Dylan Thomas and A.E. Housman each wrote poems about death that were very different from each other.
Credit: Images courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Death. Perhaps no other theme elicits such deep and varied emotions from individuals across the globe. It's no wonder, then, that poets through the ages—no matter the time or place—have sought to address death through poetry. For poetry enables any poet to meditate upon and emotionally and lyrically respond to death, whether the death of a stranger, a loved one, oneself, or just the fact of death itself.
Poems about death, however, vary greatly both in terms of their tone and form. Some poems such as A.E. Housman's commonly read "To an Athlete Dying Young," for example, present death as a way to celebrate a young life lived to its fullest. Dylan Thomas' well-read villanelle "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," by contrast, takes a different look at death: fight until the end, regardless of its inevitability.
In this lesson, students will study poems about death, including the aforementioned poems. Upon completing the suggested activities below, students will have a better understanding of how to read and interpret a poem from both the thematic level of death and the detailed level of poetic form. This lesson will provide them with analytical skills for reading and understanding poetry in general.
Upon completing this lesson, students will be able to
A mid-nineteenth century English poet, A.E. Housman was a Latin scholar and professor best known for his oft-quoted poem "To an Athlete Dying Young," poem XIX from the volume A Shropshire Lad (1896). Housman composed this volume after the 1892 death of his close friend Adalbert Jackson. Its themes include beauty, love, fleeting youth, grief, death, and patriotism. For more information see the brief biography of A.E. Housman from the Academy of American Poets website and The Housman Society biography, a link from the Academy of American Poets.
A Welsh poet who lived from 1914 to his early death at age 39, Dylan Thomas, by contrast to Housman, shunned formal education. His poetry is more akin to emotionally charged Romantic poetry instead of the social and political poetry of his day (e.g., T.S. Eliot). For more information, review the brief biography of Dylan Thomas from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website.
Despite the many differences in their lives, including their poetic influences and their generation itself, Housman and Thomas both lyrically contemplate death in their poems. Indeed, the theme of death is timeless throughout the world of poetry, retaining its significance to a broad range of poets and their unique styles. The traditional form of a "death poem" is the elegy, as used by Housman. An elegy explores several stages of loss, including the lament, praise, and admiration of the dead subject. For more information, see the Academy of American Poets essay on the elegy.
Other poetic forms, however, can finely capture the theme of death. Though traditionally about pastoral themes, the villanelle is the form Dylan Thomas chose for his well-known poem. The noticeably rigid form of the villanelle, with its rhyme scheme and two refrains, helps Thomas advance his tone and emotion as he addresses the death of his father. For more information, see The Villanelle Essay from the Academy of American Poets and Poems for Funerals for a history of death in poetry.
Perhaps the most important first step for students in closely analyzing a poem is to hear and/or read the poem aloud. This initial activity, which should take about 20 minutes, is meant to start a general discussion of the poems while also preparing students for their own in-depth analysis of both poems.
First have a student volunteer read "To an Athlete Dying Young" to the class, and then read the poem again yourself. Alternatively, to help visually set the stage of "To an Athlete Dying Young," have students stand and form two lines. Then ask for a student volunteer to read the poem while walking through the student lines; this reading set-up visually mimics the poem's two processionals: 1) cheering the young athlete after a victory and 2) carrying the coffin during a funeral procession.
Introduce the form of the elegy, including the rhyme scheme (aabb), stanza form of quatrains, and iambic tetrameter. Note that an elegy typically presents a speaker who both mourns and grieves the subject while also praising him or her as a way of acknowledging and sometimes even accepting the fact of death. Launch the initial discussion of this poem by focusing on the form: How does this form influence the tone of "To An Athlete Dying Young"? (Teacher Note: Although the poem is about the death of a young man, the tone is upbeat and positive. In the end, the subject actually is praised for dying before he grows too old for glory and honor).
Re-read the following two stanzas, asking students to pay attention to the sounds they hear the most prominently:
To-day, the road all runners come, Shoulder-high we bring you home, And set you at your threshold down, Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away From fields where glory does not stay, And early though the laurel grows It withers quicker than the rose.
Continue the initial discussion of the poem, using the following questions:
Now ask students to contrast the prominent sounds in these stanzas to the fourth stanza, using the following questions:
Before turning to Thomas' poem, introduce the villanelle form. Point out that a villanelle, by contrast to an elegy, is a rigid form that historically featured more light-hearted and simple themes. Ask students to pay attention to the form as they hear the poem, considering the following guiding question: Why do you think Thomas chose this form for "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"? (Teacher Note: The characteristic refrains allow Thomas' poem to build momentum, ultimately fortifying the subject as he faces his father's death. The form's rigid rhyme scheme allows the poem to take on a meditative quality, turning the form's historical dance song qualities into a solemn "song" about death and dying).
Next play for students the audio clip of Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night", a link from Modern American Poetry. Play the audio clip a second time, asking students at this point just to write down repeated words. After playing the clips, ask students the following questions to continue the initial discussion of these poems:
To transition to this small group activity, review the following poetic terms, available via a link from the American Academy of Poets, with students. First ask students to define the terms, and then fill in any gaps in their understanding. This step should take about 7–8 minutes.
After introducing students to the poems and common terms, break students into four small groups to have them conduct in-depth analysis of the poems' form and meaning. Assign two groups to "To an Athlete Dying Young" and two groups to "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." Hand out the corresponding student analysis worksheet to each group. Ask each student group to analyze its assigned poem in small groups via active discussion. Tell each group select a note taker to record the group's response on the worksheet, and point out that each group will present its worksheet responses to the full class.
This activity should take about 15–20 minutes. As students are participating in their small group discussion, visit each group for 4–5 minutes to listen and offer assistance as needed. Make sure all students are participating in the discussion. Be sure to help the Thomas groups understand the villanelle form.
During this full class activity (Day 2 of the lesson), first have each Housman group present its responses (as recorded in the worksheet), followed by the Thomas groups; a different person can present each response. Encourage the second group for each poem to respond to each other during each group presentation, and vice versa. Allow 6-7 minutes for each group presentation. After each poem is presented by both groups, ask for questions and fill in any gaps in understanding.
After all groups have presented their responses, hand out a Venn Diagram worksheet (PDF) to each small group, or have them use the online Venn Diagram interactive. Direct the groups to compare and contrast the poems by completing the Venn diagrams using the following guiding questions (allow 15 minutes for this activity):
Wrap up this activity by reviewing the similarities and differences of the poems, asking for student input during this final discussion.
To help students relate to poetry in a contemporary and personal way, ask students to identify songs and movies with the overarching theme of death. Write a list on the board as students offer suggestions, asking students to identify the tone, mood, and ways in which death is presented (e.g., celebratory, fearfully, saddening, etc.).
Have the class choose five pop culture references on which to focus for this activity. Divide the class into five small groups and assign one reference to each group. Have each group spend 20 to 25 minutes searching for and exploring poems about death at the Academy of American Poets website or Representative Poetry Online. Prompt each group to locate a poem about death that best captures the same mood/tone of the song or movie assigned to their group. Visit each group for 6-7 minutes to help them stay on track and locate a relevant poem.
Regroup as a full class. Have one volunteer from each group read the poem to the class. Then have a second volunteer from each group explain how the poem relates to the chosen song or movie. Allow time for the class to ask questions and/or offer comments.
Have each student choose two poems and write a 2 ½ -3 page written analysis in which they compare and contrast the poems, answering the guiding question of how the poems present and address death. Tell students that a general outline of the paper should be 1) brief analysis of poem #1 (analysis of speaker/persona, tone, rhyme, sound devices, and figures of speech), 2) brief analysis of poem #2 (analysis if speaker/persona, tone, rhyme, sound devices, and figures of speech), and 3) comparison and contrast. Encourage students to use concrete examples from each poem.
If time allows, incorporate a discussion of additional poems about death, paying particular attention to tone. See Poems for Funerals, from the Academy of American Poets or the EDSITEment-reviewed Representative Poetry Online for additional poems, including "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" by Emily Dickinson, "Spring" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and "The Dead Man Walking" by Thomas Hardy.
2-3 class periods