Dylan Thomas is a prolific poet with a knack in directly addressing the adversities of humankind, which often pertains the prospect of death. ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ is a poem that reverberates with a resolution of death not holding any power over life, for beyond death still lies life, and this Thomas demonstrates through powerful and contrastive imagery encapsulating the image of the destruction of the physical life and the transgression into the spiritual and cosmic life.
The poem surfaces on the biblical concept of eternity, as the poet drives home the existence of an Afterlife through the repeated refrain of ‘And death shall have no dominion’. The excessive assertiveness in Thomas’s tone eventually comes out as a chant for desperate men on the battlefield to cleave to, and thus, Thomas is completely absolute in his message. He explains how death is analogous to childbirth, where in death, we return to a spiritual birth in another world which is intangible and cosmic; we become one with the ‘wind’ and the ‘west moon’. This cosmic birth is juxtaposed with a vivid presentation of a physical death, using skeletal imagery to highlight the deterioration of the human body, as our bones are ‘picked clean’ and then ‘gone’, while also comforting that this physical deterioration morphs into a cosmic reality where we shall have ‘stars at elbow and foot’. Thomas is incredibly dramatic and creates vibrant images and profound use of devices to augment his argument, as he contrives a series of juxtaposed images to present the paradoxical nature of life and the resolutive order of an eternal life, as he talks about the physical drowning in the sea, ‘they sink through the sea’ and the spiritual uprising from the sea of life, ‘they shall rise again’. This cosmic eternity is also reconciling as lovers who had lost each other through death will be reunited after death as love will prevail in the eternal life, and thus, even if we experience loss or encounter death, it is never the end for there still lies a transcendental life.
In the second stanza, Thomas describes a scene of war, where death is the most prevalent and pertinent subject. Here, we understand Thomas’s purpose which is to comfort those hanging at the cliff of death with the presence of a next life, a deathless world. He uses a pun with the word ‘windings’ and ‘windily’ to contrast how, despite the awfulness of their physical death where their bodies are lost on the winding ocean body, they are not lost. The image of death is depicted both in a manner that is graphic and specific, and we can see the visual lens moving from the position of the dead bodies, from those on seas to those ‘twisting on racks’ or ‘strapped to a wheel’. But these grim and grisly images are paired with sentiments of hope, as Thomas puts in that even when their bodies’ sinews ‘give way’, they ‘shall not break’; even if a mythical evil comes and destroys these men, ‘they shan’t crack’. Thomas’s sentiment emerges as the single sliver of hope for it instils in us an ardent belief that the end is not really the end.
The third stanza is impregnated with sensory images as Thomas now creates a beatific illustration of nature and the loss of the ability to comprehend nature after death. The ambience of peace and serenity brought about the painting of a seascape is broken down with a pessimistic realisation that death signifies the loss of senses, from the auditory sense of the ‘gulls cry(ing) at their ears’ or the ‘waves break(ing) loud on the seashores’ to the visual of the ‘flower’ not ‘flowering’, as Thomas alternates the idiom of ‘dead as a doornail’ to represent the loss of perceptiveness through death, ‘though they be mad and dead as nails’. He understands that when life ends, all things of nature die out subsequently but he still enforces us to cleave on to faith, with a firm declamation that it is only when want to live will we be able to, using a metaphorical statement in ‘Break in the sun till the sun breaks down’. Therefore, it is only then that death shall not dominate our lives.
Thomas attacks the visceral fear of death in humankind, and concludes by marginalising this fear and metamorphosing it into hope and faith of an eternal life. He uses a free verse with a nine-line stanza and has the tone of complete assertiveness and finality in which the stanzas start and ends with an anaphoric statement of ‘And death shall have no dominion’ to hammer down the message in both the readers and the soldiers at the battlefield. Therefore, through this, Thomas presents hope and faith for an eternal nature of the spirit, and uplifts the human mind.