Friday, April 10, 2015

Dylan Thomas and Death

Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, lived a short and tumultuous life.  The son of an English teacher who himself had wished to be a poet, Thomas began writing poetry in notebooks as a teenager.

In 1930, at 16, he left school and took a job copy-editing and, later, writing for a newspaper.  And he kept writing poetry.  Challenged by a friend to write about immortality, he composed the poem below, his first published piece of art, when he was just 19 years old.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

In some ways, the poem seems to have been written by an older person, one who has seen death and resolved that it does not rule existence.  In fact, it was written by a young person, one who probably had not seen much of death and romanticized it, perhaps under the influence of earlier poetry he had read.

Years later,  when Thomas's father lay blind and dying, the poet again took up his pen to address the topic of death.  The result, his most famous work, urges his father to fight death, to fight to the last inch, to fight with every fiber of his being.  Thomas, still young at 37, cried for his father to live, to stay with his son. 

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 that 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.

It was not to be.  David John Thomas, 76, died in 1952.

Dylan Thomas was a master of words and images but not so much the master of himself.  His poetry was renowned in his day, but it was not profitable enough to provide a comfortable life for Thomas or his wife and three children.  He was a heavy drinker, a bit of a brawler and in poor health generally.

The poet joined his father in that good night just more than a year later, at the age of 39.  It was said that he drank 18 shots of whiskey the evening before his death.

Living Long or Living Hard 

Most people want to live long lives.  As parents, they try to raise children who are careful and responsible.  They hope to watch their children and grandchildren launch their lives, and to savor the comforts of long, satisfying friendships and marriages.

Recently a professional football player, a successful one, ended his career after a single season.  He had studied the medical results of long years in the game -- head injuries leading to early dementia, joint pains for life -- and decided the risks were not worth the effort.

He was an outlier in the sport.

Most football players seem to be wired differently.  They crave the intensity of the game.  They know the risks and play as long as they can.  After their playing careers end, most elect to take retirements in their 50s, I have read, because they assume they will die earlier than people who worked in different fields.

I think people generally fall into two camps:

First is the majority of us who avoid risk, do what our doctors tell us and, if we venture out, do so intellectually into the world of ideas.

Then there are the people who thrill to physical danger: Navy Seals who, after leaving the military, sign up as mercenaries in war zones; the two men who climbed the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite Park earlier this year; people who enjoy illegal drugs so much that they ignore the risks of jail or death; motorcyclists who hate riding with protective helmets; rock musicians who eschew earplugs while knowing they will lose their hearing early.

Dylan Thomas seems to have been torn.  Writing in his teens and later, he embraced the themes of eternal life and fighting to live to a long old age.  In his behavior, not so much.

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