If and Do Not Go Gentle: Advice.



OK, so here are my thoughts on this one. Yes a question set in January 2020 will not repeat in this exact form for a while, but there are still pointers.

First up might be the very technical element of the title ; the presentation of people giving advice – this is not the same as the advice itself, I would argue and requires an amount of awareness of the poet and the persona delivering the poem. Context is not rewarded in this question, however, so we need not dwell on Kipling’s son or on the roistering nature of the Thomases other than to acknowledge it. It does direct the writers to looking at structure and form though.

In short we have two poems giving advice between family members: If is father to son and DNGG is son to father. This then gives us a clear difference in tone. The single conditional sentence in If helps to create a rather portentous tone  suited to a father who think he knows much more about life than his son. In comparison, the urgent repeated refrains of ‘Do not Go Gentle’ and ‘Rage, Rage…’ suggest a son who is much more emotionally engaged with the message he presents. A sense of despair begins to come through in these alternating negative and positive imperatives.

Structurally If creates a sense of order and of calm: the alternating 11 and 10 syllable lines with a steady iambic tread help to relax the reader and to lead them into listening to the advice, delivered in a single sentence. Within the sentence, the repetition of the ‘If you’ refrain gradually builds through the poem until the last stanza, in which the message is finally revealed: ‘you’ll be a Man my son.’ The capital M suggests this to be so much more than the journey from adolescence to manhood but refers more to the the idea of Man as member of the human race. Kipling uses this technique elsewhere when personifying abstract concepts such as Triumph and Disaster, referred to as ‘knaves’ or impostors to underline how unreliable such concepts are and how they should not be taken too seriously.

Whereas Kipling uses personification in this way, we can see Thomas using metaphor as the main vehicle for transmitting his urgent plea to his father to fight against his impending death. Throughout the poem there is an extended metaphor which links light and dark to life and death respectively, and in each stanza, the exempla are derived from metaphor – an example being the ‘wild men’ (like both Thomas and his father) who have ‘caught and sung the sun in flight’ yet ‘grieved it on its way’. Possibly due to the highly personal nature of the poem these metaphors are not easily unpacked.  Thomas seems to be suggesting the nature of such men is to take impossible risks and to seek to achieve the impossible both in action and in words (‘sung’) only realising too late the damage they may have done. The implied allusion to Icarus increases the sense of wonder in which such men’s deeds are held by the poet. Indeed this kind of behaviour seems to be at odds with Kipling. He would probably list such men among those who ‘dream’ but are mastered by their dreams. He advised against this in lines 9&10.

Kipling adopts a didactic tone, like a school master. His examples are not dressed in the glorious colours of Thomas’ ‘green bay’ but are no less potent. The metaphor of the gambler risking all on ‘one turn of pitch and toss’ is a good example. He uses this gambling image as so much more than a simple advisory against gambling, but rather as a life lesson: by all means take the extreme risk , he suggests (the game of pitch and toss), but ‘never breathe a word about your loss’- suggesting an instruction not to dwell on failures and not to self-recriminate. A life lesson.

And this idea of life lessons as opposed to pleas as to how to live a better life lie at the heart of these poems in comparison. Kipling is giving instructions for living a good life and Thomas for having a ‘good’ death. The two meet in Kipling’s idea of filling the ‘unforgiving minute/with sixty seconds of distance run’. Surely this is the same idea as ‘Do not go gentle…’ –  the idea that we should not relax our efforts as death approaches. Thomas goes further, calling for ‘rage’ and asking his father to ‘curse. bless’ him. He needs to see his father continuing to struggle. For Thomas, this rebelliousness IS his father, any other behaviour would be a betrayal. His Villanelle ends positively in the exhortation to ‘rage’ -the alternate repeated lines need to fall in this order. In doing so, this defiant message is the one which is foregrounded. For Kipling, whose subject is about living life in the long term, the tone is triumphant  – he ends with an exclamation mark, but the advice is balanced carefully to ensure there is no misunderstanding. That said, the long list of conditionals is rather daunting: what, ALL of them? we might respond.