This is one of Dylan Thomas’s earliest poems, and one that he loved to speak out loud (loud meaning loud). It’s about what, if anything, is likely to happen to us after we die.
There are two Biblical references. One of these gives us the title, and the 1st and 9th lines of each of the 3 stanzas. This is Romans 6:9, “Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.” The other reference is to Revelation 20:13, “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them.” And so the poem’s first, and regularly repeated line is, ‘And death shall have no dominion‘. This would appear to be a substantial and sweeping claim. Let’s follow it through.
Stanza 1. ‘Dead men naked‘, stripped of funeral shroud and flesh, ‘shall be one with the man in the wind and the west moon‘. Thomas delights to disrupt conventional phrases in order to keep us on our poetic toes. The conventional phrases are ‘the man in the moon‘, who has been removed from the earth, and the ‘west wind‘, which blows from the direction of the setting sun and the ‘dying of the light’ (to quote another of Thomas’s poems). Even if our ‘bones are picked clean’, we think of them as being the last solid bits of us to survive, but the Bible tells us that ‘dust we are, and to dust we must return’. The time will come, then, when even ‘the clean bones (are) gone‘, but all is not lost. We ‘shall have stars at elbow and foot’. Our scientist tell us that the atoms from which we’re made were generated billions of years ago in exploding stars, and that when we die, these atoms of ours will drift off to other places. Eventually, when our Sun, in its expanding death throes, incinerates the Earth, they’ll return to the starry heavens from which they came.
Should our dead bodies ‘sink through the sea, they shall rise again‘, though in what shape or form, for how long, or what purpose, Thomas doesn’t surmise. Thus far, the focus has been on our bodies, but what about our minds? The poem seems to suggest that conscious awareness may continue, and indeed that anyone who became ‘mad .. shall be sane‘. Similarly, even if the bodies of ‘lovers .. be lost‘, the ‘love‘ they had for one another will somehow, in some way, survive.
Stanza 2. Thomas now thinks about what might happen to our bodies and minds before we die. Bodies, lying ‘under the windings of the sea‘, may not ‘die windily‘, but other bodies will be less fortunate. Some will be pulled apart on ‘racks‘, and others will be beaten until broken while ‘strapped to a wheel‘. We’re told, however, that the victims of such atrocities ‘shall not break‘, even if their ‘faith‘ should ‘snap in two‘. The then appearance of the mythical ‘unicorn‘ is, perhaps, a timely hint that we should not be giving this poem too literal a reading. Though ripped open and ‘split all ends up‘ by the unicorn’s long, large, sharply pointed horn, those on the receiving end ‘shan’t crack‘, in spirit at least, brave souls!
Stanza 3. Thomas concludes by considering what we lose out on when we die. Our senses will die along with the bodies that empowered them. Without ears, we’ll neither hear ‘gulls cry‘, nor ‘waves break loud on the seashores‘. Without eyes, we’ll no longer see a flower ‘lift its head to the blows of the rain‘. Death, then, has at least one negative kind of positive – we’ll no longer see, or endure, the Shakespearean ‘blows’ of the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.
At the poem’s end, although earlier we were assured that ‘they shall be sane‘, there are still those ‘dead as nails‘, and six feet under, who are ‘mad‘. They are ‘characters‘ indeed, for with their bony ‘heads‘ they ‘hammer‘ the shoots of planted ‘daisies‘ through the earth, and into the ‘sun‘-shine. But this becomes a reminder that perhaps, ultimately, nothing endures. The time will come when our faithful old ‘sun breaks down‘, which turns our thoughts to the universe itself. Will it finally go out with another, but this time all-destroying ‘big bang’, or with the increasingly inaudible whimper of an everlasting ‘big freeze’?
As ever, we needn’t read Thomas for any easy-going answers to life’s questions. He takes us on exhilarating, mind expanding journeys along multiple carriageways, with occasional slip roads to unexpected places, as well as the ‘odd’ roundabout, screeching 1-point turn, T junction or dead end, just to keep our brains awake, our hearts beating, and our pulses racing. So, having read the poem, now tell me what you believe in. Is there life after death, resurrection or cosmic dispersal of bodies, continued awareness – or will everything become forever dark, when the last candle flame finally gutters and is gone?