A Temporary Madness

D.J. and Dylan on Father's Day.

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David John Thomas liked to drink alone. Author Paul Ferris illustrated the point in his biography Dylan Thomas with a portrait of David John alone in a corner table at his local Welsh pub, the Bush. He describes David John Thomas as “a clever, disappointed man”. A young colleague, wrote Ferris, remembered once buying a pint for D.J. (as he was called), who accepted, and then chose to drink it in silence, at his table, alone. Pub regulars called the sulking presence who often spent his evenings there “The Professor.”

   

As a boy, D.J. was a promising student. He had received a scholarship to study English at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth where he graduated with first-class honors. Like many promising students of English, D.J. had dreams of being a poet. Instead, he became a grammar school teacher. He watched in anger and shame as colleagues of clearly inferior worth gained appointments to higher university positions while he remained where he was. D.J. was often ill, and wondered why he had no visitors. He cultivated a devastating schoolmaster’s sarcasm that shielded his fragile pride. Students of Schoolmaster Thomas remember an unforgiving tyrant who cursed stupid boys and dirty boys. But he made Shakespeare come alive and became known for getting his boys into Oxford and Cambridge. D.J.’s great passion for English literature was available for any boy willing to receive it. To his son Dylan, however, the clever, disappointed father gave his entire dream of a poet’s life.

From childhood, Dylan Thomas accepted the poet’s life as his fate and set out to prove that his father’s rage, along with his love of language, would live on. He cultivated a big sonorous voice and a big sonorous presence in which rage and poetry thrived. Dylan was doughy, curly-headed, soft, and at the same time asthmatic, wild, and prone to nightmares and depression. Dylan would lie awake at night thinking of “God and Death and Triangles,” and would develop an alcoholism as famous as his poetry. Just as D.J.’s eccentric mannerisms and dramatic storytelling made people uncomfortable, the same mannerisms, performed by the son, became a trademark. D.J.’s hypochondria became Dylan’s sensitivity. Just as D.J. used rage to hide from regret, Dylan used it to further his poet’s identity. The father and son would feed off each other, each raging himself into a state that was alternately more wronged and more poetic than the other. It was the rage that allowed them to be larger than life, larger than themselves. The rules of this father/son project were catalogued in Dylan’s most famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The poem was written during D.J.’s declining years, after the father had allowed himself to become quiet and frail and resigned.

Though it is a poem about anger, “Do not go gentle into that good night” is not an angry poem despite its iconic line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It is not really a poem about death, either, despite its reputation and the repeated word “dying” as in “the dying of the light.” “Do not go gentle” is rather a celebration, a celebration of the rage.

It was in rage that Dylan and D.J. could lose themselves. It’s telling that the Greek spirit of rage, Lyssa, was also the spirit of madness. In a story Euripides tells, Lyssa looses upon Heracles a terrible rage. His eyes roll, he tosses his head in a frenzy, he cannot speak, can hardly breath. “Neither ocean with its fiercely groaning waves, nor the earthquake, nor the thunderbolt with blast of agony shall be like the headlong rush I will make into the breast of Heracles,” Lyssa tells Iris. The purpose of this great rage is to compel Heracles to murder his children and wife, and to murder them without knowing what he’s doing. Only when Lyssa releases Heracles from his madness will he understand what he’s done to his family. Mad rage, in this classical sense, is like a costume — you can dress up in it, hide in it, and in doing so become bewitched, enraptured, free. Rage is a state of ecstasy and forgetting. In “Do not go gentle into that good night,” it is the power that allows you to go beyond yourself, to become bigger than yourself, to literally lose yourself in a state of madness, like Heracles.

But rage is also a temporary madness. Beautiful elixir that it may be, when the effect wears off, when Lyssa moves on, the consequences must be suffered. Worse, just in the way that water is clearer after a storm, the clarity that follows rage can be more painful than if you never chased the storm at all. Dylan was not ready for the consequences of his father’s death, not ready to face the abstract emptiness of “God and Death and Triangles”. He was still a man in his 30s, a poet with rage to spare and life to live. Most important, in rage and poetry, Dylan was able to remain true to D.J.’s vision. Rage, you old bastard, says son to father. Curse me, bless me with your tears…die even! But don’t let me see this, the destruction of our shared dream. “Do not go gentle into that good night” is not a poem about a father’s death, but it is a poem about loss — the loss of the intoxicating ability to lose oneself. It is a poem of a man trying desperately to hold on to the power that he believed kept him alive.

Son and father were linked as much by the fantasy of the poet’s life as by poetry itself. And so, both knew that all that rage, all that “light,” had to burn out some time. David John Thomas died not long after “Do not go gentle into that good night” was written. It was just as Dylan Thomas was at the top of his career, was truly — in the eyes of the world — a poet. A year later, at the age of 39, Dylan would drop dead, too, raging himself into a drunken coma at the White Horse Tavern and dying four days later.

Dylan never showed his poem to the wasting D.J. But ultimately, “Do not go gentle into that good night” was written by Dylan to himself. Everyone always told Dylan he wouldn’t make it to 40. Maybe they knew, too, that Dylan Thomas couldn’t outlive his father’s ambitions. With the death of the father came the death of the father’s dreams. And therefore, perhaps, the son’s.

“Do not go gentle into that good night”

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.

14 June 2011

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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