No Gentle Going into that Good Night

Jim and Bill Elk Hunt Nov 1999

My little brother, James Lindsay Henderson, big guy on the right in the blue shirt. During a Colorado elk hunt near Telluride. Jim now going gentle into his good night, stricken by ALS.

By Charles Henderson

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote Dylan Marlais Thomas in 1951 as his father, David John Thomas, lay dying. Verses of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night have rung in my head the past two days as my dear little brother, Jim, lies raging at the dying of his light. Stricken by ALS for the past year and a half, his light has slowly but surely faded. A cruel sickness. His life now ends, and my tears flow as my heart breaks and breaks, and I rage at the final fading of his good light.

The elder Thomas, a teacher of English literature at a local grammar school in Swansea, Wales, the town of Dylan’s birth, finally died the following year, 1952. Dylan Thomas died a year after that, November 9, 1953, after traveling to New York City in mid-October to perform engagements of poetry readings.

Thomas wrote two poems that year, 1951, described by his biographer, Paul Ferris, as “unusually blunt.” Both teamed of sorrowful life and bitter death, as death itself seemed to haunt Dylan as his father lay slowly dying, not going gentle into that good night.

“Lament,” the first poem, was a retrospect of Thomas’ own troubled, ribald life, seeing death as his destiny. Then there was “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” a nineteen-line villanelle (vallanesque) urging his dear father to keep fighting the good fight, and do not go gentle but rage, rage at the dying of the light.

Death seemed to haunt Dylan Thomas from the onset, however, he retained hope to rage against it always. One of his first works, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” he wrote in a personal notebook in April 1933, the title taken from the Bible, book of Romans, chapter 6, verse 9, “Knowing that Christ raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.” Dylan had befriended local grocer Bert Trick, who suggested that they write about immortality. While Trick saw his poem, “For Death Is Not The End,” published the next year in a newspaper, Thomas’s poem did not see daylight until he included it in his second book of poems, “Twenty-Five Poems,” published in September 1936, two years after “18 Poems.”

Like many great writers, mood swings and self-loathing, and a wealth of pure bullshit painted the outward character that people saw in Dylan Thomas. He enjoyed a stout ale or two, and more. Often he drank before his poetry readings, and made a show of it. Like a tweed jacket, he wore it well.

Many doubt that Thomas was nearly as drunk as he put on while shocking his audiences. Great writers can get away with murder, if the audience buys that the demon spirits have engulfed him. They pity with awe, and Dylan Thomas lapped it up, hating himself all the while, living hard and dying young.

While I lived in New York City in the 1980s, I lapped up some of the same liquor, with other aspiring writer friends. I was internationally published with a bestseller, and Vincent Sardi seated me at a front table. Fraudulent license, because I was no great writer then, but it got me good seats, and Broadway show tickets. Tommy Makem gave me the run of his Irish Pavilion on Lexington and east 57th Street, and gave me dispensation to smoke my Cuban cigars in his establishment, while on the menu, clearly printed at the bottom of each page, “No Cigar Smoking,” cautioned all clients.

One of my favorite stations for dark stout ale sat at a back booth in a saloon called The White Horse Tavern, on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. I noticed one day, while sucking froth off my Guinness pint, a brass plaque above my head that simply read, Dylan Thomas. I pointed it out to my old dear pal, John Britt, the Mustard King from my book Silent Warrior, a man who forgot more poetry than I ever knew, and wrote great poems that few have read.

“Yeah, Dylan Thomas died here,” John said. “You didn’t know?”

“No,” I said, wanting to know more.

“Actually, he collapsed here,” the Mustard King said, smoking his cigar and sipping dark stout ale. “They took him to Belleview, I think, and he died there.”

In truth, Thomas died at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he lay in a coma for five days from alcoholic encephalopathy—brain damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

Scottish poet, Ruthven Todd, had introduced Dylan Thomas to the White Horse, and that “hard-yella-liquor,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald called the nectars distilled in the West Highlands and Far North of Scotland.

Thomas and Todd had gone on a bender, and Dylan returned to his digs at the Hotel Chelsea, telling friends, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s a record!” Witnesses said Thomas had perhaps half that number.

Dylan returned to the White Horse with his lover, Liz Reitell, an attractive assistant of American poet, John Brinnin, who had brought Thomas to America for the poetry readings and headed the Poetry Center in New York, where Thomas was slated to appear in the performance, Under Milk Wood. Dylan and Liz had a racy three-week romance. The poet had many such affairs since his marriage to Irish dancer, Caitlin McNamara, in 1936, and regardless of the flings, Caitlin stuck it out.

Meanwhile, at the White Horse, continuing his binge, Thomas rode high on some drugs a doctor had injected in him, three times that day at the hotel, supposedly to help his “feeling sick.” Among the injections, thirty-two and a half milligrams of morphine sulfate.

Sex, drugs, rock and roll had not come into the American hip consciousness quite yet. Jack Kerouac still roamed free, creating the hip beatnik dream. Yet, truth be known, it was Dylan Thomas who did it first. Sex, drugs, rock and roll killed him in the White Horse Tavern that ninth November day of 1953, when Do Not Go Gentle Into That Dark Night was all the rage.

So there I sat then, in 1987, New York City, with John the Mustard King, and a stranger next to us, that turned out to be Robert Downey Jr. He was not such an Iron Man in those days, but did like the Dylan Thomas way of life.

We sat and smoked the Cuban Monte Cristo torpedoes and drank dark brown ale, and a few hard yella liquors deep into the night, or a few nights and more. The ghost of Dylan Thomas there by us, at his high backed wooden booth, putting down the shots and suds, and raging at the fading of the light.

And here I sit today, raging at the fading of the light. My little brother Jim, going into that good night.

I dedicated my new novel, TERMINAL IMPACT, to Jim, and it thrilled him. He got to read it, and I hope he liked it. He never said, before he drifted off into this final rest, my heart breaking and me raging, raging and raging against the dying of Jim’s light. (Update: Jim passed away on February 20th, 2016, two days after I originally posted this commentary. We buried him next to his son, Jody, three days later. And I continue to weep for my dear little brother, who suffered so greatly and we loved him so very, very much.)

Dylan Thomas’s poems ring strong in my mind, both the dark and the bright: Life everlasting in, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” Life lived to the brim in, “Lament.” But at the end of the day, it seems that “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” keeps coming round and round. Its raging verses raging and raging as the light fades.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of women),
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,
The rude owl cried like a tell-tale tit,
I skipped in a blush as the big girls rolled
Nine-pin down on donkey’s common,
And on seesaw sunday nights I wooed
Whoever I would with my wicked eyes,
The whole of the moon I could love and leave
All the green leaved little weddings’ wives
In the coal black bush and let them grieve.

When I was a gusty man and a half
And the black beast of the beetles’ pews
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of bitches),
Not a boy and a bit in the wick-
Dipping moon and drunk as a new dropped calf,
I whistled all night in the twisted flues,
Midwives grew in the midnight ditches,
And the sizzling sheets of the town cried, Quick!-
Whenever I dove in a breast high shoal,
Wherever I ramped in the clover quilts,
Whatsoever I did in the coal-
Black night, I left my quivering prints.

When I was a man you could call a man
And the black cross of the holy house,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of welcome),
Brandy and ripe in my bright, bass prime,
No springtailed tom in the red hot town
With every simmering woman his mouse
But a hillocky bull in the swelter
Of summer come in his great good time
To the sultry, biding herds, I said,
Oh, time enough when the blood runs cold,
And I lie down but to sleep in bed,
For my sulking, skulking, coal black soul!

When I was half the man I was
And serve me right as the preachers warn,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of downfall),
No flailing calf or cat in a flame
Or hickory bull in milky grass
But a black sheep with a crumpled horn,
At last the soul from its foul mousehole
Slunk pouting out when the limp time came;
And I gave my soul a blind, slashed eye,
Gristle and rind, and a roarers’ life,
And I shoved it into the coal black sky
To find a woman’s soul for a wife.

Now I am a man no more no more
And a black reward for a roaring life,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of strangers),
Tidy and cursed in my dove cooed room
I lie down thin and hear the good bells jaw–
For, oh, my soul found a sunday wife
In the coal black sky and she bore angels!
Harpies around me out of her womb!
Chastity prays for me, piety sings,
Innocence sweetens my last black breath,
Modesty hides my thighs in her wings,
And all the deadly virtues plague my death!

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.

I love you, Jim. I look forward to seeing you again.

 ©Copyright 2016 Charles W. Henderson