The Madman and Dominion

by Lynn Michael Martin

The title and beginning line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” appears to be an allusion to the apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church. In its context, Paul argues that we humans should emulate the resurrected Jesus:

“Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Rom 6:8, 9).

Later in the epistle, Paul argues that we should live for a deathless future made possible by Jesus. By his statement that “death hath no more dominion,” Paul refers both to the Jesus’ perfection and to a future time when the destructive forces of evil will no longer be law for mankind or for creation. From the Pauline significance of this opening line, one would expect that Thomas’s poem would be describing a utopia, but such is not apparently the case.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

by Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man 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.

For the first few lines of Thomas’s poem, the certainty of a seemingly hopeful phrase is followed by one that paints a darker picture. After “And death shall have no dominion”—a prophetically optimistic phrase, Thomas says

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon.

“Dead men naked” hardly seems the way to continue the triumphant first line. Instead of depicting a bright future with apotheosis for the dead, this line suggests that the poem is a eulogy over corpses. Similarly, Thomas uses another hopeful phrase—“they shall be one”—a phrase that seems to allude to Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, “[t]hat they also may be one” in God (John 17:21). But the oneness of Thomas’s dead men is not a oneness with God, but rather “[w]ith the man in the wind and the west moon.” The image apparently describes dead bodies exposed to the elements; bodies so dead that they are at one with the universe.

However, the poem’s prophetic voice makes this picture seem almost noble and elevated. For example, all through this first stanza (and the rest of the poem), we read powerful “shall be” statements; statements of prophetic certainty like those in the revelations of Scripture: “And the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isa 11:7), “And there shall be no more death” (Rev 21:4). This aura of prophecy ennobles the repellent images, pronouncing them by a golden tongue. However, it also serves to give the images a sort of nostalgia, due to the comfortableness of prophetic certainty. Perhaps this is due to a rectitude that we feel in reading the poem; it seems as though we are on the side of the prophecy, or even that we are the prophet himself. Humans like to be right.

By inverting the phrasal shape in his next iteration of the “shall be” motif, Thomas helps us further to embrace the repulsive:

When the bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot.

Here, instead of beginning well and ending unfortunately, Thomas begins by picturing bodies as carrion, and continues to say that the dead men “shall have stars at elbow and foot.” Just as a comedy is an inverted tragedy, this inversion of a tragic sentence structure highlights the goodness that can even be found in the image of a corpse. Since the last statement of a sentence receives the most weight, and since the idea of resting against stars seems a peaceful image, the whole sentence seems harmonious and right.

Besides, the picture itself seems positive in a roundabout way. It alludes to Genesis, where, when Adam sins, God pronounces, “[D]ust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19). Upon death, the matter that makes up the human body will go into the ground and return to nature. But Thomas suggests that upon returning to dust, the “dead men” will be granted some sort of dominion. For example, if one bit of dust from my elbow rests in one star, and one bit of dust from my foot in another, I can say that the brightest beings in the universe stand at my right hand and lie under my feet. Perhaps dead men can even claim for themselves a sort of “panhumanism,” where man is everything.

The happy ending of this phrase also overwrites the dark and meaningless pictures of the poem’s first few phrases. This is in part through the tying together of lines 2 through 5 and with their ending assonance: one/moon/gone. The goodness of the phrase “they shall be one” and the pastoral nature of the phrase “the wind and the west moon” become highlighted through their connection, setting up a sense of peaceful acceptance. Then, when the “clean bones [are] gone,” that same peace falls over the aversive picture of bone-picking. But finally the rhyme section ends with a different ending—“foot”—which signals the completion of the line-group. This last line, “They shall have stars at elbow and foot,” settles all the other images into a satisfying cadence.

The rest of the stanza grows out of the first part like a hymn out of primordial dissonance. It expresses a clear “though [bad], they shall [good]” phrasing, making for a much more obvious optimism than the first half of the stanza had:

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;

But though these lines express more hope than the first half of this first stanza, they demand to be questioned for their obscurity. How are dead men “mad”? And though it is easy to see that dead men can “sink through the sea,” we don’t expect that to occur often.

Perhaps these lines, along with the previous lines, should be read less literally and more holistically. The images may be as metaphorical as many prophecies are—perhaps they signify not specific examples of triumphs over death, but rather several different facets of something far more elusive. If so, this abstract picture cannot be seen in the deconstructed poem, but only in its whole. For this reason, I won’t go into the possibilities that arise from this reading, except for one important one: If all the rest is metaphorical, perhaps in this poem physical death is also metaphorical—perhaps the poem speaks of us who are still alive, but who are tempted to fall down before death in veneration and despair. Perhaps someday all that we know will be one with death, but should we therefore attune our lives to that inevitability, as if it were the fundamental truth? Thomas’s poem tells those who walk in darkness not to despair, since “[t]hough they be mad, they shall be sane.” And “Rising again,” in line 7, very much implies the resurrection spoken of in Paul’s epistle—the truest hope of all humanity.

The hopeful nature of this stanza is soon shaken, however. The other two stanzas contain similar structures and metaphors as the first, but they become much less certain. In stanza two, for example, Thomas’s metaphors become more painful: for example, “Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break” has the same bad-to-good structure, but the good is far less salient—instead of the triumph being in rising again, it is merely in not breaking. He then continues, to say,

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;

Though the language remains elevated, it becomes far less clear that good is triumphant. Faith is usually something that we don’t wish to snap in two—and where is the hope in being split and run through, even if, in all this pain, we “shan’t crack”?

But if the optimism of the second stanza is elusive, that of the third is diabolically so.

No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;

Now, besides the bones of dead men being gone, it seems that the world itself is failing—not even the waves break anymore, and there are no more gulls. And the metaphor continues:

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;

Though, again, this stanza has much the same feel and language as the other two, it ostensibly proclaims no victory. Previously Thomas said that “[t]hough lovers be lost love shall not,” but here, one of the most common metaphors of love, the budding flower, is overturned.

Thomas also brings back the madness that he spoke of in the first stanza, where he said, “[t]hough they go mad they shall be sane.” Here, he says instead

Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;

Here, Thomas completely forswears his previous “though [bad], they shall [good]” phrasing, and speaks in terms of “though [bad], then [worse].” The dead men, “mad and dead as nails,” unravel until they hammer their heads through daisies.

Finally, in the penultimate line, everything seems to go wrong: “Break in the sun till the sun break down.” We are not given a subject for “break”—perhaps this clause carries over the subject of the previous clause. If so, it is “[h]eads of the characters” that “[b]reak in the sun.” Or perhaps it is the nearest preceding noun, and the daisies break in the sun. Alternatively, the line may be in full imperative, no longer saying “shall be” but “be.” In that case, we are the ones who break in the sun. This incoherent imperative, not stipulating its own subject, therefore spreads itself out over all three subjects, and ties them together with the breaking down of the sun—with the ultimate death of earthly light.

What, then, should we make of this deepening darkness, that progresses stanza by stanza until a complete obscurity? One of the most obvious facts about the poem, and one that I have not yet addressed, is that every stanza both begins and ends with “And death shall have no dominion.” In the first stanza, this phrase bookends a picture of victory—a surprisingly unclear victory, but a victory nonetheless—in which the stanza turns from the dark to the light. But the second and third stanzas almost seem to mock their bookends—they contain no classically beautiful metaphor; in fact, in them the classical metaphors are reversed: flowers no longer bloom, and gulls no longer cry. Perhaps, instead of characterizing each stanza as lines between bookends, we should describe the voice of the poem as that of a lunatic shackled between two policemen. Seeing the incongruity of the world, the madman leans out, screaming. Each time, he leans out farther, but law and order restrain him. And though he believes less and less in the optimism of the sane, sanity still exists, and he may someday come to see it again.

And just as the force of order attempts to bring healing to the madman, the phrase “And death shall have no dominion” brings order to the poem. With its roots in the utopia proclaimed by Jesus and Paul, the line shows us humans what we might become. It contains the clearest and most optimistic “shall be” statement of the whole poem, and thus epitomizes whatever prophecy that the poet hopes to speak. Though we are analyzing the poem, this line at the same time interprets us, just as the policemen know and restrain the madman even when the madman does not know the policemen. But someday we may see hope, not merely through the hands that restrain us, but instead through our own eyes.


Citations: Thomas, Dylan. “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/and-death-shall-have-no-dominion/

Artwork: Landscape With Buildings, Didier Barra, 1590-1644

This essay was written for a contemporary poetry class at the University of Maryland for Professor Joshua Weiner.