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.
Those are the lines Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, begins perhaps his most famous, and unnamed, poem, written in 1947. It was suggested that Dylan wrote the poem for his dying father, but apparently that was never confirmed directly by Thomas. Regardless, its opening line became an oft-quoted battle cry to all, to live life to the fullest, regardless of circumstance, even though the light of their life may be dying.
Long before Thomas crafted his famous lines, an English poet, John Donne, in 1624, wrote a poem with lines that became equally well known and oft-quoted, beginning
No man is an island, entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main . . .
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.
Adding one more well-known author’s contribution to a developing theme, is a line from the beginning of The Passionate Friends, a novel by H. G. Wells. The protagonist, Stratton, is writing to his son, regarding the vagaries of advancing age and what can happen to us, mind and body alike. As Stratton puts it, “…our personalities are stolen from us.”
And once that happens, once our memories, even our personalities, have been stolen from us they are irretrievable. That person we knew, and loved, is just as lost to us as if the victim of a fatal accident.
So why do I write of such things, now? It is, I think, because I have a life-long friend who is now slowly fading into “that good night,” who is being lost to friend and family even as he remains among us.
I find myself wanting to rage, rage against the dying of the light that has been the life of that friend. And as the disease “steals his personality,” I am only too aware that when the bell tolls for him, it will toll as well for me, and all those who know and love him.
The simile that comes to mind is that of watching a loved one departing on a ship, watching as that ship slowly sinks below a distant horizon. Though still physically among the living, they are just as surely being lost to us. And somehow, that loss seems even more poignant, as we have to be witness to its inevitability.
Over my now eight-plus decades, I have lost friends suddenly, by accident or illness. I have lost friends, relatives, parents who left us slowly. Some raged against that dying light, some never had even a sunset, or a twilight. Regardless, in each and every loss, their death diminished me in various ways.
John Donne was most perceptive, and quite correct. None of us is an island, unto ourselves. We are a part of that continent of humanity, and we are, indeed, involved in mankind. And when the bell tolls, it tolls for each and all of us.
I have no way of knowing how much longer my friend will still be physically among us. In a sense, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, as his “personality has been stolen from us,” and we no longer have him with us as the dear friend I once so enjoyed.
Is there something to conclude from this, some great lesson to be learned? All the obvious ones have been long known, and well reported. I can add little to the wisdom of the ages. But in this time of widespread acrimony, when we slam the door on a friendship, drive a wedge into a marriage or family, over issues that over time will fade into the dustbin of history, we would each do well to listen carefully. That faint sound we hear, nearly drowned by the tumult, is a bell tolling. And it is tolling for each of us, and for all of us.