“Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thus are the closing lines of Dylan Thomas’ extraordinarily powerful poem.
But is he right? Should people, in order to die well, ‘rage against the dying of the light’?
I believe the Thomas is absolutely right, although there are both secular and Christian traditions that would strongly disagree.
The most popular metaphor for death at modern funerals, is that of Canon Scott Holland. Here death is like a friend, a mere continuation of the present life. There is no rage here! What isn’t mentioned, however, is that this is not what the Canon is himself recommending. For elsewhere in the same sermon (1910), he states that …
[death seems] … so inexplicable, so ruthless, so blundering … The cruel ambush into which we are snared … it makes a horrible breach in our gladness with a careless and inhuman disregard of us … beyond the darkness lies its impenetrable secret … Dumb as the night, that terrifying silence!
Different, indeed. But this secular rationalisation of the pain of death is paralleled by the thinking of Calvin and Luther, and their followers in the Evangelical and Reformed tradition.
Here, death is part of God’s Sovereign Plan. Clearly this view provides great comfort to those committed to such a theology, for even the deaths of loved ones from the most terrible illnesses are part of a greater good.
Thereby atrocities are acceptable. No rage here.
This is an appalling doctrine, and arguably not a Christian view at all, but rather an example of paganism within Christianity, which itself describes death as ‘the last enemy’.
What about the 30 million or so Russians who died on the Eastern Front?
Or the millions who died under African-Caribbean slavery? And countless other atrocities?
Are all these part of a Sovereign Will that predestines these events?
I find such a doctrine reprehensible. We indeed need to rage against the dying of the light. Death is not a ‘friend’ and who – or whatever – causes it, needs to stimulate our rage, not our neutralising, coping, denial strategies.
Dylan Thomas, in his poem, is clearly looking at old age, but his sentiments are relevant, whatever age people are when facing death.
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. Only to be overtaken by dementia. This terrible disease slowly grows over two decades. The tangles and plaques ensnare the brain, and hence the mind. No more will that fragile mind dance in a green bay, full of creativity and energy!
How then, to rage against the dying of the light? And to go, or not go, “gently into that good night”?
Even in the face of this disease, which overtook artist and sculptor Willem de Kooning, creativity carried on, even until he was near to death. Memory may fail, but creativity need not! Rage against the dying of the light!
Old age should burn and rave at close of day.
And you, my father, there in 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.