“And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is a poem in three nine-line stanzas of sprung rhythm. Each of the stanzas begins and ends with the title line, which echoes Romans 6:9 from the King James translation of the Christian New Testament: “Death hath no more dominion.” The title and the refrain give the theme of the poem—resurrection—and introduce its characteristic rhythm and solemn tone.
The poem is built on repetition, and not merely of the title. Once the meaning of the first line is grasped, the entire poem is understood. Each of the intervening lines and images is simply another way of saying that the life force is immortal—that people’s bodies may die but their spirits live on in the world.
The speaker of the poem is a grand and disembodied voice. There is no particular representative intended; there is no character whose words these are taken to be. The poem is an oratory; it is truth spoken out of the air.
The first stanza deals with the dead, who shall be made whole again at the end of time. The unity and wholeness of the universe is hinted at by an arresting rearrangement of elements that Dylan Thomas creates in the third line: “the man in the wind and the west moon.” Man in the moon, man in the wind, west wind, west moon—it does not matter how the parts are arranged because all is one.
When dead men reach the final reckoning, therefore, even though their bodies are gone, “they shall have stars at elbow and foot.” The paradox of having elbows and feet and yet no body reiterates the poem’s theme of resurrection. More important than the body is the spirit or the life force. “Though lovers be lost,” the poet says, “love shall not.” It is not people but people’s spiritual force that shall endure.
There is much religious-sounding language in the first stanza, particularly many echoes of the language of the King James Bible: “naked they shall be one,” “stars at elbow and foot,” and “they shall rise again.” There is no Christianity here, however. God is never mentioned, there is no talk of souls or of salvation, and the moment at which all shall or shall not happen is not specified as any sort of Judgment Day. Whatever happens to people happens because that is the nature of things, not because a supreme being has ordained it.
In the second stanza, Thomas treats the pain of life and death. Even if the pain should be bad enough for people’s faith to “snap in two,” they will still not suffer a final death. It is nature, not faith, that determines one’s ultimate fate.
The last stanza connects one’s life force to that of other natural beings—the birds and flowers. When people die, their life force may enter a daisy or the sun, but it will not simply end. Death shall have no dominion.
As is often the case with Thomas’s poetry, much of the power of this poem comes from the sound of it. It should be read aloud to be fully appreciated. “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is one of his poems that Thomas himself chose to record. When one listens to the poem, one is immediately struck by its rhythm. Gerard Manley Hopkins coined the term “sprung rhythm” to describe his own poetry in which the rhythm is based not on metrical feet, but simply on the number of stressed syllables in a line. The term is apt here. Two different readers...
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reciting this poem are likely to stress different syllables within any given line, yet both readers will create the same effect of wavelike rhythm—strong, regular, and insistent.
Thomas creates this powerful rhythm by the careful selection of words and the crafting of lines. Nearly all of the words in the poem are monosyllabic and contain explosive consonants that create a sharp separation between words.
One line from the first stanza demonstrates this: “When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone.” The combinations of consonants make it nearly impossible to elide words in this line. In “picked clean,” the two hard k sounds demand to be sounded separately; in “clean bones gone,” each of the three words begins with an explosive consonant, and the repetition of the n creates the effect of stress and echo. The line must be read slowly, distinctly, and rhythmically.
Most of the lines in the poem are punctuated at the end, and much of this punctuation is in the form of periods and semicolons. Again, this forces the reader to pause at regular intervals, enhancing the rhythm.
Repetition also aids rhythm in this poem. The most obvious example of this is the title line, which occurs six times in the poem, creating a rhythm of larger units that recede and echo back.
Repetition operates on a smaller scale as well. In the first stanza, three lines are structured to echo one another: “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.” In the first two lines, repetition of the word “they” helps to create the wavelike effect, as do the words “lovers” and “love” in the third line.
Thomas has not created rhythm for its own sake, although his body of work clearly demonstrates that he was much taken by the beauty inherent in spoken language. This poem’s rhythm, reminiscent of a Christian prayer or sermon, reinforces the solemnity and importance of its theme.
Thomas chooses to echo religious oratory, not to deliver a Christian message, but to offer his idea of resurrection in a ritual style that Christians will understand.