Deconstructing Moody Poems: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Do Not go Gentle into That Good Night

Reference & EducationPoetry

  • Author Paul Thomson
  • Published May 19, 2010
  • Word count 598

Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot are probably the two moodiest poets we're forced to read during high school. The real shame of the impression this leaves is that, when read correctly, they're actually full of the life-affirming stuff that makes good poetry so endlessly readable. To prove a point, let's take a look at two of their most morose works.

Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" is a villanelle (see also: ridiculously controlled poem) that urges us to resist mortality, even until our dying breath. The poem's structure has an inner tension that compliments its literal message; while the steady one-two beat mimics the onslaught of time, the harsh vowels and jarring consonants fight the poem's flow, obeying the narrator's command not to go down without a fight.

The word "rage," which sums up the entire message of the poem, appears eight times across just nineteen lines - which is a form of defiance in itself, since the word is harsh and awkward to pronounce. (Just say it out loud: RAYdjuh.) More importantly, it's also the first word in the poem to interrupt the pattern of emphasizing every second syllable, thereby flipping a literary birdie to the implied tick-tock of time. Check out the first stanza:

Do NOT go GEN-tle IN-to THAT good NIGHT, Old AGE should BURN and RAVE at CLOSE of DAY; RAGE, RAGE a-GAINST the DY-ing OF the LIGHT.

The discord caused by repeating "rage" draws all the attention away from the end of the line, putting the spotlight on the struggle rather than the defeat. In contrast, it's no accident that the softest sounding phrase in the poem is "the dying of the light," since death is, after all, what threatens to take the all fight out of us. In the final stanza, we discover that the narrator is specifically addressing his dying father, which explains the poem's urgency and pushes the argument beyond the hypothetical.

T. S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is also about death, but unlike Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, it has the distracted, ambling verse of a man trying to convince himself that life isn't a race. Although the poem's structural irregularity resists the overall temporal flow, it's more an act of denial than bravery; Prufrock deliberates obsessively, and before long, certain elements of his thinking start to repeat. "There will be time," he likes to tell himself, not realizing that this recurring affirmation becomes the ticking clock of his own mortality.

After running the reader in ambiguous, indecisive circles, Prufrock comes to the depressing conclusion that he should not "disturb the universe" by being taking any chances. At the moment of his surrender, he switches into the most regular, structured stanza of the entire poem, which begins with "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Prufrock then describes himself as a middling pawn who'll leave behind no legacy, which is why we aren't surprised that he's suddenly finally fallen into step with the rhythm of time - and the inevitability of defeat.

Unlike the "grave men" of Thomas's poem, Prufrock doesn't "see with blinding sight" when confronted with his own transience. Instead, he shies away from society because its judgments "fix you in a formulated phrase" - only to fix himself in the most carefully formulated phrases in the poem when he decides to submit to old age. Whereas Dylan Thomas yells unrepentantly in our faces, T.S. Eliot simply demonstrates why it’s better to go out with a bang than a whimper.

Shmoop is an online study guide for poetry like Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, and many more. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities.

Article source:
This article has been viewed 3,712 times.

Rate article

Article comments

There are no posted comments.