Dylan Thomas was one of the eminent writers of the twentieth century. He believed that writing was a kind of self-discovery. This belief of his was even reflected in his writings and his works remained distinctly personal, having metaphorical language, aesthetic imageries and psychological details. His writings were not only personal but had worldly themes like birth, death, love and religion.
“And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas celebrates the undying and everlasting strength of the human spirit. It is through this spirit that humans can claim victory over death and ‘death shall have no dominion.’ The poet believed that the dead are never lost to us but they live on through the beauty of their memory and spirit. The struggle does not end, it continues.
Each stanza begins and ends with the title of the poem, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” In the first stanza, the poet conveys that in death, all are one. Race and skin color no longer have any meaning when a person dies. The dead body reunites with nature. In death, everyone is naked and shall be one. There’s no discrimination in death. The poet goes on to say that after death, men become part of constellations, something bigger than he was, when he was alive. Though the dead men’s bones are naked, they shall be clothed in eternal glory and shall have stars at their elbows and feet. In the following lines, the poet says that though the men will go mad they will attain sanity. Those who have drowned in the sea of human sorrow shall rise again and taste joy. Moreover, lovers who were lost will be united after death. Finally he uses the final lines, ‘and death shall have no dominion.’
The second stanza of ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ takes the reader to a graveyard which is located on the sea floor. The poet says that one can find the souls of the sailors or the others who lost their lives in the sea. According to him, these people died courageously. Their lives have tortured them, the wheel of time has tested them but none of these could break them. Faith has been cracked in two and unicorn evils will put their horns through them. The ‘unicorn’ is an ancient mythical creature, sometimes used to symbolize Christ or God. Unicorn horns are considered as harder than diamonds and can neutralize poison. Their tears can heal wounds both of physical and mental nature. Again the stanza ends with the lines, ‘and death shall have no dominion’ representing the triumph and main theme of the poem.
The final stanza talks about the land, along the seashore. The poet begins the final stanza by saying that the dead are no longer disturbed by the materialistic world and the physical elements that made up their homes. Gulls are sea birds which will no longer cry at their ears; they will not be able to hear the loud noises made by waves. Yet new life will spring up, an intrepid life like a flower that ‘lifts its head to blows of the rain.’ Their innocence shall burst through like daisies. Their innocence ultimately wins over the sun and breaks it down. The phrase ‘heads of the characters hammer through daisies’ hints at the characters of those dead people who hammer through pain until innocence breaks them. The daisy blooms as dawn breaks, symbolizing the burst of innocence. In the same way, death becomes powerless as humanity regains purity and recollects hope, disregarding pain and hatred. In this way, death can be overcome and ‘death shall have no dominion.’
Theme: The repetition of the lines, ‘And death shall have no dominion’ reinforces the theme of the poem. The message rendered was to attain victory over death and it is even used as the title of the poem. By repeating the lines at the beginning and end of each stanza, the poem has developed a nice structure and a message to the readers. The first stanza idealizes mankind, the second emphasis on God and suffering while the third focuses on nature.
The poem is structured into three stanzas each containing ten lines. The poem is composed in near rhyme. Near rhyming mean words that come near rhyming but do not really rhyme. It is also known as imperfect rhyme.
Poetic devices in “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” included pun, paradox, repetition, alliteration, metaphors and contrast.
PUN: An example of pun is found in line 12. ‘Windily’ means both the movement of the sea and also the shroud in which the dead are buried in the sea.
PARADOX: ‘Unicorn evils through’ is an example of paradox because unicorn is a symbol of Christ and has nothing to do with evil. ‘Though they go mad, they shall be sane’ is also an example of paradox.
REPETITION: The most distinct repetition is ‘and death shall have no dominion’ which is repeated in every stanza, marks the most important idea of the poem. The repetition of the word ‘though’ is repeated in the first stanza reinforces the basic theme and provides a secure structure.
ALLITERATION: Alliteration is the close repetition of the consonant sounds at the beginning of words to facilitate narration. ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not’ is a fine example of alliteration.
METAPHOR: A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things but is not clearly stated.
‘Faith in their hands shall snap in two.’ In this line, the poet has used a metaphor to compare faith with a wooden stick.
IMAGERY: Images of sea, torture and biblical characters are used throughout the poem. Sea imagery is found in the first stanza by depicting that the dead sank in the sea and rose again. In the second stanza, ‘windings of the sea’ is an image of the sea itself. Sound of ‘gulls’ and ‘waves’ are examples of sound imagery. Biblical imagery is found by describing the rise of the dead symbolizing Christ’s Revelation. The use of unicorn, the mythical sea creature is also an example of biblical imagery. ‘Twisting on racks when sinews give way, strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break’ brings out an image of the human body of muscles and bones in pain.
The main idea of the poem, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ is that we should not let the fear of death control our lives. Although we are mortal, we will eventually be redeemed in the end. The poet makes a striking affirmation about life and death.