This week’s choice is “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas, which I have chosen to mark the passing of a much-loved uncle.
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;Dylan Thomas (1914—1953)
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.
Poem 251. And Death Shall Have No Dominion
And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one With the man in the wind and the west moon; When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, They shall have stars at elbow and foot; 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.
And death shall have no dominion. Under the windings of the sea They lying long shall not die windily; Twisting on racks when sinews give way, Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break; Faith in their hands shall snap in two, And the unicorn evils run them through; Split all ends up they shan't crack; And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion. No more may gulls cry at their ears Or waves break loud on the seashores; Where blew a flower may a flower no more Lift its head to the blows of the rain; Though they be mad and dead as nails, Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; Break in the sun till the sun breaks down, And death shall have no dominion.
This is a meditation on immortality which Dylan Thomas wrote in a kind of competition with an amateur poet friend. It emphasises the cyclic nature of life to show that death is a transition rather than an end point, and that far from being master of men’s souls, death is irrelevant in the bigger scheme of creation.
Each stanza begins and ends with the forceful assertion “And death shall have no dominion”, suggesting a cycle of existence by repeating the line first and last in every verse.
The first stanza tells us that even when the dead have been reduced to dust and are no more substantial than the space between the stars, they live on in memories like the constellations; madness and sanity are sides of the same coin; the drowned sink and rise, and love endures even when the lover is lost.
The second stanza speaks of those who die unnatural deaths: though they suffer drowning, torture by the rack and wheel or murder, their life is still meaningful despite the manner of their death and even faith is weaker than the fact of their having existed, though that existence is at an end.
The third stanza reminds us of the cycles of nature: the repeated cries of gulls and the breaking of waves on the shore; though they are gone like flowers smashed by the rain, the flowers return in time and will do so “till the sun breaks down”.
I first heard this poem performed by Richard Burton on the poetry recordings I have mentioned before. His sonorous voice was a perfect match for the cadences of the poem and it struck me as a very impressive poem even at the age of 15. I like its message that while individual deaths matter to those who surrounded the dead person, life as a whole is not subject to death—because living things are continually recreated from the atoms of the universe, “death shall have no dominion”.