Thursday, 22 May 2014

‘And death shall have no dominion’

‘Where blew a flower may a flower no more / Lift its head to the blows of the rain’ ... wisteria flowering in the rain at the Castle Golf Club in Rathfarnham this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

After writing last night about Dylan Thomas and his poem Do not go gently into that good night, I was pondering another of his poems on death as a family funeral continued today.

When Dylan Thomas wrote And death shall have no dominion in 1933, he took the title of the poem from a verse in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans : “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6: 9).

Last night, I sat in the garden long after dusk had turned to dark, watching a young bat flitting in the fading lights and listening to the flow of water from the lion’s mouth of the fountain.

As the funeral today move between the rain and the never-to-be-realised promises of sunshine, from the church to the graveyard to a family reception in the Castle Golf Club in Rathfarnham, I contemplated the wisteria below where we were gathered, and thought of how Dylan Thomas spoke in this poem of how:

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


And I thought too how in this poem the poet weaves together the deepest questions of faith and life as he wrestles with the meanings of life, death and existence.

Dylan Thomas speaks in the very male language of the 1930s. Yet, poignantly, in the 2003 movie Rosenstrasse, this poem is quoted as two Jewish women await deportation to Auschwitz.

In early 1933, Dylan Thomas became friends with Bert Trick, a grocer who worked in the Uplands area of Swansea. Trick was a would-be poet and had several poems published in local newspapers. In the spring of 1933, Trick had the idea that he and Dylan Thomas should write a poem on the subject of “immortality.”

Trick’s poem was published in a local newspaper the following year, and included the refrain “For death is not the end.”

Meanwhile, in April 1933, Dylan Thomas wrote his poem And death shall have no dominion. Trick persuaded him to seek a publisher, and the poem was published the next month (May 1933) in the New English Weekly.

On 10 September 1936, two years after the publication of his first volume of poems, 18 Poems, Dylan Thomas published Twenty-five Poems, in which he wrote about his personal beliefs and the forces of nature. The poems in that collection And death shall have no dominion.

The poem celebrates the undying and eternal strength of the human spirit. It is because of this strength that death does not claim ultimate victory over humanity. The dead are never truly lost to us but live on through the beauty of their memory and spirit. The struggle continues.

Three unrhymed verses make up the work. Beautiful universal imagery focuses on the sea, bones, and burial. Each verse starts and ends with the phrase: “And death shall have no dominion.”

Even as Dylan Thomas brings the reader face to face with the physical reality of death, he disarms it. He gives death meaning by allowing the reader to see the beauty behind it, especially the beauty of human courage and dignity. Timeless values live on in the stories of those who have died, for to live on in the memory of loved ones is to never die.

In the first verse, the poet shows that in death all are one. Race and skin colour have no more meaning when skin is no more. After death, the body is united with nature:

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


In death, we shall all be naked, as we are from our mothers’ wombs. In death, the innocence of Eden is restored. It is here that we become the stuff of legends. Here one person becomes part of a constellation, part of a grand design bigger than myself.

Though his bones are naked, they may become clothed in eternal glory instead of mortal skin:

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbows and foot


Their foibles will be forgotten and their glories remembered. Their confusion forgotten, they will attain an eternal perspective of clarity. Those who have drowned in a universal sea of human sorrow shall be restored and taste joy again. Lovers will be reunited:

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.


In the second verse, Dylan Thomas takes us to a graveyard on the sea floor. The dead here appear to be either sailors or other souls lost at sea. These dead died bravely, having suffered in their lives. The wheel of time has tested, tortured, and tried, but not broken them:

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.


The unicorn is an old, symbolic motif often used to symbolise Christ and God. Has God or religion let these souls down? Unicorns’ horns were said to be harder than diamonds and to be able to neutralise poisons. Unicorn tears could heal both physical wounds and sorrows of the heart. The refrain And death shall have no dominion symbolises this triumph.

In the final verse, the poem wraps up on land, by the seashore. He draws out the fact that the dead are no longer aware of the physical elements that once made up their home with the words:

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

Yet new life may spring up in their place, an intrepid life like a flower that may “lift its head to the blows of the rain.”

Their innocence shall burst through like daisies. This innocence ultimately wins over even the sun, breaking it down. To break down the sun is to steal death’s power. The phrase “Heads of the characters hammer through daisies” implies that it is the character of those dead that hammers through the pain until innocence breaks through. The daisy flower, pure and childlike, pushes stubbornly through the hard earth of the grave to rise defiantly and bloom:

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


The daisy blooms as dawn breaks, symbolising the burst of innocence or day star as the night loses out. In the same way, death starts to lose its power as humanity regains purity and embraces hope, thus discarding pain and hate. To break in implies breaking in a horse until it serves the master, instead of the other way around. In this way, death can be made to serve humanity.

Listening to the water spouting from the lion’s mouth in the fountain in the garden last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

And death shall have no dominion

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.