Saturday, December 11, 2010

Poetry Mash: Thomas vs. Dickinson

¡Hola! Everybody…
When you get a chance, check my submission to the online magazine, Subversify. This week I tackle depression (click here). Leave a comment.

I found the following while going through some old files. It’s a report I did early in my undergraduate studies. I was somewhat surprised in that I liked it -- and I hardly ever like anything I write! LOL I’m posting as is with no edits (as much as it pains me). On a personal note, a couple of years after writing this, I dedicated the Dylan Thomas poem to my father, who at the time was suffering from a liver disease he would eventually succumb to…

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-=[ Thomas and Dickinson: A Comparison ]=-

The two poems, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas and, Because I Could Not Wait for Death, by Emily Dickinson, we find two distinct treatments on the same theme: death. In the former, Thomas uses an elaborate form and rhyme scheme along with radiant imagery and metaphor to present us with a passionate plea to cling to life; while in the latter poem, Ms. Dickinson composes, with the use of four quatrains written in a predictable, almost laid back rhythm, a kinder, gentler look at death.

The two couldn’t be more different. For example, Thomas employs an elaborate verse form known as the villanelle that a careless first reading may find excessively ornamental. However, upon reading this piece aloud, this writer finds that the form serves to create a grand dramatic effect. For example, lines one and three are repeated alternately in the following tercet’s third lines, rhyming with the respective first lines. In this way it has the same effect of a classical music composition: especially a composition that returns repeatedly to a motif. Consequently, Thomas creates an intensely lyrical, almost musical pathos that adds to the dramatic aura to the theme of this poem, which is: “hang on to life, man!”

By contrast, Emily Dickinson employs a structure and rhythm that could not be any more different in tone and temperament. Missing here is the elaborate rhyme and scheme of the Thomas villanelle. Instead, we find a seemingly spartan six quatrains that do not rhyme. This writer finds that there is a more subtle approach here, for Dickinson does not want to portray the more grim aspects normally associated with death. The first quatrain contains an eight syllable first line, a six syllable second line, an eight syllable third line, with the fourth line composed of eight syllables. The poem proceeds in this fashion for the next two quatrains, almost lulling us with a steady, secure rhythm, somewhat like the rhythm one may experience riding in a horse-drawn carriage like the one mentioned in line three. When we come upon the fourth quatrain (line 13), we discern a change in structure and mood. The change in rhythm is pronounced, while the change in mood is more subtle:

Or rather - He passed us-

The Dews drew quivering and chill-

For only Gossamer - my Gown-

My Tippet - only Tulle

For the first time in the Dickinson piece we encounter (if briefly and ever so subtly) symbols of the more harrowing aspects of death: the burial gown and shawl. But even this look at our transience is given a soft treatment, the “gossamer” gown and “tulle” shawl imagery being supple in nature: perhaps Death has a gentle touch, Dickinson seems to imply. The change in rhythm accompanying this subtle introduction to our mortality is a treated like a pause -- a momentary reflection. Continuing, the last two quatrains of the poem go on in the same fashion as the first three, adding to the effect that one has been riding in a carriage, paused for a moment, only to proceed on one’s journey.

Another significant difference between the two poems is in the contrasting use of rhetorical devices that the respective authors implement to state their primary messages. Dylan Thomas, whose overarching message is about the preciousness of the gift of life, implements rich imagery and metaphor to execute his goal. He uses the night and the “dying of the light,” as a metaphor for death. Radiant imagery such as, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day,” and “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,” vividly convey the anger and impotence one feels at the powerlessness one experiences when confronted with death. When Thomas tells his father curse and, “bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night” (lines 17,18), you get a sense of the passion this man feels for life and how he wanted desperately to transmit this powerful emotion to his father.

Dickinson, on the other hand, whose message is that inevitability of death requires that we all eventually must accept our fate, uses personification to portray death as a man of “civility” (line 8) who “knew no haste” (line 5). Through Dickinson’s deft use of symbolism such as carriage (line 3), immortality (line 4), the setting sun (line 12), and eternity we take a ride and come upon the patient, “kindly” face of death.

Here we have two poems and two entirely different treatments of the same theme. One poem is elaborate in structure, passionate in its desperation and message. The other is sedate, subtle, almost too kind. It is enlightening to note that the Thomas piece was, in actuality, written for his dying father. It is a poem with which I can truly identify. Having had the opportunity of hearing this piece read by a professional actor and understanding its structure, I will risk over dramatization by stating that sometimes I can hear the wind howl when I read this poem. Dickinson, diametrically opposed, beckons us on a ride that gently brings us towards the inevitability of death, “towards eternity” (line 24). She teaches us about acceptance and peace; a stark contrast to Thomas’ angry, desperate rail against the injustice of fate.

… Eddie

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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.

Because I Could Not Wait for Death

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.


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