Gone Too Soon: A Comparison of Thomas and Updike
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Gone Too Soon: A Comparison of Thomas and Updike
Many people have suffered the loss of a loved family member, be it a father, a husband, a child, or even the family dog. As we know from Ben Franklin, death is one of only two things in life that are inevitable (Franklin, 1789, as cited by Notable Quotes). How we greet death is the theme of many poems. While the dying may wish for a dignified death, comfortable at home, or while sleeping, the family is almost always eager to fight, or encourage the dying to fight, against death, even in the face of certainty. In “Do not go gentle into that good night,” by Dylan Thomas, the speaker is begging his father to fight against death, and in “Dog’s Death,” by John Updike, the puppy tries to hide so she can die in peace, but the family rushes her to the vet to fight against death for her. The theme in both pieces is, in general, dignity in the face of inevitable death. By analyzing, comparing, and contrasting these two poems, we can see that while the dying may be content to rest, families demand a fight. This paper will analyze the form, style, and content of “Do not go gentle into that good night,” by Dylan Thomas, and “Dog’s Death,” by John Updike.
“Do not go gentle into that good night” is the most famous example of a villanelle (Poetry, n.d.). A villanelle, originally intended for French poetry, is exceedingly difficult to write in English because of a lack of rhyming words compared to the French language (Poetry, n.d.). Villanelles are nineteen lines long, with six stanzas (Poetry, 2010). The first five stanzas have three lines each, and the last stanza has four lines (Poetry, 2010). They have intricate rhyming schemes as well as refrains, or lines that get repeated over and over (Poetry, 2010). The refrains in this poem are “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (as cited by Clugston, 2010). “Do not go gentle into that good night” is line one, and repeated at lines six, twelve, and eighteen (as cited by Clugston, 2010). “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” is line three, and repeated at lines nine, fifteen, and nineteen (as cited by Clugston, 2010). In addition to “night” and “light,” which end all those lines, lines four, seven, ten, thirteen, and sixteen all rhyme with “right,” “bright,” “flight,” “sight,” and “height,” respectively (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Moreover, all the remaining lines, two, five, eight, eleven, fourteen, and seventeen, rhyme with each other as well with “day,” “they,” “bay,” “way,” “gay,” and “pray,” respectively (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Finally, though not required by villanelle structuring, “Do not go gentle into that good night” is written in iambic pentameter, or lines of ten syllables, with every other syllable stressed (Poetry, n.d.).
John Updike’s “Dog’s Death,” on the other hand, does not follow such strict structuring. It is twenty lines long, with five four-line stanzas (as cited by Clugston, 2010). The only repetition in the poem is the phrase “Good dog,” mentioned in last line of the first stanza, and the last line of the last stanza (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Each line has between ten and thirteen syllables, with no discernable pattern, and the end rhyme is erratic (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Each line only rhymes with one other line, if at all, such as lines six and eight (“liver” and “forever”), lines nine and ten (“fed” and “bed”), lines thirteen and fifteen (“fur” and “her”), lines fourteen and sixteen (“tears” and “disappeared”), and lines seventeen and eighteen (“frame” and “shame”) (as cited by Clugston, 2010). In addition to this, lines eleven and twelve have a forced rhyme through assonance with “alive” and “tried” (as cited by Clugston, 2010).
Both “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Dog’s Death” are poems, though one is a specific type (the villanelle) and the other is less structured (Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). Like a pot of coffee left to boil, a poem is a concentrated, more powerful version of a story, with all but the most important aspects left out. In the right hands, these poems could be short stories, but in doing so, it would lessen the dramatic impact of the work. John Updike is far better known for his stories and books than his poetry, and the fact that he made “Dog’s Death” into a poem, instead of his more likely short story, shows that the emotion of this poem was better suited for the compact form. Though both are poems, and justifiably so, the main difference in form for the two is in structure. The highly structured rhyme, refrain, and meter of “Do not go gentle into that good night” is sharply different from the erratic rhyme and meter of “Dog’s Death.”
Dylan Thomas was a lyrical poet, meaning that he expresses personal feelings in his work (Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). The poem does not quite fit an elegy, since the mood is more passionate than somber, but as a lyric poem about death, it does fit the standard definition (Clugston, 2010). As a poem with one speaker, and an invisible audience in the father, “Do not go gentle into that good night” is also a dramatic monologue (Clugston, 2010). Thomas uses symbolism and metaphors to infuse passion and emotion into the villanelle without sacrificing the structure. The most noticeable example is the extended metaphor of day being life, night being the afterlife, and sunset being the moment of death (Poetry, n.d.). In the refrains, “go . . . into that good night” and “dying of the light” represent the act of dying, and even when the sun appears in line ten, it is gone almost before it was even noticed (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). There are also symbols of a life burning brightly, or “going out with a bang,” in line five’s mention of “lightning,” line ten’s “sun in flight,” and line fourteen’s “meteors” blazing (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). The image of the speaker’s father “there on the sad height” has many interpretations, whether it be the platform his casket rests on, the figurative mountain looking down into the Valley of Death, or simply a point in time represented as a place (as cited in Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.; Westphal, 1994). Finally, Thomas uses four types of great men as a symbol of what he thinks of his father, that he is wise, good, wild, and grave, and since these four types of men fight, his father should as well (as cited by Clugston, 2010).
Thomas uses several other literary techniques in “Do not go gentle into that good night,” such as alliteration and apostrophe. The first line is alliterative not only in “not” and “night,” but also in “go” and “good” to further emphasize the line that is repeated four times (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). There is further alliteration in the fifth stanza with “blind,” “blinding,” and “blaze,” all emphasizing the bl- beginning (as cited by Clugston, 2010). A similar technique is assonance, which is seen in the repeated third line, “dying” and “light,” which also has a repetitious first word, “Rage,” placing even more emphasis on his desire for his father to fight (as cited by Clugston, 2010). The first stanza represents an apostrophe because it starts with the imperative, “Do not . . .” which has the “You” understood (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). The unknown listener is not revealed until the last stanza when we find out the listener is the speaker’s father (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Parallelism is seen in the first lines of the second through fifth stanzas as Thomas describes four types of men who are not done living yet (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). Finally, the oxymoron of “Curse, bless, me with your fierce tears” in line seventeen represents a desire for the father to cry passionately and fight death, a curse because he is dying, but a blessing because he is fighting a heroic battle (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). All of these literary tools, including metaphors, alliteration, and parallelism provide a deeper meaning for those willing to dig, but all point back to the fight for life in the face of inevitable death.
John Updike, by reputation, is an author, not a poet. “Dog’s Death” is an example of narrative poetry, the poetry that tells a story. He uses detailed imagery of reality, rather than emotionally charged metaphors. He has a reputation for writing in “squelchy messy regions that the squeamish among us would rather not contemplate,” as Rosemary Goring puts it (Goring, 2009). It is not often you would see a line like “The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver,” or “Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame/ Of diarrhea and had dragged across the floor,” in other poems, but his near-objective narration of a scene at hand creates its own emotion (as cited by Clugston, 2010). The one obvious metaphor in the poem comes in line twelve, “her heart was learning to lie down forever” (as cited by Clugston, 2010). There is a bit of assonance in line eleven, “twisted,” “limp,” and “still,” and in lines twelve and thirteen with “tried,” “bite,” and “died” (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Updike’s poetry is not full of symbolism and metaphor, with layer upon layer of meaning, but is no less valuable because of it.
Both works exemplify the personal styles of the poets who wrote them. Dylan Thomas was a lyric poet, focused on emotion and passion, while John Updike was an author and a critic who looked at his material more objectively, not skimping on the squeamish detail.
Dylan Thomas likely wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night” to, or about, his own father (Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.). The speaker is begging his father not to give in to death, but to fight with all his strength: “Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (as cited in Clugston, 2010). Since the speaker is begging, it can be assumed that the dying father is not fighting as the son is speaking. All men, “wise men,” “Good men,” “Wild men,” and “Grave men” eventually die, showing that it is a certainty (as cited in Clugston, 2010). However, just because it is undeniable, does not mean it should be accepted, and as Thomas says, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day” (as cited by Clugston, 2010). In fact, the second stanza, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right,” refers to the fact that intelligent people, knowing that death will come for them, do not give in easily because there is more to do, more life to live, and their mark has not been fully made yet (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Poetry, n.d.).
In “Dog’s Death,” the main focus is on a young, unnamed, puppy, “Too young to know much,” and just starting to understand paper training (as cited by Clugston, 2010; Armbruster, 2002). The narrator, the dog’s master, is married with at least two children, but this puppy is also a part of the family. When she felt unwell, they “teased her with play,” thinking she was just feeling ill, not realizing that they were actually causing more harm. When the couple realized the dog was more ill, or injured, than they had first thought, they rushed to the vet, with the puppy in the narrator’s lap, rather than the back seat (as cited by Clugston, 2010). This is indicative of the family’s desire to fight for her, even though “twisted and limp,” the puppy was in no shape to fight for herself (as cited in Clugston, 2010). At the very end of her short life, the puppy tried to “bite my hand,” which may be seen as the puppy refusing to “go gentle into that good night” (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Further evidence of her familial relationship is in the speaker stroking “her warm fur” and his wife calling “in a voice imperious with tears” (as cited by Clugston, 2010). Despite being “surrounded by love,” death still comes for the little pup, as it comes for all of us in our time (as cited by Clugston, 2010).
While Thomas focuses on the dying man, and Updike on the dying young pup, both acknowledge the inevitability of death, but also the refusal to give in to it. Updike does seem to offer some hope, in “love that would have upheld her,” perhaps if they had noticed her injury earlier, or gotten to the vet sooner, but in the end, “Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared” (as cited by Clugston, 2010).
A poem is a story in concentrated form, and when the poems “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Dog’s Death” are compared at their most basic level in form, style, and content, they both show the desire of family to fight against death for a loved one, whether father or dog, old or young. These two poems acknowledge the inevitability of death, but at the same time disregard any notion of letting death come easily, instead raging “against the dying of the light” (as cited by Clugston, 2010).
Armbruster, K. (2002). ‘Good Dog’: The Stories We Tell about Our Canine Companions and What They Mean for Humans and Other Animals. Papers on Language & Literature, 38(4), 351. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Clugston, R.W. (2010). Journey into Literature. Retrieved from http://content.ashford.edu/books
Goring, R. (2009, May 23). Before the full stop The poems John Updike wrote in the last years of his life show an unfl inching attitude to his ultimate fate, says Rosemary Goring. The Herald,12. Retrieved July 17, 2011, from ProQuest Newsstand. (Document ID: 1740411111).
Franklin, B. (1789). Notable Quotes. Retrieved July 16, 2011, from http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/quotable/singlehtml.htm
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