Dylan Thomas – And Death Shall Have No Dominion The Author and His Times When, in 1939, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood set sail for the United States, the so-called ‘All the fun’ age ended. Auden’s generation of poets’ expectations came to nothing after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and they, disillusioned, left the European continent for good. In the late 1930s the school of Surrealism reached England, and Dylan Thomas was one of the few British authors of the time who were followers of this new trend in the arts. He shared the Surrealist interest in the great abstracts of Love and Death, and composed most of his work according to the rules of Surrealism.
His first two volumes, Eighteen Poems and Twenty-five Poems were published in the middle of the decade and of this short surrealistic era as well. Dylan Thomas was declared the Shelley of the 20th century as his poems were the perfect examples of ‘new-romanticism’ with their ‘violent natural imagery, sexual and Christian symbolism and emotional subject matter expressed in a singing rhythmical verse’ (Under Siege – Robert Hewison, 1977.). The aim of ‘new-romanticism’ was setting poets free from W.H. Auden’s demand for ‘the strict and adult pen’. In 1933 Dylan Thomas sent two of his poems to London, one of which was an earlier version of his famous poem, And Death Shall Have No Dominion.
It was dated April 1933 in Thomas’s notebook and was published for the first time in the 18 May 1933 issue of the New English Weekly. After its first publication, the poem was altered several times and got its final form in Twenty-five Poems, even though Thomas was not particularly proud of this work of his, and was not sure about publishing it for a second time. The Poem Immediately in its title, the poem has a reference to the New Testament, which was one of Dylan Thomas’s main sources of metaphor. The title (and the refrain of the poem as well), ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ has been taken from the King James Version of the Scriptures, which, with its flowing language and prose rhythm, has had profound influence on the literature of the past 300 years. ‘Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
Likewise reckon ye also yourselves dead to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Romans 6:9-11 There is another line in the poem, ‘Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;’ which resembles a line from the Scripture: ‘And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.’ Revelation 20:13 The assertive optimism of the poem can also be brought into connection with the traditions of evangelical hymns, which is best reflected in the lines ‘Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not, And death shall have no dominion.’ It seems, that it is this assertive optimism Dylan Thomas is trying to impose on the reader, and, perhaps on himself as well in this poem, maybe in order to keep his sanity. Being one of the least obscure of Dylan Thomas’s poetry, it was evident, that of his earlier woks, beside Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, And Death Shall Have No Dominion would catch public imagination quite easily. The thing in this poem that drew the attention of the everyman was the constancy of hope coming from the notion that everything is cyclical: though the individuals perish, ‘they shall rise again’, and, though particular loves are lost, love itself continues. The tone of this poem is quite sermon-like, and its atmosphere is rather Christian; yet, the central theme in it is not religion, nor the religious beliefs concerning death but the relationship between man and nature. Thomas claims in the second stanza that deliverance from death is not through religious faith as ‘Faith in their hands shall snap in two, And the unicorn evils run them through;’ but he declares man’s unity with nature at death: ‘Dead men naked they shall be one With the man in the wind and the west moon.’ The frame of the poem is the title, the first line, the refrain from the Bible, repetitive and insistent at the beginning and the end of each stanza. Between these lines the poem is full of vivid imagery, of which probably the most significant can be found in the above-mentioned line (‘With the man in the wind and the west moon;’).
Here Dylan Thomas uses one of his most characteristic devices: the transferred epithet, to create a new image form ‘the man in the moon and the west wind’. Beside his sophisticated use of poetic devices, Thomas’s poems are full of lively images, such as ‘When their bones are picked clear and clean bones gone, They shall have stars at elbow and foot;’, or ‘Twisting on racks when sinews give way, Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;’ which sometimes seem to be a completely meaningless confusion of images. This is one characteristic of Surrealist poetry. In the case of And Death Shall Have No Dominion this ‘confusion’ is counterbalanced with the repetition, therefore the meaning, the feeling of the poem is homogeneous, even despite the rather nothing-to-do-with-each-other images. The significance of this poem lies in its being simple and subtle at the same time.
Bibliography: 1. A Dylan Thomas Companion – John Ackerman, 1991 2. All references to the Bible from the Bible Gateway (www.gospelcom.net) 3. Dylan Thomas – Paul Ferris, 1977 4. The Ironic Harvest – Geoffrey Thurley, 1974 5.
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The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, 1611 6. The Norton Anthology of English Literature 7. The Oxford Illustrated History English Literature – ed. Pat Rogers, 1987 8. The Penguin History of Literature, The Twentieth Century – ed.
Martin Dodsworth, 1994 9. Under Siege (Literary Life in London 1939-1945) – Robert Hewison, 1977 Poetry Essays.