The Futile Rebellion Of Dylan Thomas


Somewhat related to Dylan Thomas’s poetry of Doomed Beginnings (posted about previously) is his poetry of FUTILE REBELLION.

Thomas expresses his dissatisfaction with the polite gestures and surface-lies that upholster human society.  In one of his numerous first-line-titled poem, he begins, “I have longed to move away from the hiss of the spent lie,” and adds, “I have longed to move away from the repetition of salutes.”

 In Should Lanterns Shine, he rebels against the advice to keep things on an even keel and stay the middle way…

“I have been told to reason by the pulse,/

and, when it quickens, alter the actions’ pace/

til field and roof lie level and the same.”

Not surprisingly, Thomas is no fan of authority figures.  From I, In My Intricate Image

“bring out the black patrol, / your monstrous offices and the decaying army”

My personal interpretation of the last lines of Out Of The Sighs (following) is that Thomas is trying to show us that we trade away our greatest treasure, our freedom (“all there is to give”), for the order and security of society; we offer subservience for sustenance…

“for all there is to give I offer:

crumbs, barn, and halter.” 

In the work, Poem On His Birthday (which smacks of being titled, like so many of Thomas’s poems, by someone else), Thomas writes that …

“dark is a way and light is a place.”  

I can’t help but wonder if he thinks of “Light” as the warm place society provides for those willing to play by its rules, whereas those who reject society’s offered trade of subservience-for-subsistence lead the more dark and sinful lives, though they also lead the more vivacious lives (note that the dark life is a “way” and the life of light is a “place”).

Representing Thomas’s outlook of both Doomed Beginnings and Futile Rebellion, the poem I Make This In A Warring Absence finds the poet admitting that his larger-lived life suffers for its rejection of boundaries even as it benefits, and that “like an approaching wave I sprawl to ruin.”

Besides society, Thomas can also frequently be found rebelling against Nature.  From Find Meat On Bones (by the way, this is a poem of nice same-sounds and good rhythm– two of Thomas’s strong points when he chooses to use them)…

“rebel against the binding moon

and the parliament of sky,       

the king crafts of the wicked sea, 

autocracy of night and day,

dictatorship of sun.

Rebel against the flesh and bone,

the word of the blood, the wily skin,

and the maggot no man can slay.”

Thomas  is at his most sublime as the rebel who knows he can’t win, and yet rebels anyway.  Find Meat On Bones continues…

The maggot that no man can kill

and the man no rope can hang

rebel against my father’s dream

that out of a bower of red swine

howls the foul fiend to heel.

I cannot murder, like a fool,

season and sunshine, grace and girl,

nor can I smother the sweet waking.’


Black night still ministers the moon,

and the sky lays down her laws,

the sea speaks in a kingly voice,

light and dark are not enemies

but one companion.

‘War on the spider and the wren!

War on the destiny of man!

Doom on the sun!’ “

 Most famously, Do Not Go Gentle… also mixes Thomas’s themes of Doomed Beginnings and Futile Rebellion…  This was one of my favorite poems as a teenager (still is), largely due to its fighting spirit– even against impossible odds…

 “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.”


[note in the following line how, again, the “dark” way is not necessarily wrong…]

“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. 


In the first-line-titled poem below, the poet must come face to face with the failure of life’s rebellion against death…  As a man dies slowly (too slowly for our poet) beside him on a ship journey, the narrator is helpless to keep death from getting the upper-hand.  Additionally, I can’t help but think that World War II creeps into this poem.  Lastly, notice the treasure trove of same-sounds in this work…

 Lie still, sleep becalmed, sufferer with the wound

in the throat, burning and turning.  All night afloat

on the silent sea we have heard the sound            

that came from the wound wrapped in the salt sheet.


under the mile off moon we trembled listening

to the sea sound flowing like blood from the loud wound

and when the salt sheet broke in a storm of singing

the voices of all drowned swam on the wind.”


The sufferer responds…


“Open a pathway through the slow sad sail,   

throw wide to the wind the gates of the wandering boat

for my voyage to begin to the end of my wound,

we heard the sea sound sing, we saw the salt sheet tell.”


To which the poet finally pleads,


“Lie still, sleep becalmed, hide the mouth in the throat,

Or we shall obey, and ride with you through the drowned.”


Knowing Thomas’s rebellion in the face of death, it is all the more chilling when he writes of one losing faith at the moment of defeat, as in Into Her Lying Down Head

 “There where a numberless tongue

wound their room with a male moan,

his faith around her flew undone

and darkness hung the walls with baskets of snakes.”


Lastly, my guess, after reading After The Funeral, is that religion offers little comfort to the poem’s narrator after he has witnessed the death of an old woman, rigidly faithful in her religion for her whole life.

“I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands/

lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare/

whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,/

her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain.”


More posts from Hammering Shield on Dylan Thomas…

Anti-Eroticism In The Work Of Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas And The Poetry Of Doomed Beginnings

Dylan Thomas On Dylan Thomas

Sound In Structure In The Poetry Of Dylan Thomas

The Failures Of Dylan Thomas



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