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The Use of Imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa’s Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers Essay


In the poems Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa’s Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers, the poets Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke and Langston Hughes employ the poetic device of imagistic language to allow each poet to tunnel beneath the superficial meaning of the poem, and allow the poet to deliver an original view of each poem’s subject matter.

This essay will demonstrate how the poets Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke and Langston Hughes use the imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa’s Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers to express deep-rooted themes of death, family and evolution respectively.

Dylan Thomas published Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night in 1951. The poem was written for his father, who was suffering from old age and illness. The Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night follows a rare poetic form known as the villanelle. This type of poem originates from the Italian word villan, which means peasant (Hochman 7).

In a villanelle, every first and third line of the tercet rhymes with the first, third, and fourth lines of the quatrain; in the case of Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, this is occurs in the final stanza (Hochman 7). Villanelles historically were pastoral songs; however, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night differs, as Hochman explains “the poem does not preach calm…but rage, rage against death, that event often equated with Nature as an ultimate physical force.

This is not a villanelle expressing the pleasure of nature’s cycles and seasons, a balanced acceptance of births and deaths, but a raging against what is, an acknowledgment that a life within nature—as all lives subject to life and death must be” (Hochman 7).

To affect this end, Thomas uses powerful imagery such as “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” to highlight the contradiction between life and death, specifically, the point at which life becomes death (Thomas 239).

The power of the imagery lies in its ability to represent the paradox of life and death – including lines such as “crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay” (Thomas 239). Thomas uses imagery to reveal the deep meaning of life, that all deeds, regardless of whether they are heroic or mundane, must end.

Theodore Roethke wrote My Papa’s Waltz in 1948. As a confessional poet, Theodore Roethke’s famous poem about a childhood waltz with his drunken father has prompted a number of critics to construe the meaning of the poem as indication that Roethke suffered abuse at the hands of his father as a child (Pagnattaro 2).

Certain imagery in the poem certainly supports this interpretation, particularly such lines as “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” and “At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle” (Roethke 49). However, Roethke uses imagery such as “I hung on like death” and “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself” to further the deep meaning of family (Roethke 49).

In Theodore Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz, imagery such as “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” reveals the complexity of the relationships between children and their parents (Roethke 49). The child is actually having fun with his father; the fact that the father is intoxicated matters less than the close moment that the two of them share in the waltz before bed.

Theodore Roethke uses imagery in My Papa’s Waltz to encourage the reader to investigate their own deeply complex relationships with their family members, particularly their parents, and contemplate what these paradoxical relationships say about humanity, that a child can fear and love his father at the same time.

Langston Hughes published the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers in 1921. In The Negro Speaks of Rivers, the poet Langston Hughes uses imagery such as “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins” to reveal the deep underlying structure of human evolution (Hughes 23).

Langston Hughes is best known as a member of the Harlem Renaissance, “one of the most important American literary and arts movements…which reached its height in the 1930s” (Hardy 2). His works stands out for its intense lyricism. As Hardy notes, “Hughes was…well educated [and] he drew inspiration for his poetry largely from folk forms, including, most notably, the African-American musical tradition of the blues” (Hardy 2).

The poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers employs intense imagery such as “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young” and “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it” to reveal the ancient patterns of human evolution and human civilization that have developed in close proximity to rivers such as the Nile and the Euphrates (Hughes 23).

The imagery fuses the ideas of the blood of human civilization with the blood of time, and then further extends the metaphor to include the development of black history. The Negro Speaks of Rivers anchors the history of blacks within the creation of the planet, as underscored by the anthropological and archeological evidence that places the oldest evidence of humans and human civilization in the continent of Africa.

As Hardy notes, Langston Hughes “uses the central metaphor of the river to speak of a black history that flows fluidly from Africa to America. The speaker does not reflect Hughes as an individual, but rather his connection to a mythic and collective black soul” (2). Langston Hughes uses imagery to tie the evolution of the human species to Africa, and locates black history in the development and survival of the human species over eons.

In the poems Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa’s Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers, the poets Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke and Langston Hughes successfully reveal and develop deep themes of death, family and evolution using the poetic device of imagistic language.

This essay set out to show how the poets Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke and Langston Hughes employ the imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa’s Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers to express themes that are not obvious at the first read of the poem.

The imagery in each poem permits each poet to gain access to the deepest stratum of meaning and significance, far beyond the surface meaning of the poem, and allows the poet to penetrate unique, original and complex interpretations of each poem’s subject matter.

Works Cited

Hardy, Sarah Madsen. “Overview of The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Michael L. LaBlanc. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 2001. Web.

Hochman, Jhan. “An Overview of Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 2012. Web.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.

Pagnattaro, Marisa Anne. “An Essay on “My Papa’s Waltz”.” Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 2001. Web.

Roethke, Theodore. The Waking: Poems, 1933-1953. New York: Doubleday, 1953. Print.

Thomas, Dylan. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Ed. Daniel Jones. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2003. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2019, March 31). The Use of Imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa's Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-imagery-in-do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night-my-papas-waltz-and-the-negro-speaks-of-rivers/

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"The Use of Imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa's Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers." IvyPanda, 31 Mar. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-imagery-in-do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night-my-papas-waltz-and-the-negro-speaks-of-rivers/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Use of Imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa's Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers." March 31, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-imagery-in-do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night-my-papas-waltz-and-the-negro-speaks-of-rivers/.


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IvyPanda. "The Use of Imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa's Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers." March 31, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-imagery-in-do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night-my-papas-waltz-and-the-negro-speaks-of-rivers/.

References

IvyPanda. 2019. "The Use of Imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa's Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers." March 31, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-imagery-in-do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night-my-papas-waltz-and-the-negro-speaks-of-rivers/.

References

IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Use of Imagery in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, My Papa's Waltz, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers'. 31 March.

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