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Dylan Thomas and the hero’s quest

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.01.27 PMIn “The Archetypes of Literature,” Northrop Frye proposes that the central myth of art is the hero’s quest, which can be characterized as man’s superhuman crusade against the disintegrating forces of nature. The poet Dylan Thomas has been described as a champion of nature and the cycles of life: “He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic” (Kershner). Yet, one of Thomas’ most celebrated poems, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” calls on man to defy the power of nature even as it recognizes his ultimate impotence against death. The poem relies on the psychic undercurrent of the hero myth to demonstrate man’s place in nature and his irrational, yet irrefutable, desire to overcome his mortality.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest.

Frye argues for a centralized theory of literature based on archetypes drawn from “pre-literary categories” or “literary anthropology” (1308). In his survey of archetypes that inform literature on a grand scale, he concludes: “the central myth of art must be the vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society” (1314). He calls this the hero’s quest, which is the “mingling of the sun and the hero, the realizing of a world in which the inner desire and the outward circumstance coincides” (1313). It is the soul’s quest for perpetual spring and the defeat of winter (Frye 1311).

Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” about his own dying father, but the poem addresses the broad subject of man’s life in relation to the forces of life and death symbolized by light and darkness, day and night. In each of the central stanzas Thomas describes the smallness of man’s life and dreams: The wise man knows “night is right,” but his words were never bright as lightening; the good man’s “frail deeds” are only waves in a green bay; and the grave man approaching death can suddenly “see with blinding sight” and be gay. Yet, the overriding message of the poem is that “old age should burn and rave at close of day,” and Thomas uses the villanelle form to repeat his call: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Thomas poets.org).

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest. Thomas pays tribute to the first—after all the night is “good”—and calls to the second: “Do not go gentle”—do not surrender to the darkness while there is still light. The poem was written late in Thomas’ career and was clearly motivated by his personal experience with his own father’s death:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. (Thomas poets.org).

However, the poem’s message reaches deep into the core of literary archetype described by Frye. Ultimately, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” celebrates the spirit and folly of man’s desire to overcome nature, which Frye describes as the pivotal myth of all art: “. . .the vision of innocence which sees the world in terms of total human intelligibility” (1314). Mankind is blessed and cursed by the fierce tears of its own desire, as day gives way to night.

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1301-1315.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Poets.org 1997-2013. The Academy of American Poets. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Kershner, R.B., Jr. Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1976. Print.