The love letters of Kahlil Gibran, the story behind "Do not go gentle into that good night," how Rachel Carson spoke inconvenient truth to power and awakened the modern environmental conscience, and more.
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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ Rachel Carson's almost unbearably beautiful letters to her dearest friend and beloved, Martin Luther King, Jr. on justice and the ethic of love, Maurice Sendak's antidote to insomnia, and more â€“ you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation â€“ in 2016, I spent thousands of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
â€œLife and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,â€ philosopher Alan Watts wrote in the 1950s as he contemplated the interconnected nature of the universe. What we may now see as an elemental truth of existence was then a notion both foreign and frightening to the Western mind. But it was a scientist, not a philosopher, who levered this monumental shift in consciousness: Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907â€“April 14, 1964), a Copernicus of biology who ejected the human animal from its hubristic place at the center of Earthâ€™s ecological cosmos and recast it as one of myriad organisms, all worthy of wonder, all imbued with life and reality. Her lyrical writing rendered her not a mere translator of the natural world, but an alchemist transmuting the steel of science into the gold of wonder. The message of her iconic Silent Spring(public library) rippled across public policy and the population imagination â€” it led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, inspired generations of activists, and led Joni Mitchell to write a lyric as timeless as â€œI donâ€™t care about spots on my apples / Leave me the birds and the bees / Please!â€
A woman scientist without a Ph.D. or an academic affiliation became the most powerful voice of resistance against ruinous public policy mitigated by the self-interest of government and industry, against the hauteur and short-sightedness threatening to destroy this precious pale blue dot which we, along with countless other animals, call home.
Carson had grown up in a picturesque but impoverished village in Pennsylvania. It was there, amid a tumultuous family environment, that she fell in love with nature and grew particularly enchanted with birds. A voracious reader and gifted writer from a young age, she became a published author at the age of ten, when a story of hers appeared in a childrenâ€™s literary magazine. She entered the Pennsylvania College for Women with the intention of becoming a writer, but a zestful zoology professor â€” herself a rare specimen as a female scientist in that era â€” rendered young Carson besotted with biology. A scholarship allowed her to pursue a Masterâ€™s degree in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, but when her already impecunious family fell on hard times during the Great Depression, she was forced to leave the university in search of a full-time paying job before completing her doctorate.
After working as a lab assistant for a while, she began writing for the Baltimore Sun and was eventually hired as a junior aquatic biologist for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her uncommon gift for writing was soon recognized and Carson was tasked with editing other scientistsâ€™ field reports, then promoted to editor in chief for the entire agency. Out of this necessity to reconcile science and writing was born her self-invention as a scientist who refused to give up on writing and a writer who refused to give up on science â€” the same refusal that marks todayâ€™s greatest poets of science.
Rachel Carson at her microscope and her typewriter
When her older sister died in 1937, thirty-year-old Carson was left the sole provider for their mother and her two orphaned nieces. That year, she was asked to write a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau. When she turned in something infinitely more poetic than her supervisor had envisioned, he asked her to rewrite the brochure but encouraged her to submit the piece as an essay for The Atlantic Monthly. She did. It was accepted and published as Undersea â€” a first of its kind, immensely lyrical journey into the science of the ocean floor inviting an understanding of Earth from a nonhuman perspective. Readers and publishers were instantly smitten, and Carson expanded her Atlantic article into her first book, The Sea Around Her â€” the culmination of a decade of her oceanographic research, which rendered her an overnight literary success.
Against towering cultural odds, these books about the sea established her â€” once a destitute girl from landlocked Pennsylvania â€” as the most celebrated science writer of her time.
But the more Carson studied and wrote about nature, the more cautious she became of humanityâ€™s rampant quest to dominate it. Witnessing the devastation of the atomic bomb awakened her to the unintended consequences of science unmoored from morality, of a hysterical enthusiasm for technology that deafened humanity to the inner voice of ethics. In her 1952 acceptance speech for the John Burroughs Medal, she concretized her credo:
It seems reasonable to believe â€” and I do believe â€” that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
Photograph by Charles Oâ€™Rear from the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)
One of the consequences of wartime science and technology was the widespread use of DDT, initially intended for protecting soldiers from malaria-bearing mosquitoes. After the end of the war, the toxic chemical was lauded as a miracle substance. People were sprayed down with DDT to ward off disease and airplanes doused agricultural plots in order to decimate pest and maximize crop yield. It was neither uncommon nor disquieting to see a class of schoolchildren eating their lunch while an airplane aiming at a nearby field sprinkled them with DDT. A sort of blind faith enveloped the use of these pesticides, with an indifferent government and an incurious public raising no questions about their unintended consequences.
In January of 1958, Carson received a letter from an old writer friend named Olga Owens Huckins, alerting her that the aerial spraying of DDT had devastated a local wildlife sanctuary. Huckins described the ghastly deaths of birds, claws clutched to their breasts and bills agape in agony. This local tragedy was the final straw in Carsonâ€™s decade-long collection of what she called her â€œpoison-spray materialâ€ â€” a dossier of evidence for the harmful, often deadly effects of toxic chemicals on wildlife and human life. That May, she signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin for what would become Silent Spring in 1962 â€” the firestarter of a book that ignited the conservation movement and awakened the modern environmental consciousness.
Photograph by Charles Oâ€™Rear from the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)
But the book also spurred violent pushback from those most culpable in the destruction of nature â€” a heedless government that had turned a willfully blind eye to its regulatory responsibilities and an avaricious agricultural and chemical industry determined to maximize profits at all costs. Those inconvenienced by the truths Carson exposed immediately attacked her for her indictment against elected officialsâ€™ and corporationsâ€™ deliberate deafness to fact. They used every means at their disposal â€” a propaganda campaign designed to discredit her, litigious bullying of her publisher, and the most frequent accusation of all: that of being a woman. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, who would later become Prophet of the Mormon Church, asked: â€œWhy a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?â€ He didnâ€™t hesitate to offer his own theory: because she was a Communist. (The lazy hand-grenade of â€œspinsterâ€ was often hurled at Carson in an attempt to erode her credibility, as if there were any correlation between a scientistâ€™s home life and her expertise â€” never mind that, as it happened, Carson did have one of the most richly rewarding relationships a human being could hope for, albeit not the kind that conformed to the eraâ€™s narrow accepted modalities.)
Photograph by Marc St. Gil from the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)
Carson withstood the criticism with composure and confidence, shielded by the integrity of her facts. But another battle raged invisible to the public eye â€” she was dying.
She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctorâ€™s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedyâ€™s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didnâ€™t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her criticsâ€™ arguments, heeded Carsonâ€™s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet.
Carson endured the attacks â€” those of her cancer and those of her critics â€” with unwavering heroism. She saw the former with a biologistâ€™s calm acceptance of the cycle of life and had anticipated the latter all along. She was a spirited idealist, but she wasnâ€™t a naÃ¯ve one â€” from the outset, she was acutely aware that her book was a clarion call for nothing less than a revolution and that it was her moral duty to be the revolutionary she felt called to be. Just a month after signing the book contract, she articulates this awareness in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952â€“1964 (public library) â€” the record of her beautiful and unclassifiable relationship with her dearest friend and beloved.
Carson writes to Freeman:
I know you dread the unpleasantness that will inevitably be associated with [the bookâ€™s] publication. That I can understand, darling. But it is something I have taken into account; it will not surprise me! You do know, I think, how deeply I believe in the importance of what I am doing. Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silentâ€¦ It is, in the deepest sense, a privilege as well as a duty to have the opportunity to speak out â€” to many thousands of people â€” on something so important.
Photograph by Boyd Norton from the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)
In that sense, the eventual title of Silent Spring was a dual commentary on how human hubris is robbing Earth of its symphonic aliveness and on the moral inadmissibility of remaining silent about the destructive forces driving this loss. Carson upheld that sense of duty while confronting her own creaturely finitude as she underwent rounds of grueling cancer treatment. In a letter to Freeman from the autumn of 1959, she reports:
Mostly, I feel fairly good but I do realize that after several days of concentrated work on the book Iâ€™m suddenly no good at all for several more. Some people assume only physical work is tiring â€” I guess because they use their minds little! Friday night â€¦ my exhaustion invaded every cell of my body, I think, and really kept me from sleeping well all night.
And yet mind rose over matter as Carson mobilized every neuron to keep up with her creative vitality. In another letter from the same month, she writes to Freeman about her â€œhappiness in the progress of The Bookâ€:
The other day someone asked Leonard Bernstein about his inexhaustible energy and he said â€œI have no more energy than anyone who loves what he is doing.â€ Well, Iâ€™m afraid mine has to be recharged at times, but anyway I do seem just now to be riding the crest of a wave of enthusiasm and creativity, and although Iâ€™m going to bed late and often rising in very dim light to get in an hour of thinking and organizing before my household stirs, my weariness seems easily banished.
Stirring her household was Roger â€” the nine-year-old orphan son of Carsonâ€™s niece, whom she had adopted and was single-parenting, doing all the necessary cooking, cleaning, and housework while writing Silent Spring and undergoing endless medical treatments. All of this she did with unwavering devotion to the writing and the larger sense of moral obligation that animated her. In early March of 1961, in the midst of another incapacitating radiation round, she writes to Freeman:
About the book, I sometimes have a feeling (maybe 100% wishful thinking) that perhaps this long period away from active work will give me the perspective that was so hard to attain, the ability to see the woods in the midst of the confusing multitude of trees.
With an eye to Albert Schweitzerâ€™s famous 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which appeared under the title â€œThe Problem of Peaceâ€ and made the unnerving assertion that â€œwe should all of us realize that we are guilty of inhumanityâ€ in reflecting on the circumstances that led to the two world wars, she adds:
Sometimes â€¦ I want [the book] to be a much shortened and simplified statement, doing for this subject (if this isnâ€™t too presumptuous a comparison) what Schweitzer did in his Nobel Prize address for the allied subject of radiation.
In June of that year, Carson shares with Freeman a possible opening sentence, which didnâ€™t end up being the final one but which nonetheless synthesizes the essence of her groundbreaking book:
This is a book about manâ€™s war against nature, and because man is part of nature it is also inevitably a book about manâ€™s war against himself.
At that point, Carson was considering The War Against Nature and At War with Nature as possible titles, but settled on Silent Spring in September â€” a title inspired by Keats, Carsonâ€™s favorite poet: â€œThe sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.â€
Four months later, in January of 1962, she reports to Freeman the completion of her Herculean feat:
I achieved the goal of sending the 15 chapters to Marie [Rodell, Carsonâ€™s literary agent] â€” like reaching the last station before the summit of Everest.
Rodell had sent a copy of the manuscript to longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn, who gave Carson the greatest and most gratifying surprise of her life. Struggling to override her typical self-effacing humility, she relays the episode to Freeman:
Last night about 9 oâ€™clock the phone rang and a mild voice said, â€œThis is William Shawn.â€ If I talk to you tonight you will know what he said and Iâ€™m sure you can understand what it meant to me. Shamelessly, Iâ€™ll repeat some of his words â€” â€œa brilliant achievementâ€ â€” â€œyou have made it literatureâ€ â€œfull of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.â€ â€¦ I suddenly feel full of what Lois once called â€œa happy turbulence.â€
After Roger was asleep I took Jeffie [Carsonâ€™s cat] into the study and played the Beethoven violin concerto â€” one of my favorites, you know. And suddenly the tensions of four years were broken and I got down and put my arms around Jeffie and let the tears come. With his little warm, rough tongue he told me that he understood. I think I let you see last summer what my deeper feelings are about this when I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could â€” I had been able to complete it â€” now it had its own life!
Photograph by Bill Reaves from the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)
Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962 and adrenalized a new public awareness of the fragile interconnectedness of this living world. Several months later, CBS host Eric Sevareid captured its impact most succinctly in lauding Carson as â€œa voice of warning and a fire under the government.â€ In the book, she struck a mighty match:
When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence â€¦ it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.
How tragic to observe that in the half-century since, our so-called leaders have devolved from half-truths to â€œalternative factsâ€ â€” that is, to whole untruths that fail the ultimate criterion for truth: a correspondence with reality.
Carson, who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never lived to see the sea change of policy and public awareness that her book precipitated. Today, as a new crop of political and corporate interests threatens her hard-won legacy of environmental consciousness, I think of that piercing Adrienne Rich line channeling the great 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, another scientist who fundamentally revolutionized our understanding of the universe and our place in it: â€œLet me not seem to have lived in vain.â€
Letâ€™s not let Rachel Carson seem to have lived in vain.
Nearly a century after his death, the Lebanese-American painter, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883â€“April 10, 1931) endures as one of humanityâ€™s most universally beloved voices of truth and transcendence. But there would have been no Gibran as we know and love him without the philanthropist and patron of the arts Mary Elizabeth Haskell â€” his greatest champion, frequent collaborator, and unusual beloved.
Haskell and Gibran met on May 10, 1904, at a friendâ€™s studio. He was twenty-one and she nearly thirty-one. Impressed with his art, Haskell soon offered to send Gibran to Paris to study painting, with a stipend of $75 a month, equivalent to about $2,000 today. He accepted. In a letter to a friend written shortly before he departed for Paris in 1908, Gibran described Haskell as â€œa she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.â€ Shortly after arriving, he wrote: â€œThe day will come when I shall be able to say, â€˜I became an artist through Mary Haskell.'â€
But the open hands of Haskellâ€™s generosity branched from an equally open heart, from some larger kindness of which Gibran soon became enamored. He came to see her as more than a benefactress â€” a kindred spirit, a woman of uncommon tenderness, and, above all, a person willing to descend into the deepest trenches of his psyche and climb to its highest mounts in order to understand him, which he considered the greatest measure of love. It was through her generosity that he survived as an artist, and it was through her selfless love that he found himself as a man.
Mary Haskell and Kahlil Gibran. Portrait and self-portrait by Gibran.
In one of his first letters to Haskell from Paris, Gibran captures what is perhaps the greatest gift of love, whatever its nature â€” the gift of being seen by the other for who one really is:
When I am unhappy, dear Mary, I read your letters. When the mist overwhelms the â€œIâ€ in me, I take two or three letters out of the little box and reread them. They remind me of my true self. They make me overlook all that is not high and beautiful in life. Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives.
On Christmas Day that year, he writes:
I think of you today, beloved friend, as I think of no other living person. And as I think of you Life becomes better and higher and much more beautiful. I kiss your hand, dear Mary, and in kissing your hand I bless myself.
Over the year that followed, their relationship intensified. Haskell records the pivotal sequence of events in her journal the day before her thirty-seventh birthday in 1910:
Kahlil spent the evening. Told me he loved me and would marry me if he could, but I said my age made it out of the question.
â€œMary,â€ he said, â€œwhenever I try to get nearer to you in speech, to be personal at all â€” you fly up into remote regions and are inaccessible.â€ â€œBut I take you with me,â€ said I. And I said I wanted to keep our friendship enduring, and feared to spoil a good friendship for a poor love-affair. This was after Kahlil had explained what he meant.
The next afternoon Kahlil was here a while and I told him yes.
But the following spring, their relationship took its single most defining and transcendent turn â€” the decision, absolutely radical at the time, not to get married after all but to remain each otherâ€™s most intimate partner in life. The reason for it, which Haskell articulates with remarkable poeticism in another diary entry from April of 1911, was her grandest gesture of magnanimity:
It seemed to me that it was the moment of the opening of the door between Kahlil and the world that shall love him and into whose heart he shall surely feel he is pouring his work. I think his future is not far away now!
And so I made up my mind to follow what seems to me the final finger of God â€” I put definitely to myself the possibility of being his wife. And though every waking hour since has been drenched with inner tears, I know I am right, and that the tears mean joy, not pain, for the future. My age is simply the barrier raised between us and the blunder of our marrying. Not my age constitutes the objection â€” but the fact that for Kahlil there waits a different love from that he bears me â€” an apocalypse of love â€” and that shall be his marriage. His greatest work will come out of that â€” his greatest happiness, his new, full life. And it is not many years distant. Toward the woman of that love, I am but a step. And though my susceptible eyes weep, I think of her with joy â€” and I donâ€™t want to have Kahlil, because I know she is growing somewhere for him, and that he is growing for her.
Kahlil Gibran, â€œFour Faces,â€ heavily inspired by Haskell.
The following day, Haskell delivered her emotionally ambivalent yet intellectually firm decision to Gibran and said to him, â€œMy heart longs to be overpersuaded. Still I know in the end I should not be persuaded.â€ She reports his response in her diary:
He wept and I got him a handkerchief. But he could not speak. Near the beginning in one of my many pauses he said brokenly, â€œMary, you know I cannot say things, when I am this way,â€ and hardly another word. The only comment he made was to love me. When it was over I opened my arms to him â€” but he soon had me in his, and the heart is not flesh that would not have been comfortedâ€¦. When it grew late I put his right palm to my lips â€” and then indeed the tears came â€” but they drew me simply nearer to him. I kissed that wonderful hand as I have often longed to do, but as I have not before, because a mere touch on it moves him so. It answered like a heartâ€¦ Again at the door I cried a little â€” while he wiped my eyes, saying only, â€œMary â€” Mary â€” Mary.â€ And as he went he said as well as he could, â€œYouâ€™ve given me a new heart tonight.â€
Upon my tears after I went to bed it was suddenly as if a great peace and light broke â€” and he and I were in it â€” so that I cried, â€œThank you, God, thank you!â€ again and again. I was so ineffably happy. That I have given him up I realize. But it has not parted us â€” it has brought us even much nearer together.
â€œIâ€™ve always known our relation was permanent,â€ Haskell would later reflect on the decision. â€œI wanted continuity of conscious togetherness.â€ This notion, arising from the enormous magnanimity of her nonpossessive love, would eventually lead Gibran to his superb and timeless advice on healthy relationships.
A month after the decision against marriage, Gibran channels precisely such a â€œcontinuity of conscious togethernessâ€ in a letter to Haskell from New York:
Just came from the museum. O how much I want to see these beautiful things with you. We must see these things together someday. I feel so lonely when I stand alone before a great work of art. Even in Heaven one must have a beloved companion in order to enjoy it fully.
Good night, dear. I kiss your hands and your eyes.
Bedridden in June with one of his frequent bouts of illness, he writes to Haskell, who spent her summers in solitude in the mountains of the West:
Now, Mary dear, I am going to rest. I shall close my eyes and turn my face to the wall and think and think and think of you â€” you the mountain climber â€” you the life hunter.
Good night, beloved.
Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait
As the months wear on, his letters grow more and more animated by that uncommon blend of infatuationâ€™s restless longing and the solid togetherness of an unperturbeable partnership. He writes to her on October 31, 1911:
Your last letter is a flame, a winged globe, a wave from That Island of strange music.
Do you not know what it is to burn and burn, and to know while burning, that you are freeing yourself from everything around you? Oh, there is no greater joy than the joy of Fire!
And now let me cry out with all the voices in me that I love you.
Alongside Gibranâ€™s passionate proclamations is a calm bellowing tenderness emanating from the depths of his being, which he articulates beautifully in a letter from early January of 1912:
Now I will say goodnight, as any other time. I kiss you and then I say goodnight and then I open the door and then I go out to the streets with a full heart and a hungry soul. But I always come again to kiss you and to say goodnight and to open the door and to go out to the street with hungry soul and full heart.
With equally poetic passion, Haskell writes to Gibran the same week:
All I am ever finally impelled to say, rather than not say, to you of yourself seems resolvable into, â€œKahlil, you are in my heart â€” you are in my heart, Kahlil.â€ When I look back over the years, it seems always to have been that â€” with changes only of depth and heat of your heart-place.
The following month, she writes:
God lends me His heart to love you with. I asked for it when I found my own was too small, and it really holds you, and leaves you room to grow.
In the spring, Haskell writes to Gibran in New York, channeling her unselfish love and her longing in parallel in a letter that could well be a poem:
What are you writing â€” and how does it go? And what are you thinking about â€” and how does it go? And what do you want to talk with me about? â€” and how do You go?
And why arenâ€™t your arms six hours long to reach to Boston?
And when will You come to me in a dream and make night sweeter than night?
That October, Gibran repays the â€œcontinuity of conscious togethernessâ€ that Haskell had always trusted would bloom between them even though, and perhaps precisely because, they chose not to marry:
The most wonderful thing, Mary, is that you and I are always walking together, hand in hand, in a strangely beautiful world, unknown to other people. We both stretch one hand to receive from Life â€” and Life is generous indeed.
In another letter, he captures one of the small enormities that define love:
I love to be silent with you, Mary.
A few days later, responding to Gibranâ€™s concern that his physical illness and its attendant creative block might disappoint her, Haskell sends the most beautiful and generous assurance a person who is loved could hope for:
I donâ€™t even want you to be a poet or painter: I want you to be whatever you are led or impelled to become.
Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception that Iâ€™d like to see you be or do. I have no desire to foresee you, only to discover you. You canâ€™t disappoint me.
The following year, as Gibran continues to struggle, she grants him the ultimate gift of love â€” the equal embrace of his inner darkness and his inner light:
Your work is not only books and pictures. They are but bits of it. Your work is You, not less than you, not parts of youâ€¦ These days when you â€œcannot workâ€ are accomplishing it, are of it, like the days when you â€œcan work.â€ There is no division. It is all one. Your living is all of it; anything less is part of it. â€” Your silence will be read with your writings some day, your darkness will be part of the Light.
Kahlil Gibran, â€œSpirit of Lightâ€
With a sensitivity to Gibranâ€™s growing mastery of English, she adds:
It is like the resolution of greatest dissonances in great music. You know the use of that word resolution in music, donâ€™t you? â€” so deep and beautiful. â€” And it is like the reconciliation of life. And do you know Reconciliationused in that way? To me it is one of the profoundest and fullest of our words.
A few months later, having pushed through his creative and spiritual stagnation, Gibran attempts to put words around the immensity of his gratitude for this supreme gift of being seen, and loved, in his wholeness:
I wish I could tell you, beloved Mary, what your letters mean to me. They create a soul in my soul. I read them as messages from life. Somehow they always come when I need them most, and they always bring that element which makes us desire more days and more nights and more life. Whenever my heart is bare and quivering, I feel the terrible need of someone to tell me that there is a tomorrow for all bare and quivering hearts and you always do it, Mary.
You have the great gift of understanding, beloved Mary. You are a life-giver, Mary. You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.
I have always held, with my Madman, that those who understand us enslave something in us. It is not so with you. Your understanding of me is the most peaceful freedom I have known. And in the last two hours of your last visit you took my heart in your hand and found a black spot in it. But just as soon as you found the spot it was erased forever, and I became absolutely chainless.
â€œPoetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,â€ Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating what poetry does. â€œInsofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,â€ Denise Levertov asserted in her piercing statement on poetics. Few poems furnish such a wakeful breaking open of possibility more powerfully than â€œDo not go gentle into that good nightâ€ â€” a rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914â€“November 9, 1953).
Written in 1947, Thomasâ€™s masterpiece was published for the first time in the Italian literary journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951 and soon included in his 1952 poetry collection In Country Sleep, And Other Poems. In the fall of the following year, Thomas â€” a self-described â€œroistering, drunken and doomed poetâ€ â€” drank himself into a coma while on a reading and lecture tour in America organized by the American poet and literary critic John Brinnin, who would later become his biographer of sorts. That spring, Brinnin had famously asked his assistant, Liz Reitell â€” who had had a three-week romance with Thomas â€” to lock the poet into a room in order to meet a deadline for the completion of his radio drama turned stage play Under Milk Wood.
Dylan Thomas, early 1940s
In early November of 1953, as New York suffered a burst of air pollution that exacerbated his chronic chest illness, Thomas succumbed to a round of particularly heavy drinking. When he fell ill, Reitell and her doctor attempted to manage his symptoms, but he deteriorated rapidly. At midnight on November 5, an ambulance took the comatose Thomas to St. Vincentâ€™s Hospital in New York. His wife, Caitlin Macnamara, flew from England and spun into a drunken rage upon arriving at the hospital where the poet lay dying. After threatening to kill Brinnin, she was put into a straitjacket and committed to a private psychiatric rehab facility.
When Thomas died at noon on November 9, it fell on New Directions founder James Laughlin to identify the poetâ€™s body at the morgue. Just a few weeks later, New Directions published The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (public library), containing the work Thomas himself had considered most representative of his voice as a poet and, now, of his legacy â€” a legacy that has continued to influence generations of writers, artists, and creative mavericks: Bob Dylan changed his last name from Zimmerman in an homage to the poet, The Beatles drew his likeness onto the cover of Sgt. Pepperâ€™s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Christopher Nolan made â€œDo not go gentle into that good nightâ€ a narrative centerpiece of his film Interstellar.
The Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon writes in the 2010 edition of the volume:
Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. Itâ€™s no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomasâ€™s â€œDo not go gentle into that good nightâ€ is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that thereâ€™s a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomasâ€™s poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.
â€œDo not go gentle into that good nightâ€ remains, indeed, Thomasâ€™s best known and most beloved poem, as well as his most redemptive â€” both in its universal message and in the particular circumstances of how it came to be in the context of Thomasâ€™s life.
By the mid-1940s, having just survived World War II, Thomas, his wife, and their newborn daughter were living in barely survivable penury. In the hope of securing a steady income, Thomas agreed to write and record a series of broadcasts for the BBC. His sonorous voice enchanted the radio public. Between 1945 and 1948, he was commissioned to make more than one hundred such broadcasts, ranging from poetry readings to literary discussions and cultural critiques â€” work that precipitated a surge of opportunities for Thomas and adrenalized his career as a poet.
At the height of his radio celebrity, Thomas began working on â€œDo not go gentle into that good night.â€ Perhaps because his broadcasting experience had attuned his inner ear to his outer ear and instilled in him an even keener sense of the rhythmic sonority of the spoken word, he wrote a poem tenfold more powerful when channeled through the human voice than when read in the contemplative silence of the mindâ€™s eye.
In this rare recording, Thomas himself brings his masterpiece to life: