Rewriting Great Poetry

The twentieth century produced no greater poet than Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). And Thomas produced no poem more powerful or impassioned than “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” You read that right: Thomas said “gentle,” not “gently.”

In the poem Thomas exhorts his dying father not to be meek when facing the end, but rather to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The poem’s title is also its opening line, a line which since its first appearance in 1951 has been “improved” by a host of armchair grammarians who prefer gently.

It happened again last week, in a sentence written by a damn good journalist: “You know what Dylan Thomas wrote about going gently into that good night.”

A 2007 documentary called “Do Not Go Gently” received the Gold World Medal in Humanities at the New York Festivals Film and Video Awards. I am sure the film is a fine piece of work, despite its bungled title.

An Internet search turned up this article: “Poem Analysis of ‘Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas.” One can only hope that the heedless chowderhead who wrote that heading did not also write the essay. But just to be on the safe side, I didn’t read a word of it.

Another online expert proclaims: “OK, Dylan Thomas gets a pass, but if he were still in school and that were an assignment, his teacher would probably take off points. It should read, ‘Do not go gently.’ ” Well, no, actually it shouldn’t. This mastermind is the one who needs a remedial English class.

In Thomas’s poem, go is an action verb (see short essay below), which is why these clueless critics insist on the adverb gently. True, we modify action verbs with adverbs, but certain sentences complicate the issue. We could say Don’t go into that meeting angrily, but we could just as properly say Don’t go into that meeting angry.

Action verbs and adjectives combine forces all the time. In Joe sanded the table smooth, the adjective smooth describes table, not sanded. Same with The book is lying open: no one would argue for the adverb openly, even though is lying is an action verb.

There is a subtle but pronounced difference between go gentle and go gently. And great poetry raises subtlety to an art form.

Thomas would never have chosen gently because it trivializes and vitiates his message. As an adverb, gently lasts only as long as the action it describes. Thomas is concerned with much more than one finite action. By choosing gentle ((Do not go gentle = “This is no time for you to be gentle”), Thomas puts the focus on you, all of you; all of us. He implores us to be tenacious and unwavering as we brace for the battle no mortal will ever win.

Tom Stern

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Action Verbs and Linking Verbs

Main verbs fall into two broad categories: action verbs and linking verbs. In a sentence with an action verb, A does B. In a sentence with a linking verb, A is or is like B.

An action verb describes something being done (He left home) or taking place (The building collapsed). A linking verb is a kind of equal sign. It connects a noun with an adjective (They appeared restless) or with another noun (Bill was being a jerk), or it fleshes out the subject (I remain your friend always).

Where action verbs take adverbs, linking verbs require adjectives. This is why it is incorrect to say I feel badly about what I said. When feel is a linking verb, we feel bad (adjective), not badly (adverb); we only feel badly when our hands are numb. And when we feel with our hands, feel is an action verb.

Many verbs we think of as action verbs can sometimes be linking verbs. In They were getting breakfast, it’s clear that were getting is an action verb. But They were getting sleepy makes were getting a linking verb.

Pop Quiz
Can you tell linking verbs from action verbs? Answers are below.

1. She looked fond of her husband.
A) In this sentence looked is a linking verb.
B) In this sentence looked is an action verb.

2. She looked fondly at her husband.
A) In this sentence looked is a linking verb.
B) In this sentence looked is an action verb.

3. Katie says that when she and Ana grow older, they will grow the best tomatoes in the county.
A) The first grow is a linking verb; the second grow is an action verb.
B) The first grow is an action verb; the second grow is a linking verb.
C) Both the first and second grow are linking verbs.
D) Both the first and second grow are action verbs.

4. When I turned to reply, her face turned red.
A) The first turned is a linking verb; the second turned is an action verb.
B) The first turned is an action verb; the second turned is a linking verb.
C) Both the first and second turned are linking verbs.
D) Both the first and second turned are action verbs.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She looked fond of her husband.
A) In this sentence, looked is a linking verb. (She = fond)

2. She looked fondly at her husband.
B) In this sentence, looked is an action verb.

3. Katie says that when she and Ana grow older, they will grow the best tomatoes in the county.
A) The first grow is a linking verb; the second grow is an action verb.

4. When I turned to reply, her face turned red.
B) The first turned is an action verb; the second turned is a linking verb.


If you wish to respond to another reader's question or comment, please click its corresponding "REPLY" button. If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

9 Comments on Rewriting Great Poetry

9 responses to “Rewriting Great Poetry”

  1. Buddy says:

    “Sleep tight” or “Sleep tightly”: which one is correct?

  2. Chetna H. says:

    Such is my fascination with the subject that finding this newsletter in my Inbox is always a treat, & this morning’s is no exception.

    This poem has long been a favourite, & I cannot read it without tears welling up, having heard it read, not only by Richard Burton, but by my father (also a Welshman, also possessed of a good voice), at the funeral of a dear family friend. It has fire to match its dignity, & your point is perfect.

    Thank you so much.

  3. Steve says:

    What is your evaluation on these lines from Robinson Crusoe?

    “We had very good weather, only excessive hot, all the way upon our own coast…”

    I should also mention that this is a partial quote from an eighteen-line, one-sentence paragraph that contains fifteen commas, three semicolons, and only one period! Talk about slow-paced!

  4. Anthony D. says:

    After enjoying your thoughts about the revision of gentle to gently for the Dylan poem, I thought I’d trade this story with you:

    I wrote for a local magazine. One of the stories about boundaries, lot lines and neighbours reminded me of Frost’s Mending Wall. And so I began with, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The owner/editor changed it to, “There is something that doesn’t love a wall.” Grammatical, yes. Poetic and powerful, maybe not so much.

  5. Cindy says:

    Fantastic article, Tom!

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *