Does it matter if you go “gentle” or “gently”? If you’re Dylan Thomas, yes

Dylan Thomas

On a recent episode of Jeopardy!, the contestants had a difficult time with this clue in the category “Quoting Poets”:

This Dylan Thomas title is rhymed with “Though wise men at their end know dark is right”

The correct response was “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Both of the contestants who buzzed in, however, substituted the word “gently” for “gentle.”

Their confusion is understandable. English teachers have been telling people for centuries that adverbs modify verbs (or verb phrases) or adjectives. That is, they tell us HOW someone does something, e.g., how did the man shout? He shouted loudly.

So it would seem logical that Thomas would be telling the person to whom admonition is being given how he ought to give up the ghost–i.e., gently. (That person, is, by the way, Thomas’ father D.J., who was going blind and suffering from throat cancer when Thomas began his poem).

But there’s another option in this sentence and that’s to use an adjective to tell the person the STATE in which he ought to be as he dies. To understand why it works grammatically, let’s take a look at an easier example:

In an emergency, don’t run out of your house ______.

We can fill the blank with an adverb — for example: “In an emergency, don’t run out of your house quickly.” In this sentence we are telling someone how to run (or rather how not to run) out of the house. Running out quickly might cause someone to trip and get hurt, to forget something important, etc.

But we can also fill the blank in that sentence with an adjective: “In an emergency, don’t run out of your house naked.” In this case, we are not concerned with how the person is running (quickly) but with the state the person is in when he or she leaves, i.e., naked.

Dylan Thomas may not have been well-educated, having dropped out of school in Wales, where he was born and raised, at age 16. But by the time he began his famous villanelle to his father, he had worked as a scriptwriter at the BBC, where he had written, narrated, or otherwise contributed to over a hundred radio broadcasts. As a poet, he was known for his wordplay and command of the English language. Thus his choice of “gentle” rather than “gently” is likely intentional and, as such, is both subtle and brilliant.

To understand why let’s consider the first stanza as a whole:

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave against close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now we can see that the admonition is not so much about the moment of his father’s passing but a cry against dying, against the very idea of death itself. The poet’s command to his father conveys not only loss but impotence and inevitability, themes that must have concerned Thomas, who was not a well man himself.

And, in fact, in October 1953, the year after his famous poem was published (and less than a year after his father’s death) Thomas became severely ill while on a reading tour of America. For years, the prevailing thought was that he had drunk himself into an alcoholic coma from which he never recovered. More recent opinion, however, suggests that Dylan Thomas died of improperly treated pneumonia.

Whatever the cause, on November 5, 1953, Thomas fell into a coma from which he never recovered. He died in a New York City hospital on November 9, 1953. He is buried in the over-spill graveyard of St. Martin’s parish church in Laugharne, Wales, where Thomas had resided since 1949.

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