Reflections on Dylan Thomas and the Poetry of ‘Interstellar’

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Interstellar enjoyed a well-received wide release a couple of weeks ago on the tail of much praise and fanfare and several posts on my own Facebook feed from people celebrating its beauty and achievement. And I agree—Interstellar is mostly a fantastic film (besides the obvious problems of paradox that always mess with wormholes), and had I more time before this post’s due date arrives, I could think of a hundred things to which I’d like to apply a little personal philosophy, or a little analyzing, or just a little happy rant about Hans Zimmer’s legendary score, among other things.

But since I have not the time, I’d like to substitute my working history as an English major and talk—just talk—about what made this film especially meaningful to me, by which I mean one of the film’s grandest recurring themes: the recitation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

The poem in its entirety reads as follows:

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.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

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.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or, if you like, you can hear it read by Anthony Hopkins, who I’m pretty sure does a much better reading of the poem than Dylan Thomas himself, for some reason:

I have been told time again, in the tradition of many famous authors and poets, that a good reading of a piece of art must—more often than not—eliminate the presence of the artist completely, focusing clean on the subject at hand and the message within. But the thing is, there is a message without the text, and I have usually found that a piece of poetry is almost always improved in scope when it is considered hand-in-hand with the life and times of its author. In the case of Interstellar, even a little foreknowledge about Dylan Thomas and the strangeness of “Do not go gentle” in the midst of his chaotic life and lexicon amplify the film’s cathedral tones to new depths.

Thomas lived a fleeting life, dying before the age of 40 during a flash of fame—not unlike the sudden destruction of a fiery star. And burning he was; a drunk, a liar, a “lord of misrule” wearing the mask of recklessness, never in one place or state of mind for long. He seemed to be, like the workings of the universe itself, something of a wild card.

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And yet “Do not go gentle,” written just a few years before Thomas’ death, takes on an unusual physical form to have been birthed from such a character. It is, compared to much of the rest of his work, a rather mathematical poem, arranged in a formal poetic style called a villanelle: a 19-lined poem with the rhyme scheme ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA in which there must must be two refrains and two repeating rhymes. The first and third lines of the opening tercet must be repeated alternately in the last lines of the next stanzas. In the final stanza, the refrain must serve as the poem’s two concluding lines.

A careful poem for a careless man whose personal involvement with this poem enlightens one of Interstellar’s central themes: the desperate boundlessness of love.

Thomas famously wrote “Do not go gentle” under the inspiration of his deteriorating father—an eerie detail, again, given Thomas’ own death not far on the horizon (dare I say… the event horizon?) As if it could be written from a child to his father, but also, perhaps, to the poet, from himself. This secret history gives enormous power to Interstellar’s narrative, which sees a father denying the inevitable fate of the deteriorating Earth for the slim chance to save his children’s future in a “rage against the dying of the light.”

One of Interstellar's teaser images.
One of Interstellar‘s teaser images.

In this sense I must absolutely disagree—through pure virtue of this poem’s inclusion in the film—with critics who write that Cooper’s relationship with his children is too understated, too poorly crafted to amount to its intention of being the driving motive in Interstellar, and thus kills its emotional core. In fact, it is the perfect characterization of the microcosm within “Do not go gentle,” which witnesses the remoteness of fathers protested in echoing cries by Thomas’ child-voice—the desperate sob for reparation from an infant creation to its aloof, spiraling creator. And it’s true—to Interstellar’s Murph, Cooper is her whole world. And if we were to take anything at all from this movie, it’s the refrain that “love transcends space,” even the space between a parent and his children.

In simple terms, the poem serves as a love song to humankind, by humankind, but also as a brush against the interaction between humans and the universe.

Nature, as Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brant suggests, is terrifying an intense, but not evil. It can be met with. We can observe its craft, much as Thomas does in the careful, defiant lines of “Do not go gentle.” The poem is both rebellious and respectful—the exact same approach used by Cooper as he faces his mortality in the unfathomable dimensions of space-time.

Thomas wrote in a letter once, “I like things that are difficult to write and difficult to understand. I like redeeming the contraries….” Perhaps, then, this is the lens through which we must encounter the universe of Interstellar and “Do not go gentle.” Perhaps it is the lens through which we must encounter all things.

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5 thoughts on “Reflections on Dylan Thomas and the Poetry of ‘Interstellar’

  1. Wow, thank you!! I just saw it a few days ago and, without context, the inclusion of poetry in an already-poetic film felt a bit…well, self-indulgent.

    But with this explanation it does lock perfectly into place. Very fitting…and with a far deeper meaning than I would have realized. Love vs. space…reminds me of those odd mathematical situations where the infinite and infinitesimal press up against one another and we end up with an answer that is both beautiful and finite.

    Legendary black hole joke by the way…Hawking would love it.

    1. This makes me happy! I’m so glad to have contributed some sense of the “beautiful and finite” within the poem and the film. I definitely need to rewatch it.

  2. Excellent thoughts. In the deluxe soundtrack album, there is a track at the end where all the actors read “Do Not Go Gentle.” It was when I first listened to that track when the meaning of the poem in the movie started to click. What I first walked away with, was that the inclusion of the poem in the film was almost a prayer from Murph to Cooper… “And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.” This final section mirrors Murph’s deep longing to see her father again and is heartbreaking in its beauty.

    Now, reading your thoughts, the film/poem relationship is even more enriched! To add to what you were saying about the poem echoing the remoteness of fathers: it almost seems like a layer of Interstellar is a commentary on how detached fathers have become from their children in our society, yet how that hasn’t changed their deep love for their children, or the possibility of connection.

    Needless to say… I’m a BIG fan of this movie. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! The poem sure does a lot of work for this film, and both of them seem to heighten the other’s experience in a unique way.

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