“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”
by Dylan Thomas
by Elizabeth Bishop
The villanelle, with its built-in repetitions and its natural, almost-obsessive, entrenchment, might seem an unlikely candidate for representing the “volta.” However, two famous villanelles, Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” seem to me to glean their force and power—to have become two of the canon’s most-loved villanelles—because in its final quatrain each embodies and enacts a turn that injects intense and intensely personal emotional suffering into the formal mix.
In Thomas’ poem, a completely traditional villanelle, the turn occurs in the final stanza, when we learn that the “good night” is not an abstract theoretical concept, but the oncoming end of the speaker’s father’s life. Each time I read the two opening lines of that last stanza, “And you, my father, there on the sad height,/Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray,” I am always moved. Until that point in the poem, Thomas has essentially been writing a list: “wise men,” “good men,” “wild men,” and “grave men” all “do not go gentle.” Only at the end do we understand that the speaker is utterly invested in the fight he is describing. The sentiment “Father, don’t leave me” resonates in and through the poem once we realize what is at stake for the speaker (indeed Thomas’ own father was dying, so the poem documents the tremendous grief he felt at that pending loss).
Bishop’s poem, while less traditional with its repetitions and more tongue-in-cheek with its “confession” is, in my mind, almost equally emotionally wrenching at the end because of the revelation at the poem’s close. Like Thomas’ poem, Bishop’s villanelle is more or less a list of what might be lost or has been lost. The poem’s light tone suggests an almost flippant attitude toward losing until the closing stanza when she (in her quintessentially breezy Bishop way) divulges that she has lost more than keys and names and houses and a mother’s watch. She has lost a somebody: a “you,” a loved one, a lover.
Like in Thomas’ poem, we have with the volta an aha moment. She writes: “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture/I love) I shan’t have lied.” When we reach these lines, we start to understand the poem’s movement in a totally new and profound way. Loss is hard, but most losses are easy compared to the emotional earthquakes that occur when we are torn from a beloved. By equating all loss in “One Art”—claiming loss “easy to master”— Bishop’s speaker is knowingly disingenuous; however, the speaker’s lie is one of self-preservation. I think most of us recognize the innocent self-fabrication—she voices what many of us might say to ourselves in our darkest moments: and this too shall pass.
Bishop’s volta torques on/initiates with the word “even.” In this final element of Bishop’s litany of losses, the loss is not quite as easy—it’s “not too hard to master,” she writes, and we know that it has been hell, especially when we come to that last line: “though it might look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Bishop’s parenthetical here allows us a glimpse into this speaker’s psyche, the difficulty that has ensued, and the fortitude that has enabled him/her to soldier on.
Both “One Art” and “Do Not Go Gentle” reveal to us that a volta need not happen in an explosive, dramatic fashion. The turns at the ends of the poems have power in part because they aren’t overly flashy. In the Bishop poem, the volta is effected through subtle shifts in diction and tone. In Thomas’, the volta comes with naming the heart of the matter: that the speaker’s father is on death’s doorstep, and the speaker wants him to continue to live. With these two poems, Bishop and Thomas show us that even a villanelle is well-served by a turn that jolts us into emotional revelation.
Currently a Professor at Georgia State University and Associate Editor of Five Points, Beth Gylys has published two award winning collections of poetry, Spot in the Dark (Ohio State UP 2004) and Bodies that Hum (1999 Silverfish Review Press). and two chapbooks, Matchbook (La Vita Poetica Press 2007) and Balloon Heart (Wind Press 1998). Awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, The University of Cincinnati, and Syracuse University, she has had work published in many journals.