Will I Rage Against the Dying of the Light?

Dylan Thomas

Montaigne seems to think I’ll go gentle at the end. Dylan Thomas begs to differ.

Actually, Thomas doesn’t say I will, he says I should. Do not go gentle into that good night isn’t a prediction, it’s an imperative. Don’t accept death quietly, he says; rage against it:

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.

What could be more remorselessly opposed to the spirit of Montaigne — who tried with his lips, willingly, to push out the last of the light — than this exhortation?

The middle of the poem evokes the rage of wild men and grave men at the coming darkness, then the end brings the focus down to his dying father, to whom the whole poem is addressed:

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.

If we’re wise, we know at the end that dark is right, but still we rage against the fact of the ending. That sounds about right.

But hang on. Why give equal weight to Thomas? It’s a nice poem, and it matches my own feelings about death. But Thomas and I have only been observers, standing at the bedsides of our dying dads. Montaigne had the experience himself – or as close as you can get and still have something to talk about afterward.

Thomas was also viewing death from the perspective of youth and (relative) health. Montaigne credits the distance from vigorous life to death as one of the primary reasons for our terror:

We fear death because we view it from a condition of vigor and strength, a condition we cannot bear to relinquish. But the act of dying, I now believe, must be most often a gradual one, a gentle resignation, proceeding by stages so incremental that each seems a more natural, even a more desirable step than a jolting return to the full vigor of life.

(Thomas had a chance to test his rage-advice soon enough. Two years after writing the poem he was dead at 39.)

Montaigne is not alone in the go-gentle camp, by the way. I can even find another Thomas to testify against Dylan. Granted, he’s not a poet — merely a doctor.

Doctor, biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas described a kind of neurochemical “switch” that flips in moments of extreme trauma, imparting a calm, peaceful indifference to the dying. In Lives of a Cell, one of the great popular science classics, Thomas recounts the near-death of the explorer David Livingstone:

In a nineteenth-century memoir on an expedition in Africa, there is a story by David Livingstone about his own experience of near-death. He was caught by a lion, crushed across the chest in the animal’s great jaws, and saved in the instant by a lucky shot from a friend. Later, he remembered the episode in clear detail. He was so amazed by the extraordinary sense of peace, calm, and total painlessness associated with being killed that he constructed a theory that all creatures are provided with a protective physiologic mechanism, switched on at the verge of death, carrying them through in a haze of tranquillity.

Lewis Thomas saw the same in countless patients, with a single exception:

I have seen agony in death only once, in a patient with rabies; he remained acutely aware of every stage in the process of his own disintegration over a twenty-four-hour period, right up to his final moment. It was as though, in the special neuropathology of rabies, the switch had been prevented from turning.

In a famous Harvard lecture in 1904, physician William Osler described reviewing the deathbed records of nearly 500 people with specific attention to the experience of the patients. “The great majority,” he said – 79 percent – “gave no sign one way or the other; like their birth, their death was a sleep and a forgetting.”

The waters were muddied in 2007 when the chair of internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic re-examined Osler’s original data and found what is known in research parlance as “some serious fudging.” Turns out 38 percent of patients in the study expressed discomforts at the end, not 21 percent, which leaves less than two-thirds in the gentle-goer category.

Dammit.

Image by Neal Fowler CC BY 2.0

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