Good Night” is a poem about the importance of death in understanding the beauty of life. One cannot exist without the other and Thomas pays tribute to this in his poem. However, more importantly, Thomas brought his cultural values to Americans with this poem. Combining his passion for words and his passion for life, Dylan Thomas educated American audiences, who had been living in constant fear of death, about life’s potential which he believed to only be accentuated by the possibility of death.


2 thoughts on “Fear Not the Reaper: Death and Dying in the words of Dylan Thomas

  1. I really enjoyed this and my reactions are pretty random. First, you had me at Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Thinking of papering the bedroom yellow. But I digress…

    I don’t know whether this is a question or just an out loud thought: the familiar line from this Thomas poem, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” seems to suggest a resistance, aversion even, to death, or is that just an American interpretation? It seems to be the context in which it’s most used. Thanks for writing this. Sometimes I like to think, even after a very long work week.

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