Many will already be aware that 2014 is the centenary of the start of the Great War of 1914-18. Fewer may have realized that this year contains another centenary of significance: That of the birth of the self-destructive Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Thomas died at only 39—-older, it is true, than Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, but still young enough to have left questions about what might have been and also to have avoided the kind of bloated literary eminence that comes when writers long outlive their talent but fail to recognize such.
Thomas was indeed a remarkable talent. At age nineteen, he penned the magnificent and defiant And death shall have no dominion. The imagery and the simple power of the form are stunning; that it was written by a man yet to reach adulthood is a source of envy to those of us who are mere mortals and who spent our twentieth year drinking beer and playing darts. Yes, Dylan did those things too—-but he also wrote ‘And death shall have no dominion,’ while I only remember the beer and the darts. And yet, for all of the maturity of the poetry, the sentiment is unmistakably that of a young man: The defiance of death has that naive, exultant quality, reveling in the fact that death may take the body but it cannot break the soul.
Moving forward to 1951, Thomas wrote perhaps his most famous poem, Do not go gentle into that good night. His father was dying and, touched by mortality in a way that becomes unavoidable as one ages, Thomas’s defiance here is somewhat different. In this poem, death does have a certain dominion. The only response is to rage, rage against the dying of the light. Faced with the reality of death, there is no romantic heroism left beyond that offered by the ultimately impotent shaking of a fist before the coming silent darkness.
Finally, when Thomas himself died, one of the unfinished poems he left behind was Elegy, a gloomy reflection upon his fathers death which begins with the haunting lines:
Too proud to die, broken and blind he died
The darkest way, and did not turn away
A cold kind brave in his narrow pride
There is no hint of triumph here and no defiant anger either. Just a feeling of resignation. His attitude to death has altered.
Thomass changing approach to death signals a growth in maturity not just as a poet but also as a human being. The defiance of the early poem has a certain rhetorical power but to one who has lost a loved one, such rhetoric is ultimately unconvincing. Death does have dominion, at least in this life. Death reduces us all, not simply the departed but also those left behind. Yes, we can have happy memories of the dead but those memories are written on a kind of palimpsest through which the melancholy death masks of the departed stare always up at us, darkening even the brightest recollection. And, strange to tell, I would have it no other way: The moment we can think casually of dead loved ones without regret, the moment we can remember their presence without feeling the poignant pain of their absence, the moment, one might perhaps say, when we try to make death into just another event in life—-that is the moment we have ceased to comprehend what those loved ones really meant to us and how their death has changed us forever. Perhaps that is when we cease to understand what beauty, power, and depth exist in love and in friendship, when we cease to be truly human. Thomas closed Elegy with the moving—-and in my experience truthful lines—-about his dead father: Until I die he will not leave my side. These were perhaps the last lines he ever wrote. After all, one does not come to terms with a beloved fathers death; one simply learns to live in the bleak presence of his absence.
If Freud was right that sex and death are the two intertwined obsessions of human beings, then it is surely curious that, while sex pervades this present age, death is so rarely mentioned—-a precise inversion of the culture of the Victorian. Their taboo is our obsession; their obsession, our taboo. Christians have tended to focus on interpreting our current fixation with sex as a sign of deep social dysfunction. This is not surprising: What else can we call it, when the supreme moment of intimate tenderness between a man and a woman has been reduced in pop culture to little more than a trivial act of mutual masturbation? But, as we think about this degradation and cheapening of sexual intimacy, we should also reflect upon contemporary attitudes to death. Perhaps these too speak just as clearly of social dysfunction. The reality of death is in general simply ignored and, when at times it presses in on us, we find inventive ways of avoiding its reality. Contemporary culture is surely never more patronizing than when it turns a funeral into a celebration of life, never more criminally dishonest than when it presents infanticide as a routine medical procedure, never more deluded than when it presents death as anything other than devastation. These, as much as our obsession with sex, are eloquent about how we view reality. To deny death its due is to deny life its value.
While reading Edward Shorts book on Newmans family, I was particularly moved by the chapter on his sister, Mary. She was his favorite and she died at the age of only 17. Later he wrote a letter to his sister Harriet, reflecting on his sense of loss. Shorts quotation from the letter closes with these lines:
Her form is almost nightly before me, when I have put out the light and lain down. Is not this a blessing? All I lament is, that I do not think she ever knew how much I loved her.
Underlying these few words is a profound understanding of life and love, of family and of friendship, and, perhaps most of all, of what it means to be a mature human being—-a profound understanding which is revealed in bold relief by a realistic acceptance of the trauma and cost of death.