How might one explain the title and theme of Dylan Thomas's poem "And death shall have no dominion"?
The title of Dylan Thomas’s poem “And death shall have no dominion” is strongly and obviously indebted to a particular phrase from the Bible, in the King James translation. It helps, however, to read that phrase in its larger context:
7: For he that is dead is freed from sin.
8: Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:
9: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
10: For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
11: Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans: 6:7-11)
Thomas’s first line (the line repeated many times throughout the poem) also provides the title for the poem. Notice the difference, however, between this line and the passage in the Bible to which the line alludes: “And death shall have no dominion” (Thomas); “death hath no more dominion over him” (Paul in the Bible).
One immediately striking difference between Thomas’s poem and the biblical passage to which it alludes is the complete absence of emphasis, in Thomas’s lyric, on either Christ or sin. Sin is the central preoccupation of Paul’s words, but Thomas’s poem never mentions sin. Thomas does briefly mention “evils” (16), but he presents human beings as victims of evils, not as perpetrators of them. Paul sees humans as corrupt and fallen and in need of redemption; Thomas’s poem seems to imply that all humans and other living things will automatically be transformed at death, without having faced any requirement to seek salvation.
Based on its title (as well as on many other details), Thomas’s poem is a prophecy, whereas Paul’s words speak of an already accomplished fact. Thomas’s poem refers to the death of any person, whereas Paul’s words refer first and foremost to the death of Jesus, who has now transcended death through his resurrection. Thomas’s poem is never quite specific about how and why anyone or anything on earth will no longer be under the dominion of death, whereas Paul’s words are rooted in standard Christian theology: anyone who accepts Christ as his or her savior will transcend death as Christ himself has already done. Thomas’s poem emphasizes the beauties of nature; Paul’s words emphasize the glories of the afterlife in heaven with the risen Christ.
One way to interpret Thomas’s poem is as an effort to invent a pantheistic theology, although the details of that theology – precisely because it is invented – can often seem unclear when it is contrasted with the traditional, conventional doctrines enunciated by Paul.
The title is redolent of the English metaphysical poet John Donne's famous verses: "Death, be not proud" and "Death, thou shalt die" in which death is addressed to directly. It means death shall not prevail. It shall not dominate and triumph over love and a love of life. It is in keeping with the title of another poem written by the same poet, Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night."