National Poetry Month, day 23: Raging against the dying of the light….

One of the pieces we played in the concert band in my first year of college was a piece by Elliot Del Borgo, called Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. It was a dramatic work, sometimes atonal, with a single motif binding the whole work together and some very interesting sonic effects along the way: stacked chords, a mid-section that puts the percussion on display, and call-and-answer fanfares. We liked playing it a good deal; it’s one of those showpieces where everybody in the ensemble has something interesting to do at some point.

It was more than a month into rehearsing the thing before Dr. Lee, our band director, informed us that the piece was actually based on a poem of the same title, by Dylan Thomas. The piece isn’t meant as a specifically programmatic setting or depiction of the poem, but rather a sonic meditation on the themes of the poem, so Dr. Lee felt it might help us if we actually heard the poem, so he had someone–one of the flute players, if I remember correctly–read it to us.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is technically a villanelle, in which nineteen lines are divided into five three-line stanzas and closed out by a four-line stanza. Thomas’s poem is clearly about death, and though he speaks in general terms throughout–referring to “good men”, “wild men”, “wise men”, at the end he turns his attention specifically to his father, exhorting him to approach death as Thomas has said everyone else does: with rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas’s father actually died five years after the poem’s publication, so it’s uncertain as to whether Thomas wrote this poem with specific intent regarding his own father’s mortality, but still…I suspect this sentiment is common for those of us whose fathers have not get grappled with the dying of the light.

Here’s the work by Del Borgo:

And here is Mr. Thomas’s poem.

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 grieve 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.


 

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