We No Longer Go Gentle

January 13, 2009

Sunset North Island, NZDeath is an uncomfortable, disorienting subject for many. The words are insufficient when talking to someone who has lost a loved one. Perhaps that is why the topic is chosen so often by poets, who use words to approach emotion. Perhaps that is also why Americans turn to poetry when they confront death.

For this reason I have chosen The Dying of the Light, an article by Craig Bowron recently published in the Washington Post, for the next ProfoundNet.  In it, the author discusses the “calamity of so long life” (to quote Hamlet) that Americans face, alleviated, but also sometimes prolonged by modern science. The article professes to give no answers, but it challenges readers to think about the American obsession with immortality. 

The title is taken from a well-known and oft-quoted poem by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, called “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” written just after World War II. Here’s the first stanza of the poem:

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.

In the poem, good men, wise men, wild men, and grave men all must face the reality of death. In a bleak postwar era, the poet urges men to resist sinking easily toward death. Today, the opposite trend exists, and it is no longer called “that good night.” 

Bowron’s article poetically describes the dilemma facing Americans:

“Everyone wants to grow old and die in his or her sleep, but the truth is that most of us will die in pieces. Most will be nibbled to death by piranhas, and the piranhas of senescence are wearing some very dull dentures. […] This isn’t about euthanasia. It’s not about spiraling health care costs. It’s about the gift of life — and death. It is about living life and death with dignity, and letting go.”

Citing illness, discontent, and the frail quality of life, a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure makes a poignant observation: “What’s yet in this that bears the name of life? Yet in that life lie hid more thousand deaths. Yet death, we fear.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet wrestles with the same incongruency. 

I am left with a lingering question. If, as poets and authors for centuries have recognized, we fear death, why is it so much easier to throw energy into fighting the inevitable than to consider the underlying reasons for our fear? 

Thanks, Craig, for your thought-provoking article.