That Poem From Interstellar
March 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
“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.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
When I heard Professor Brand recite the first two verses of this poem by Dylan Thomas in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I actually got chills. I could immediately understand that the use of this poem was to parallel the main characters’ struggle to fight for the survival of mankind that is the central plot of the film. That part was obvious. However, as a lover of poetry, I wanted to find out more reasons why this particular poem might have been chosen.
Written by the poet as an address to his aging, dying father, the speaker essentially tries to convince his father to fight for life. He makes his argument by identifying, through various stanzas, four types of men (or people, I’d rather say) who might be approaching death: wise men, good men, wild men and grave men.
There are six total stanzas in the poem (a full version of which you can read here): an opening, four middle stanzas – each discussing one of the four types of men approaching death – and one concluding stanza in which he asks his father to consider his argument and basically keep fighting for life.
The key thing about this poem is that Thomas might describe four different types of men with different motivations, but he repeats one of the two phrases “Do not go gently into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” at the end of each stanza in order to make the argument that all of these different men, when approached with death, regardless of the life they have chosen to live, do not go down without a fight. That is the meaning of the titular line “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Thomas does refer to death as “that good night,” meaning he realizes everyone must die, but he still urges his father – and all men – to still “not go gentle.” The plea to “rage against the dying of the light” adds to the brilliant symbolism of fighting with all you’ve got until the very end.
Reflecting back on Interstellar, I felt like there were some characters in the film who paralleled the four types of men Thomas describes. Since the central plot of the story is the approaching end of life on Earth, almost every single main character is being faced with certain death for themselves and/or their loved ones if the Lazarus and Endurance missions aren’t successful. In this time, their characters are shown in the types of decisions they make and why.
Since Professor Brand is the first to recite part of the poem and he chooses to stop after the second stanza, I associated him with the “wise men.” His stanza speaks of men who know that death is inevitable and they accept it, but “because their words had forked no lightning,” they don’t go gentle into that good night. I interpreted this line to mean that wise men fought death by choosing their words and actions carefully in a way that would not further divide mean around them. After Professor Brand admits on his deathbed to Murphy that he gave up on Plan A years ago, we understand that he kept up that illusion simply to keep all of the men and women in NASA united for their cause. He didn’t want them to become divided on the moral question of choosing between their family and friends on Earth and the future of humanity that he thought could only be ensured through Plan B. Thus, he views his final fight against the death of humanity to be the choice he made to keep his true intentions a secret.
The next group of people are the “good men,” whom I believe were represented in this movie by Joseph Cooper. As a father of two young children and a valuable farmer during the world’s worst blight, Cooper has much to still offer the world before he is whisked away on the mission. The stanza in the poem describes good men whose achievements are essentially cut short by the onset of death and who would like to fight for the chance to live a bit longer and make more of an impact. From the beginning of the movie, we see how difficult it is for Cooper to leave his children, especially his daughter, and then on their first expedition to Miller’s planet, his primary concern is losing the fewest number of years before he can go home. His character’s drive to fight against the death of humanity primarily comes from his drive to go back home to his family and complete his unfinished role as a father.
Then come the “wild men,” who I associated with people like Cooper’s son Tom. These men unfortunately find happiness very easily in the world around them and are “too late” to realize when death is upon them. Even though Cooper was upset in the beginning of the film that Tom wouldn’t be able to attend university, Tom was genuinely happy following in his father’s footsteps to become a farmer. He marries and has children, all the while not realizing that the environment is getting worse and worse. As people in the town start to move away and even after the death of his first son (presumably to some kind of lung disease developed as a result of the increasing dust in the air), he remains adamant at staying on his farm and doesn’t seem to listen to his sister, all the way up to the end of the film. In this way, Tom still appears to fight death, but he is sort of fighting the wrong fight and his ignorance is blinding him from being able to fight effectively and ensure his survival earlier.
Finally, the “grave men” Thomas discusses reminded me of Dr. Mann, someone who was literally stranded on a planet in an entirely different galaxy than the one he lived in. He was so hopeless that he admitted that the last time he went down for the long nap, he “didn’t set a waking day.” He even mentions to Cooper, Dr. Brand and Dr. Romilly that they “literally brought me back from the dead.” Thus, of all the characters, he seems the closest – apart from those on Earth who have limited time to survive before the air becomes too toxic to even breathe – to death. Yet he finds the strength to keep up his lie about the planet, develops a plan to murder Cooper, blow up the camp where Romilly is, and steal the ship to go back home – all in the hopes of fighting off his own death. Even though his motivations were completely selfish and unforgivable from the audience’s standpoint, it is undeniable that he didn’t stop fighting for his own survival. Knowing life on his planet was impossible, he developed a new way to “rage against the dying of the light.”
While the story told by Interstellar is one of a fight against the death of the human race, I found it profound that all of the main characters were portrayed with different rationales for saving humanity. Even though there was the issue of relativity and time elapsing, and conflict between supporters of Plan A vs. Plan B, in the end, everyone was still trying their hardest to fight for the human race in the way they thought best. Thus, the use of Thomas’s poem in Interstellar to showcase the truly universal idea that humans will not accept the death of their race without a fight was extremely appropriate and effective.