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The act of dying in literature: Symbolism and themes

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3145 words Published: 11th Apr 2017

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Death from Different Views in Poetry

The act of dying has been a fact of life since we have become into existence. Death by human nature is something most individuals do not look for with anticipation, others fear, and some even try to prolonged the life and ignore the unavoidable looming death that awaits us all. Death is not a controllable factor for anyone it comes as it will and it takes in the end all of us.

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The difference in how Thomas’s poem on death Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Because I could not stop for Death, by Emily Dickenson are striking, and merit further examination. Both works are about death and the experience of dying however, but the feel and vigor within the works are strikingly different, by looking at the literary devices , usage of metaphor, symbolism and the overall style within each work as well as the themes within each work the differences will be clear.

What drew me to this topic is the fact that I have experienced my share of death in my lifetime, at a young age I lost my father then in a few months time I was to lose my best friend, then another friend and lastly my paternal grandmother, all within three months time they died in separate and sometimes sudden and unexpected ways. I was beyond comfort by the time I lost my second friend to unexpected circumstances and I turned to poetry as a balm during this time. I could receive no comfort from any well-wishers even though they played important roles in my life I was depressed and did not understand all the loss I had experienced, my young mind was unable to wrap around the facts. I did not want to idly engage in merriment, or move on and live my life, as before, I simply wanted to be left alone to grieve as I was fit. I looked to the poetic works of Byron and Dickenson I read their experiences and perspectives on death. I found solace within their works. I came across Thomas’s poem on death immediately the first lines spoke to me; lines seemed to be striking a cord within myself lines 1-3 are quoted below:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Thomas, 1937)

Within these lines with these three versus I knew how I would want to pass away, Knowing full well that death will come for us all but I can make sure I do so on my own terms with my own ideals in place and with a fiery fight.

When looking at death from a poetic standpoint it can be quite romanticized, it is like a courting event to some and to others it is like a war, something to fight against. In the poems, Because I could not stop for Death, by Emily Dickenson, and Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas we see two distinctly differing takes on death and the act of dying. Dickenson in this work presents a calm and caviler take on death it is as simple as a carriage ride and reflection, A courtship between death and immortality while the lady is whisked away for a nice carriage ride and reflection. While Thomas rallies and fights against the unavoidable, even though his father is frail and weak and is obviously in the late stages of life is at the precipice of death he asks his father to continue to fight to raise hell against the death that has come to claim him to fight. He is simply not content to let his loved one pass gently (Clugston R, 2014).

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

This work feels like a battle cry, a mantra against the unavoidable and inevitable. Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, offers a cry to all who have had an instance in life when they were down and out and have lost their motivation. Giving your effort to 110 percent, when you know it is not going to change a thing about your situation is what I feel when I experience this work, being down and out but not done, if you are going down, well go down fighting take the end on your terms and make sure you are known for it. Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night is an underdog story wrapped into a battle at the end of life, it is loud, it is a fight , it is a take me down sure but I shall be fighting you tooth and nail and screaming to the last breath I take tale. (Lakoff, 2009)

It is hard not to be moved by the gusto and bravery in the tone of the narrator and the motivational factor within his words. He is addressing at first an unknown listener who is urged not to go gently into that good night; the usage of metaphor is heavy within this work. (Thomas, 1937)Light and dark, night and day, express life and death, fire is used to promote the intensity of life and one should “burn and rave” to intensely burn and angrily stand one’s ground against the coming death that old age has brought the individual. While this poem is romanticized in a manner, it is not a quiet a romance. It calls out with fervor to resist death to wage an all out passionate war to call out in a loud and vigorous war cry calling the individual to fight to the last breath against the unavoidable to become almost obstinate in the face of death.

Themes within Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night


One’s Mortality is perhaps the main theme within ,” Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, the tragedy of this tale is the fact that despite the fight there will still be death always and forever, there is no cheating death. The manner in which the individual can die is to be controlled as much as possible and the degree or measure that one can go out meekly or one can go out with a fight. Thomas, is urging his father to go out with a fight and to battle against the death that is approaching him. (Cyr, 1998) The finality of death is evident her there is no mincing of words that there is nothing to come from dying it is the end peroiod. Once death takes the individuals last breath their story has ended and they have made all the mark upon this world thay will ever make. The death is more than passing it is the extingusing of life force the sinencing of a flame forever.

Old Age

Age is part of living but in this entry, old age is a key indicator that death is closing the gap, and the elder individual is courting death. As the individual moves through his life, he has varying titles each one brings him closer to his inevitable fight with his own death. I notice the author uses differing titles attached to the men, wise, good, wild, and grave while these men could be distinctly differing individuals in this work they are the same man which is Thomas’ dying father. The stages of growth and development of the man in this case the father is referred to as differing titles within the work. His father is now an old man and the differing titles are roles he has played during his life on the path to dying and each carry a different aspect and role in the acceptance of death and aging. (Lakoff, 2009) All are symbols of the type of man he could be and at times he was in his lifetime each title giving him the strength he needs to rally and fight against his death. With each stage and each title, the man learns something he needs to know about how to fight death and prolong his life to the fullest extent possible.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Wise men are the first category listed within this poem. Wise men have wisdom and knowledge that fighting against the fading light, making sure you exists as long as possible on this plane of life is the true wise choice. “Because their words had forked no lightning”, their words have not yet to make their mark and be truly memorial, they must fight and stay so their work can be truly memorable in nature. (Thomas, 1937) Understanding there is potential left yet in living the wise man knows there is reason and worth in fighting on and there is living left to do. Knowing there is reason to fight against death and bringing the most vicious and ardent fight one can against death is wise and knowing that his end is near and still being able to have the vim within him to make a stand is truly remarkable. (Lakoff, 2009) The dying man’s actions this fight and the death will add to the dying man’s legacy and make the wise man’s story all the more remarkable to be told. Wisdom comes from the act of living not the death of a man only the deeds and actions of the living are talked about the dying is just something that person does in the end. Knowledge is found in the tenacity of the individual having the intelligence to know it is right to fight against death

Because I Could not Stop for Death

In stark contrast to the vim and vigor shown toward the reluctance to enter into death’s domain in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, there is a calm unaware feeling about death in Because I Could not Stop for Death. There is a gentleman who picks up the lady in a fine carriage and a nice ride is taken time passes but it seems that only moments have past but in the end it is understood to have take centuries to reach the realization death has occurred and the gentelman companion is death himself. (Armand, 1984) Death is not something that is scary or even noticeable here just an occurrence that was looked over as the individual who dies entered into another existence even the transcendence was understated.

Themes Because I could not stop for Death


The act of not stopping for death is a huge theme here, it is saying that no one courts death however; death courts each one of us. The individual in the narrative is not looking for death but death finds them all the same. The individual is ready for death and passes without any fight. (Lakoff, 2009) Death came, in death’s time took their life, and ended their time on the mortal coil almost without the individuals notice. Death was neat, calm and unavoidable, and somewhat pleasant in nature. The ending of life in this poem feels like a courtship a mutual even that is enjoyable and nostalgic. There was never any idea until the end that her mortal life has ended and she had entered into some other existence.


In an almost oxymoronic fashion there is an underlying theme of immortality to this work as well, the woman whom has died is taking a carriage ride going along gaily exploring memory lane with death centuries after her demise. Immortality resides within the carriage with them and has touched the woman and she has been granted a type of going on transcendence into another place of existence. The fact that she was able to continue to be in existence after her passing speaks of a life after death on some plane, she can see things that she saw and knew in life and is able to interact in some meaningful way with her surroundings. (Bollobás, 2012) Her memory speaks the the aformetioned existiance of an afterlife. The woman who has passed on and died is sheill herself and retains her memoriesr but she is not longer alive in the traditional sense.


The work itself does not define a specific spiritual belief or stand point, but the fact that there is an afterlife points to a type of spirituality. We know that the author Emily Dickenson is a Christian believer but that belief is not evident in this work. What is evident is the fact that death is not an ending in total but a new type of beginning. (Armand, 1984) As the woman finds out in the ending that she has been dead centuries in fact she has been exploring and existing on a differing level.

Similar Points of the Works

Both works capture the act of dying from perspectives. The rational living world is left behind and a somewhat mystical and unknown realm of death is looked at in detail. The things missed in life are also included within both works, things left undone and life that was not lived unto the fullest are all topics mentioned. (Clugston R, 2014) The surreal nature of the felting nature of life and the finality of death are shared as well. There are similar usages of metaphor and symbolism in both poems as well there are meanings lying underneath the words and stanzas.

Usage of Metaphor and Symbolism in both works

A metaphor is, something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; an emblem; or a symbol. (Clugston R, 2014) Metaphors are used heavily in both works to get the important points across. In Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, metaphors are present; the closing of the day, the dark, and the night are all differing ways to convey death throughout the work. Death is always referred to in a negative meaning it is never looked upon in a positive way, alluding to the fact that death is not good and is to be avoided at all costs. The light is the will to live or the soul, and is always in a positive light meaning that life is to be held onto. There is rage and the rage is the fight the resistance against death. The loss of living and the act of dying are referred to as two differing things in this work. Death is the act of dying and living is the light the act of existing the ability to still make a difference. Lastly the sad height the pinnacle of living the last moments of life where the best moments can still be experienced before life is extinguished for good and life’s flame is seen at its brightest a blaze and death claims his father. (Cyr, 1998) The symbole and metaphors withing this peice are all about fght and resistaince of dying, at all cost death is to be rallied againse and no one should take death laying down. Death may come for all but it is never to be accepted and it should be taken only on the dying individuals terms.

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Metaphors are used in; Because I could not stop for Death, include the usage of morning noon and night to represent differing stages of life. These stages are represented by children at play are used to represent the early years and the playfulness of youth the grain of the field is used to as a representation of the working years and the setting sun as the death or act of dying. Death is symbolically nothing to be afraid of and is seen and nothing more than a gentleman caller or a suitor who takes the woman on a carriage ride neither of these ideas bring to view something that is looked upon as a bad thing, much to the contrary a suitor is sometimes waited on with anticipation and glee. (Bollobás, 2012) The chill the woman has is an indicator she has crossed over and is in the land of the dead and the afterlife, her dress is not suited for the coming night. Overall, the symbols and metaphors point to death being another natural occurrence in the cycle of existence and it is not a point to fret over or fear at all. Death is simply something we all come to see in death’s own time.

The symbols are used in both works to add dualistic meanings and hidden within the lines and stanzas of each work there is an additional story and emotional meaning lurking within the works themselves. There are double meanings and alteration within each work, but the meanings and the stances are very different indeed. Each author uses similar methods to give very different meanings on the topic of death and the act of dying.

The idea the both these words deal with similar topics and themes is evident, but the way in which they approach death and dying could not be more different. The works that are looked at both look into death but once accepts dying as fact and a new beginning of sorts. Dickenson asks the reader to accept death as another event along a journey not an ending point not something to fear but another experience along the path. Death is calm and not at all noteworthy, death is simply just something we all must accept and move through. Nothing more than a lovely courtship that we hold little control over we just make the date when it comes to pass get into the carriage and go where ever it wishes to take us as it is decisive in its nature and the deceased should have no wishes concerning death’s timetable or plans.

Thomas looks at death adversely, death and dying are always something to fight off and stave for as long as one can. There is no dignity found in a calm and peaceful death the true measure of a man in how he meets his time of death with a fight and takes no quarter. Nothing short of a no holds barred fight will do when death comes to call, it is not something to accept it is something to argue against and avoid at all cost until there is not fight left. For Thomas there is no joy in death it seems final and no life is seen after death, death is truly and ending.

In these works the differing natures of death and the way dying is treated are beyond clear. We see the romantic courtship and calm death of the woman in because I could not Stop for death. In stark contrast there is a war fought against death in o Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. There is much to be said about the act of dying, these works say much indeed but nothing other than the topic are similar, and then the similarities stop. The works themselves can almost be seen fighting against the view points of the other to show what death has in hold for us the reader in our own time, whether it be a calm courtship and gentle death or an all out war is up to the individual.

Works Cited

Armand, B. L. (1984). Emily Dickinson and Her Culture the Soul ‘s Society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bollobás, E. (2012). Catachresis in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Troping the Unthought:. The Emily Dickinson Journal, 21(1), 25.

Clugston R, W. (2014). Journy into Liteature. SanDiego: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

Cyr, M. D. (1998). Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: Through “Lapis Lazuli” to ‘King Lear.’ (William Shakespeare, William Butler Yeats). Papers on Language & Literature.

Lakoff, G. a. (2009). More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thomas, D. (1937). Do not go gentle into that good night. In T. Dylan, The Poems of Dylan Thomas. New Directions.

Thompson, E. P. (1994). Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Cambridge University Press, 1994.


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