SAMPLE BRITISH POETRY OF THE 1950S

Dylan Thomas (1914–1953): “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” (1951)

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas began writing poetry as a teenager at the beginning of the 1930s, ultimately publishing his first volume of poetry in 1934, at the age of twenty. At a time when leading British poets such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender were using poetry to promote socialism as an antidote to fascism and as a cure for the economic depression that was crushing Britain, Thomas turned to poetry more out of a love of words and a need for personal expression. The emotional intensity of his poetry was matched by the intensity and turbulence of his personal life, and Thomas ultimately became more famous for his hard drinking than for his poetry. Fortunately, many of his poems have become important examples of modern British poetry and are still widely read and discussed.

Though Thomas often resisted traditional verse forms, one of his best-known poems, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” is what is known as a “villanelle,” a form with a particularly rigid structure. A villanelle is a nineteen-line poem consisting of five tercets (stanzas of three lines) followed by a single quatrain (stanza of four lines). The first and third lines of the first stanza of a villanelle are what is known as “refrains,” lines that will be repeated later. The villanelle is structured by two repeating rhymes and these two refrains: the first line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. All of the first and third lines of the stanzas in a villanelle feature the same ending rhyme, and all of the second lines of the stanzas feature a second ending rhyme. There are, in short, only two different end rhymes in the entire poem. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can thus be schematized as 1b2 ab1 ab2 ab1 ab2 ab12 where letters (“a” and “b”) indicate the two rhyme sounds and numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.

“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” urges the dying not to go quietly but to battle to the end, fiercely protesting the injustice of mortality, though it can also be taken as an incitement not to surrender to defeats of any kind, somewhat along the lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which ends with the famous exhortation “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Published only two years before his death, some have seen the poem as an indication that Thomas realized that his own death was near. However, the poem was actually addressed to Thomas’s father, who was himself dying at the time the poem was written.

The first three-line stanza of the poem is among the most widely recognized stanzas in all of modern British poetry, encapsulating the exhortation to fight death with fierceness and anger. The following stanzas then list some different types of men (and the poem does specify “men,” though it can certainly be taken to refer to women as well) who do indeed resist death with fury. The phrasing in these middle stanzas is sometimes rather obscure, but the overall gist is clear. The final stanza then reiterates the message of the first, now making it clear that this exhortation is being addressed to “my father.”

By delivering this message of defiance via such a highly structured form, Thomas seems to acknowledge that certain things are beyond one’s control—including the inevitability of death. The message of the poem, then, is not that rage can defeat death. It is simply that one should live life to the end, not surrender to death before it has actually come, though it inevitably will.

“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” (1951)

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.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

xx

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

xx

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Philip Larkin (1922–1985): “Mr Bleaney” (1955)

Philip Larkin is the most prominent member of a group of 1950s English poets collectively known as The Movement. Writing anti-romantic verse that was simple and straightforward, but controlled, the Movement poets reflected a sense of Britain’s diminished status as a global power. Writing most of his poetry during the thirty years he worked as a university librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, Larkin produced an impressive body of work that led him to be named in a 2008 poll conducted by The Times as the greatest British writer since 1945, just ahead of George Orwell and William Golding.

One of Larkin’s best-known poems is “Mr. Bleaney,” written and first published in 1955. Here, the speaker arrives at a house in which he is about to take up residence in a rented room. His landlady takes him to see the room and then informs him that a “Mr Bleaney” had been the previous resident. The speaker decides to take the room and then begins to compare his own life to what he imagines Bleaney’s to have been, ultimately moving beyond the specifics of these two ordinary lives to a philosophical meditation on life in general and how one might measure the success of one’s life.

“Mr Bleaney” consists of three basic segments. It begins as a simple narrative that details the speaker’s arrival at the house and his decision to take the offered room, with quotes from the landlady explaining who Bleaney had been. In the middle section, having settled into the room, the speaker begins to imagine what Bleaney’s day-to-day life might have been like. He believes he can do so because he assumes that Bleaney must have been very ordinary and predictable. But then the poem ends with an expression of uncertainty about how Bleaney himself might have judged his life and whether he would be disappointed to have wound up in such meager lodgings as the culmination of his life’s efforts. Of course, the speaker’s vision of Bleaney’s life is really based on his own experience, though by the end he grants that he cannot be sure Bleaney would have assessed his life in the same way.

“Mr Bleaney” is constructed as a series of quatrains, each with a basic abab rhyme scheme, which is an extremely conventional verse form that emphasizes the conventionality of Mr Bleaney’s life. It is also presented in extremely mundane language, though his heavy use of slang terms that might be used by a British person of Mr Bleaney’s lowly status can make certain elements of the poem a bit obscure to a contemporary American reader. I have inserted explanations of these terms in blue blocks within the poem below.

“Mr Bleaney” (1955)

‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed

The whole time he was at the Bodies, till

They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,

Fall to within five inches of the sill,

The “Bodies” is a slang term for the part of an automobile factory where the bodies of cars would be made. It is thus clear that Bleaney had been a working-class factory worker. The frayed curtains, which do not fit the window properly, indicates the somewhat squalid nature of this room.

Whose window shows a strip of building land,

Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took

My bit of garden properly in hand.’

Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

“Tussocky” is not working-class slang, but it is rather unusual language the meaning of which might not be clear to most readers. It simply indicates a grassy area where the length and thickness of the grass is uneven, including scattered patches in which the grass is higher and thicker than in the surrounding area. Thus, it indicates an area that has not been well-tended, something that is also indicated by the litter—indicating the meager and rather unattractive view from Bleaney’s window. This grassy area might also be the “bit of garden” once tended by Bleaney, now run down.

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —

‘I’ll take it.’ So it happens that I lie

Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags

On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

In the 1950s, “fag” was a common British slang term for a cigarette.

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown

The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.

I know his habits — what time he came down,

His preference for sauce to gravy, why

The set in question here is probably a radio, though by 1955 it might have been a television set. The landlady apparently keeps the volume turned up loud, forcing the speaker to stuff cotton in his ears to drown out the noise.

He kept on plugging at the four aways —

Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk

Who put him up for summer holidays,

And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.

“Plugging at the four aways” refers to Bleaney’s imagined persistence at betting on football (soccer) matches. “Aways” refers to away games. Frinton-on-Sea is a small seaside town in Essex, England. It was once a fashionable resort town but had fallen in stature by 1955. It is known for its conservative nature and for its large population of retirees. Stoke-on-Trent is a medium-sized English city that, in 1955, would have been industrial and not a particularly exciting place to visit. Bleaney apparently spent all of his vacations in these same two places, indicating the humdrum routine of his life. The term “yearly frame” refers back to Bleaney’s “habits,” again indicating the repetitive nature of his life, each year having the same “frame,” or shape, as the last.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind

Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed

Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,

And shivered, without shaking off the dread

xx

That how we live measures our own nature,

And at his age having no more to show

Than one hired box should make him pretty sure

He warranted no better, I don’t know.

The “hired box” in question is the small, rented room now occupied by the speaker.


Stevie Smith (1902–1971): Not Waving but Drowning (1957)

The English poet and novelist Stevie Smith had a difficult childhood that included her family being abandoned by the father and a serious life-threatening disease. The most influential person in young Stevie’s life was her aunt Madge Spear, an ardent feminist and antifascist whose ideas are often reflected in Smith’s poetry. Smith suffered from depression all her life but worked out many of her fears and her fascination with death through her poetry. She lived a rather isolated existence in North London for most of her life, though she did work as a private secretary to a publishing executive for three decades. She also corresponded with many other writers, including the American poet Sylvia Plath, though she and Plath never met.

Smith’s best-known poem is “Not Waving but Drowning,” published in 1957 in a collection of the same title. The poem ostensibly tells the story of a drowning man whose thrashing about in the water has been mistaken for waving, though the drawing Smith made to accompany the published poem is of a drowning girl, perhaps suggesting her own identification with the drowning man. The poem clearly captures many of Smith’s own thoughts about the loneliness of life, the inevitability of death, and the difficulty of communicating with others. The poem stands out because it is carefully crafted to appear that it was written with little craft; the language of the poem is rather unsophisticated and employs a very simple vocabulary and problematic punctuation. Meanwhile, the poem actually employs several different speakers (which is quite unusual for such a brief poem), though all of them seem to speak in the same style. The overall tone is one of sardonic humor, despite the seemingly dark subject matter. Yet the poem remains powerful as a statement about the loneliness of human existence.

The first stanza of this brief poem is a fairly straightforward account of the man’s drowning, introduced by an unidentified speaker, but then explained by the man himself (apparently after death). Then, in the second stanza, the poem switches to plural different speakers, who lament the man’s death (but don’t seem too broken up about it), suggesting that the water must have been so cold it caused the man to have a heart attack while swimming. Finally, the key to this poem is the third stanza, which suddenly turns from the occasion of the man’s death to a suggestion (again delivered posthumously by the man himself) that, in truth, he had been drowning all his life, his signals for help never understood by others.

Not Waving but Drowning (1957)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought   

And not waving but drowning.

xx

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   

They said.

xx

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   

(Still the dead one lay moaning)   

I was much too far out all my life   

And not waving but drowning.

xx