Can you explain the following words and expressions from the text of the poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" by Dylan Thomas?bones are picked clean,clean bones gone,stars at elbow and foot;...

Can you explain the following words and expressions from the text of the poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" by Dylan Thomas?

bones are picked clean,
clean bones gone,
stars at elbow and foot;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel,
unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
gulls cry at their ears,
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down

Asked on by santanu2

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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This is a complex, contrasting, metaphorical--one might even say metaphysical--poem that uses grizzly, unpleasant images (i.e., imagery) to describe a positive spiritual belief. A modernist poet, Thomas illustrates the Modernist idea that while humans have become separated from their sense of humanity and from nature, there is still literal and metaphorical redemption and resurrection of our humanity available to us, even if it might come literally only after death.

EXPRESSION MEANINGS
bones are picked clean,
--vultures feed off of carcasses exposed in hot sun until all the meat is removed from the bones

clean bones gone,
--the bones "picked clean" are gone because buried or carried away by predators

stars at elbow and foot;
--an allusion to the idea that the dead rise to dwell among the stars, like the myth of the Seven Sisters of the stars of Pleiades; thus stars twinkle all around the risen dead, at "elbow and foot"

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
--allusion to a Medieval torture machine, the rack, that stretched people apart, tearing their muscles (i.e., sinews) from their bones

Strapped to a wheel,
--allusion to another Medieval torture machine in which a person was roped onto a wheel that going round and round crushed the person with every turn

unicorn evils run them through;
--Biblical allusion to Isaiah 34:7 where unicorns are mentioned as being slain with other enemies.

Split all ends up they shan't crack;
--another allusion to the machines of torture that may break bones but won't break the soul, which shall not break ("crack")

gulls cry at their ears,
--allusion to death at sea

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down
--unrelenting sun may cause death until the end of the world

COMMENT
Two things are critical for understanding this poem: punctuation and figures of speech. The poem is a string of figures of speech that have non-literal meanings. Punctuation leads to meaning. Some lines are connected to others through enjambment and commas, while other lines are separated, partly or completely, from others through semicolon and periods. These help you know which metaphorical expressions go with the next and which start new metaphorical thoughts.

STANZA EXPLANATIONS
Stanza 1
--Beginning with a Biblical allusion to Christ's resurrection breaking the power of death, this speaks of the power of resurrection over the horrors of death. Dead people have no possession, they are "naked"; their molecules shall become part of the wind of nature and part of the cosmos ("moon"). When the time comes that vultures have eaten the flesh from abandoned bones, the bones themselves are buried or carried away by predators. Then the dead will rise to the heavens, because death can't hold them (line 1), and shall have stars twinkling all around them, at their elbows and feet. Though all manner of awful thing may happen, death will not conquer, the dead will have resurrection.

Stanza 2 Explanation
--Here is another list of all manner of horrible things that might happen to the dead or that might cause death. Yet even these things will not hold the dead in bonds: death has no power because of the Resurrection (line 1)

Stanza 3 Explanation
--Metaphors from nature express the same idea: no matter what happens (washed ashore dead on the beach; pounded by great storms; etc,) death has no power to hold the dead, even until the end of the world.

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