A Letter Arrives and a Poem Reveals More of Itself

In my essay “Field Notes on Death”, I trace my experiences with death, from pet burials as a child to my father’s 11-month illness and death from cancer when I was 40. In one section I mention Dad’s parish priest who visited him often and was with him when he died. His name is Father Joe O’Mara, known to his many friends as Joe.

When Griffith Review published the essay, I sent a copy to Joe. He wrote soon after, and here is part of his letter, reproduced with his permission.

A good death always has a quality of fulfilment, doesn’t it? My experiences, beginning at a Melbourne hospice when I was 19, led me to appreciate the concept of “fullness of life” rather than “eternal life”. It is a continuum of love. I’m sure you’ve also experienced unhappy deaths where there is anger or resentment, and where fulfilment doesn’t seem to be part of the wellness of things. And the “Do not go gentle into that good night” deaths, where the relatives are unable to cope, and trouble the dying person.

I was puzzled when Joe linked Dylan Thomas’ famous poem to relatives not coping when someone they love is dying. This wasn’t how I’d read the poem – admittedly a quick reading a long time ago. In the years after, whenever I’d hear those famous refrains – “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” – I’d assume the narrator was an all-knowing presence telling us we should resist death and refuse to go quietly.

Rereading the poem recently, I took more notice, especially of the final stanza. Then I checked out Dylan Thomas’ life. He had been close to his father who was a school teacher and used to read Shakespeare to the young Dylan at bedtime. David Thomas had wanted to be a poet, but never succeeded, and regretted it deeply. Dylan Thomas wrote the poem as his father was dying, apparently publishing it in America so his father wouldn’t see it and – one supposes – be upset by it.

The poetic form Thomas used is the villanelle. It has a pattern of two strong lines that come back again and again, and take on different meanings. Joe’s deeper reading let me see much more and helped me understand why it’s a masterpiece.

You can listen to Dylan Thomas reading the poem here www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15377