Dylan Thomas – And Death Shall Have No Dominion & Poem in October (A Comparison)

Both of these poems are interested in the way that life and death are wrapped up in one another and inter-dependent. They both see this relationship expressed in nature and landscapes. Yet the overriding tone of Poem in October is hopeful, in comparison with And Death Shall Have, whose chant-like, self-contradictory refrain gives the poem a dark, bitter tone.

Death presents itself very prominently from the first stanza of And Death Shall Have, despite apparently having no dominion there. Nature exists, not as a force of life in its own right, but as a tormentor of life. It is the ‘wind’ that picks ‘bones’ clean, and the ‘gulls’ that ‘cry at the[] ears’ of drowned men. These images echo strongly those found in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and seem to convey a similar message – death is omnipresent, in the desert, sea and soil. The poem’s superficial insistence to the contrary might reflect the fact that dead matter is reborn by providing matter for new life, the line ‘Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again’ is true of corpses on a geological time scale. Yet the perversion of death imagery in the poem suggests that, despite this process of renewal, or even because of it, death is inevitable and ever-present in living matter, which contains the memory of the dead matter of which it is composed.

Poem in October also considers the idea that all stages of life and death are contained within a single moment, yet presents it in a more positive, hopeful light. A consciousness of death is still conveyed from the opening line, which sees a person’s birthday as bringing them one year closer to ‘heaven’. However, the speaker seems to acknowledge that there is not only a future death contained within the present, but a youthful past as well. We see this in the blurring of the seasons in the poem. The ‘sun of October’ is described as ‘Summery’, suggesting a slow, pleasant transition in the manner of a lingering Summer into Autumn. If Spring can be read as a symbol for youth, then the ‘springful of larks‘ might remind the speaker of his childhood, as well as containing positive associations of liveliness and abundance. We might take Winter to mean death, continuing the seasons as an analogy for life. It is therefore significant that it is the only season not referenced directly in the poem – implying a subtextual fear or apprehension in the speaker. Winter is alluded to, however, in the phrase ‘leaved with October blood’. While ‘blood’ simply describes the colour of the leaves, it also carries an implication of death, hence suggesting the coming Winter. However, the poem overall attempts to balance an apprehension of death with a hopefulness and joy in the present and past, therefore presenting a much more positive mood than ‘And Death Shall Have’.

The use of Biblical constructions and word choice in ‘And Death Shall Have’ casts doubt on religion as an attempt to rationalize death. We hear an echo of the language of Psalms in ‘Though they go mad they shall be sane’, presenting an impossible contradiction in the style of a Herbert-style theological paradox. The idea of madness is a significant one throughout the poem, suggested in the violent, strange images and the tone of a prophecy – bringing to mind prophetic madman characters in literature, such as in Moby Dick, whose antic ramblings drive at a deeper truth. These dark, sometimes comic associations play against the formal Christian doctrine suggested by Thomas’ choice of language, and cast it in the same doubtful, mysterious light. Similarly, the Biblical sounding refrain, that defeats itself by propagating and strengthening the presence of death in the poem, suggests that death cannot be controlled or rationalized by religion in this way.

‘Poem in October’ uses linguistic effects to a very different purpose – demonstrating the vitality and connectedness of nature in syntax. Words describing specific aspects of landscape float away  their subject and apply themselves to something else. We see this in Stanza 1, with the phrase ‘the heron / priested shore’. It is a fitting metaphor for the bird, describing its reverent, gentle movements, and tall position above the water as if in a pulpit. When later in the stanza we find the verb ‘praying’, it must naturally associate back to the heron. Yet the verb is placed so as to describe either the ‘morning’ or the ‘water’. This produces the effect, on cursory reading, of nature’s elements – the birds, the water and the weather – spilling into one another, inter-connected and interdependent. It is an effect repeated in stanza 2 with ‘birds’ sat in ‘winged trees’, as if the inherent bird-ness of the birds extends beyond them into their surroundings. We are given the sense of nature flowing with energy, just as it is fluid in characteristics.

Both poems consider the relationship between life, death and nature, taking this theme in different directions. And Death Shall Have becomes a meditation on the futility of life, and the unsatisfactory-ness of religion – straying a little close to the domain of T.S. Eliot, and risking comparison with The Waste Land. Poem in October takes a more balanced, positive view, finding hope in nature that is portrayed in vivid terms. Thomas’ strength lies here, in capturing an essence, and extrapolating from it a view of existence that is both conflicted and honest.


5 thoughts on “Dylan Thomas – And Death Shall Have No Dominion & Poem in October (A Comparison)

  1. I enjoyed this analysis. Have you read Keats’ poem, To Autumn? I would be interested to know who you think uses the season to greatest effect: Keats or Thomas?

  2. I’m glad! – Of the two I would suggest that only Dylan Thomas can truly be said to ‘use’ the season of Autumn. Keats sees the beauty of nature and appreciation of it as an end in itself. No doubt we finish ‘Ode’ with a more lucid, more tangible portrait of the season than in ‘Poem in October’, which, as I suggest in the essay, is so jumbled as to leave no single clear impression of a scene. This is Keats’ primary aim, to induce in the reader a profound appreciation of beauty.
    Of course Autumn always carries with it the inevitable associations of temporality, change and gradual loss – Keats wants us to recognise this in that final line where we know the birds are ‘gathering’ to leave. But in ‘Poem in October’ these issues are the primary subject of the poem. Yes a rural Autumn is valued in a nostalgic sense, of course Thomas appreciates natural beauty probably as much as Keats does. But October is much more a means to an end, a way into a subject rather than the subject itself.
    Very hard to say which one is more effective at what it does, seeing as they do such different things. Strangly I’d probably go with Keats – ‘Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells’ and all that. It sticks with you a lot better.
    Although then I reread that Thomas line about the church like a snail in the mist and I’m unsure again.

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