Differences between Death in To an Athlete Dying Young and Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night
Death is imminent. It cannot be escaped. However, the view that someone takes on the subject can drastically affect the ever-nearer darkness. When A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” were written, certain ideas were aimed to be displayed and certain thoughts strived to be communicated. A poem is more than just a sequence of words. A poem is vessel by which the poet speaks their mind and shares their beliefs. One can learn a tremendous amount about a particular author just by studying their works. While Dylan Thomas and A.E. Housman’s poems are both similar in that they cover the controversial topic of death, closer evaluation will distinguish many opposing traits amongst the two poets. The poems are the most different in the main structure of the poem, the two poets’ views on life, and their ideas on what defines a person.
To start off, one must analyze the main structure of these two poems. Although it is obvious that death is the main focal point, the way the authors go about presenting the themes is one of the key differences between the two. In A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young”, the poem’s main character is a young, local hero who has just recently died. The hero won his fame as a runner and, at the time of his death, was glorious. The narrator is assumed to be Housman, who acts as a mourning townsperson, in a small English town during the burial of the athlete (Cummings). Despite mentioning the members of the town, the poem focuses entirely on one individual. The poem consists of seven stanzas, each containing four lines. Due to given internal structure and appearance to grieve and accept death, “To An Athlete Dying Young” has been designated as an elegy (Cummings).
On the contrary, Dylan Thomas’s poem is classified as a villanelle (“Literary Analysis”). It has six stanzas, the first five holding three lines and the last holding four. Thomas formatted his poem into what seems to be three parts: an introduction, examples of the ideas being conveyed, followed up by a personal section possibly regarding Thomas’s father (“Poem Analysis”). The work is narrated by Dylan Thomas and exhibits four different types of individuals and how they deal with the idea of impending death.
After the obvious structural aspects of the poem have been studied, one can indulge in a more thorough examination. Both authors discuss the coming death and the life that preceded it. A.E. Housman focused mainly on the idea that life without one’s glory is near pointless. In his poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”, he writes “Smart lad, to slip betimes away/ From fields where glory does not stay,” (9-10). In this case, the athlete benefited from death because it protected him from the disappointment of watching his glory fade. One theme a reader can observe when reading this poem is to “quit while you’re ahead” – it is better to die young than to watch glory vanish. The whole notion to die young and victorious shows how Housman views life. He thinks that there can be nothing after one achieves greatness. One can assume he believes that once an athlete has reached the top, there is nowhere left to go but down, at which point death is the “smart” choice. Life should be judged on the quality of years lived rather than quantity of years lived.
Dylan Thomas, however, can strongly object to the main themes of Housman. In his poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, the phrase “Rage, rage against the dying of light” is repeated at the end of more than half of the stanzas, encouraging one to live until the very end. The assumption might be made that the expressions “dying of light” and “good night” are metaphors for death; however, one can also assume that these phrases could mean more of the process of death rather than death itself (“Poem Analysis”). According to the poem, the process of death, which can just be named old age, should not be a time to admit defeat and give in. Thomas alludes to the fact that some of the best years can began during the “dying of light”. This is displayed best in the first stanza when Thomas states, “Old age should burn and rage at close of day;” (“Do Not Go Gentle” 2). Another quote comes from the fifth stanza and reads: “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight/ Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,” (13-14). The men spoken of in these lines have decided to fight on, perhaps because they have realized that there is still much left to do (“Poem Analysis”). In all, Dylan Thomas suggests that men need to recognize life’s potential, even after the night has begun to descend. Life should be lived to its absolute fullest.
Given that A.E. Housman and Dylan Thomas both have conflicting views on life itself, one can safely agree that they also have conflicting views on what defines a person’s life. Housman makes it very clear in his poem that life is nothing after one’s glory is lost. In the lines “And hold to the low lintel up/ The still-defended challenge-cup,” Housman says that glory should be taken to the grave (“To an Athlete Dying” 22-23). This quote states that death of the athlete should come before death of their record. This indicates he might believe that once reached, magnificence is a person’s only defining quality.
While Housman’s opinion of what defines people’s life is superficial, Thomas encourages one to never stop making the best of their own life. His constant repetition of “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” strongly suggests that he believes old age can be a crucial part of one’s existence (“Literary Analysis”). In the lines “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight/ And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,” Thomas reveals how he feels about old age (“Do Not Go Gentle” 10-11). The topic of this stanza is that one’s youth shouldn’t define one’s life, and people should recognize the fact before it is too late (“Literary Analysis”). Once again, Dylan Thomas alludes to a belief that a life should be lived to the very end, without letting a single moment go to waste.
Just as one can say, “life is what you make of it”, the same can be said for death. Perspective on the inevitable can greatly change how life is lived. In other words, night can define a person just as much as day. Through the medium of literary art, both writers guide their readers to a more in-depth evaluation of the only constant in life. While analyzing A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, one can uncover significant differences in how the two authors perceive death and the life preceding it. Death cannot be avoided, but perspective can ease its arrival.
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