Where Dylan Thomas meets Atul Gawande; or, Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night

If Atul Gawande had been the editor for Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” we might have gotten something like, “Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night,” the long and “The long, the long and lonely night night, night, night, night, night, night…” as Van Morrison sang with Them, fading away.

Atul Gawande, the Harvard Medical School professor, general and endocrine surgeon, and advisor to presidents, argues, in his latest New Yorker article, “Letting Go,” that Dylan Thomas’s famous poem might more efficiently and effectively have gone something like this:

Go gentle into that good night, Old age need not burn and rave at close of day; No need to Rage, to rage against the dying of the light. Wise men know dark is right, night is night, night is right, And they know whatever their words, those closest to them care. So wave bye-bye while you still can lift your hand, While you can still dance with your nurses, While you are still a wild man singing in the face of the sun, Do not grieve – grief is for those you leave behind. Grief is rage spent. Go, go gentle into that good night.

And maybe he’d throw in some stuff about shooting stars and eyes and then end with a prayer: “…my father, now brought gracefully down from the sad heights of the elevated hospital bed, all the tubes pulled out, the IV’s withdrawn, and you back in a warm pair of faded blue jeans, back home, back in the saddle again…while we with our mild tears fear and pray, go gentle into that good night; don’t ‘Rage, [don’t] rage against the dying of the light.’”

Gawande’s thesis is simple, clear, difficult but delivered with clarity: we need to have this discussion, to juxtapose Dylan Thomas’s poem against the raw night with the one now descending outside our window, the one the doctors can’t help us avoid, for they are not gods, and besides, like the gods of old, they make mistakes.

Dylan Thomas wrote his poem about his father dying just a short time before his own premature death. I’m not sure if Dylan raged against the dying of the light, but he sure seems to have worked it while he could. Yet, perhaps this poem is his own rage against his own hand he sees reaching for the light switch.

Listen to Dylan Thomas reading his poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

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