And Death Shall Have No Dominion: Dylan Thomas, Friedrich Nietzsche and Tragic Joy

This is the final draft of an essay that will be published in Understanding Nietzsche, Understanding Modernism by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2018.




It is typical of the physically weak to emphasise the strength of life (Nietzsche); of the apprehensive and complex-ridden to emphasise its naiveté and dark wholesomeness (D.H. Lawrence); of the naked-nerved and blood timid to emphasise its brutality and horror (Me!)[1]

Dylan Thomas, “Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson”, 1933.

For the God he praised is a pagan deity. Pagan is the “raging moon,” pagan is the worship of the trees, the night, the sun, and the sea; pagan are the visions of rebirth from fire and the burning stars; pagan are the images drawn from the deep well of the unconscious self and mingled with Welsh myth, folklore, and ancient rites; pagan is the animistic infusion of nature with these private visions; pagan is the celebration of this world and its joys and sorrows, and the refusal to be comforted by the blessings of another; pagan is the absence of symbols of guilt and sin to account for human failure and suffering; and pagan is the transubstantiation of religious symbols into the natural order of things.[2]

Hans Meyerhoff, “The Violence of Dylan Thomas,” 1955.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.[3]

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra


Nietzsche’s death in 1900 was a global event, an exclamation point for a defiant call for cultural transfiguration to which philosophers, poets, artists, musicians and politicians responded with various forms of on-going rebellion. In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he had spurred his listeners to make death a festival, perhaps the joyous wakes of the Welsh coffin or the American south. This is exactly what happened for Nietzsche – though it was a festival which precipitated myriad cultural and political explosions across the world since the turn of the 20th century. With its forbidden exposure of the death of an exhausted civilization, the “Nietzsche event” cleared the ground for a new topography of culture, one to be inhabited by the protagonists of cultural, and sometimes, political revolution. Pound, TS Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Joyce, Stravinsky, Dostoyevsky, Dadaism, surrealism, psychoanalysis, to name a few: Modernism in music, poetry, art and literature – and religion and politics – displaced the irredeemable motifs of traditionalist culture which no longer had any credibility in the wake of the new dispensation.

With his deconstruction of Christian Platonism (Romanticism) and his conjuration of the rebirth of tragic poetry, Nietzsche reinstates musicality, eroticism and the terrible truth of death at the heart of poetry and culture (East and West).  He shattered the lifeless, empty shells of the Apollonian forms of the past (the “Old Law Tablets”), setting free a new musicality which would, in and of itself, give birth to new images, a new mythos for a tragic age. Dylan Thomas encountered this new Nietzschean topography of modernism as a found object, as the Child, in the “metamorphosis of the spirit” of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, who innocently embraces a world born of rebellion. Leslie Lavigne details this relationship in Nietzschean Elements in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas, writing:

In his expression of the Nietzschean concepts of eternal recurrence and the übermensch, Thomas followed in the path of Yeats, a path that bears many similarities to that of Blake.[4]

Modernism provided the breathing room for creative innovation, vast experimentation, eccentricity, exploration of different existential possibilities for a life lived in the face of mortality. Thomas’ profound act of defiance against the toxic culture of traditional hypocrisy was born from his own sense of tragic freedom and joy. His poetic work is a symptom of the dynamic cultural revolution already occurring in the wake of the “Nietzsche event”, one accelerated by the European and global descent into the maelstrom of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. Thomas embraced the contours of the new world, expressing his own historicity through the artistic juxtaposition of the contradictions in which he was fatefully embedded. Yet, far from being an aloof romanticist, we will disclose – through a more rigorous reading of his work – the engaged radical core of Thomas’ artistic project and way of life.

Dylan Thomas in Exile

Dylan Thomas’ path toward modernist English poetry was laid bare when he was a child. He was not taught the Welsh language deliberately – a decision taken by his father David John Thomas, a head teacher of English literature and an un-forked poet.[5] David, who was himself bi-lingual and taught Welsh lessons in his own home, inundated his son Dylan with sounds and books of English words, introducing him to the great works of English literature, including modernist poetry, psychology and philosophy. Thomas began to write poetry as a child – the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”[6] – and quickly began to edit his high school’s literary journal. Already involved in advanced intellectual, artistic and poetological questions and endeavours, Thomas, before the age of twenty, filled up notebooks with works which would, all in all, constitute around half of his poetic output – not counting his prose, screenplays, radio plays and short stories. Indeed, he showed no interest in other subjects, recognising very early that he would be a poet and writer.

Dylan Thomas left school at sixteen and began to work as a reporter. He fashioned journals and wrote poetry, and, after three years, published his first collection, Eighteen Poems, in 1933. This event paradoxically assured his exile from an “easy” life in quasi-traditionalist Wales. With his success, he began to roam the streets, pubs and salons of London, coming into contact with the state of the art of modernist poetics. Of course, just as quickly, he would return to Wales, for as he said in a letter, “Cities are death.”[7]  His nomadic, uneasy existence as a poet – and one in the English language – continued throughout his life, as he was caught in a web between Wales, London and later America. It was the utter lack of employment opportunities in Wales – especially as a poet – and his refusal to even consider another vocation – that gave birth to his permanent exile.  If one wished to be a Modern poet, one had to be in London or America – surely not in Wales (unless one could make one’s lucre elsewhere). Landing work with the BBC was later a great boon for Dylan Thomas, who contributed an English speaking Welsh perspective to the public corporation’s offerings. Under the neo-colonial thumb of British culture, the Welsh public and cultural spheres were and still are dominated by England and its media corporations, publishing houses and academic institutions.

It is not clear if this was David Johnson’s intention, but he is known to have been proud that his son had produced lyrical poetry and work of international significance. Nevertheless, he merely opened the door for Thomas, who went through willingly, single-mindedly working to create his own mytho-poetic world through the articulation of his lyrical, psychological and philosophical orientations and sensibilities. But, while his orientations were often centred around the tragic and brutal character of existence, of mortality, it was his longing for the Welsh landscape and its intimacy with nature which provided him with a sense of tragic joy, of the power of life (the concern of the physically weak), of the force of the “green fuse.”[8]  Indeed, Dylan Thomas acted as the Welsh druidic bard in his artistic channelling of the voices of his people[9], his wife, children and lifeworld, of the wind, the raging moon and the sea.  His father may have sought to make it “easy” for his son by giving him the language of the oppressor, but he could take away neither the accent of his voice, nor his perennial feelings of homelessness from Wales, necessitated by his extravagant exile.

Though his own life ended in the contradiction of his tragic existence, dead in New York in 1953, Dylan Thomas has been welcomed home in contemporary Wales, his legacy evidenced by the 2014 celebration of the Centenary of his birth. He is a celebrated son of a Wales that has enshrined bi-lingualism in its National Parliament. “Too English for the Welsh, Too Welsh for the English,”[10] Dylan Thomas died trying to escape the double bind of his predicament, though, as tragic, and intentionally so, he burned himself out through the ecstatic character of his lifestyle, his bohemian ethos – his own festival of tragic joy. Some would wish, as we will see, to bring sobriety to our view of Dylan Thomas, to pick his bones clean of any flesh, and to put to sleep or expunge his most riotous effects upon the youth (and patronisingly insulting adolescence in the process). On the contrary, however, it is precisely his eccentric rebellion that matters most about him as a tragic poet – especially one who also produced great works. That he is human, flawed, suffering, but also joyful and ecstatic, a creature of flesh and intoxication – and dying untimely – this makes him tragic in a way that allows people to empathise with him – in the first instance. The rebellion of youth may be “embarrassing” for those who have acquiesced to the nihilism of otherworldly hopes, but such denial of the tragic character of existence and fleeting possibility of joy is only a regretful revenge against the force of life, one provoked by the imminence of the night.

The Womb of War: In the Wake of Dylan Thomas

From out of the abyss of innumerable deaths, Dylan Thomas will be remembered and will continue to be a thread in the tapestry of the Modernist cultural revolution – and in its indefinite post-modern dispensation. His voice resonates in recordings, films, through his work and in those he influenced – in literature, film, art, poetry or philosophy. We still experience the mass effect he had on upon the incipient American “culture industry”,[11] its poetry and popular music, and recognise his place in the pantheonic myths of popular culture. As with Leni Bruce or Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation, Thomas’ life and art fused to conjure forth a cultural event, enshrined in an enduring myth of the tragic poet, of the pagan Bard. After all, we live in a time when a popular musician, Bob Dylan (who changed his surname from Zimmerman in tribute to Dylan Thomas) has won a Noble Prize in literature.[12]

Dylan Thomas has nevertheless had an uneasy relationship to academic discourse since his work, as Goodby suggests, “rests on and highlights crucial fault lines within and between British, Welsh, Anglo-Welsh and English poetry…” – an “identity crisis” met with silence.[13] Yet, while he claims that a rigorous tracing of Thomas’ impact upon subsequent poetry will force us to rethink the meaning of 20th century poetry, he joins with others in denouncing the “Dylan Thomas myth”, which he claims Thomas himself created as a “vehicle for his literary ambitions.”[14]  Those who seek to dismantle the myth of Dylan Thomas, however – since they say it is “embarrassing” or “distracting” – fail to understand the philosophical significance of myth and the artistic intentions and mythical habitations of the lyric poet. Indeed, Goodby suggests that the dilemma posed by Dylan Thomas concerns “categorization”, which hardly seems to relate to a myth-making that was common amongst the modernists – and an essential feature of their claim to social and cultural relevance as poets. A philosophical examination of poetry must be sensitive to the poetic as a modality for the expression of truth and myth as the texture or habitation of language.

With Nietzsche’s proclamation of the “death of God”, the traditionalist myth was displaced by a new dispensation of mythos disseminated by the poets of a new modernist era. Mythical poiesis lays out the ground upon which we will subsequently dwell, just as the poetic naming of nature (phusis) eventually lead to the detailed examination of the regions demarcated by language (poiesis).[15] In this light, while a tracing of the enormous effect of Dylan Thomas upon 20th and 21st century poetry is welcome, a more nuanced consideration is needed that explores the mythological impulse of the early 20th century among modernists and the Avant-garde. We must avoid contamination from the vivisectionist tendencies of the “analytic revolution” of Russell and the Vienna Circle when dealing with the lifeworld of a lyric poet, who in the Nietzschean vein of the early Twentieth century, sought to turn himself into a work of tragic art.[16] After all, Nietzsche himself disseminated a complex mythos of himself through his arch-mythological work Thus Spoke Zarathustra[17] among other works. He writes, for instance, in his poem “Sils-Maria”:

Still I sit, waiting, waiting, – for nothing, beyond

Good and evil, close to the brilliant light,

Close to the shadow, only a game, completely sea,

Midday, and time without destination.

  There, suddenly, my friend!  One became two –

  – And Zarathustra came to me …[18]

Thus Spoke Zarathustra infected the literary and popular cultures of the world shortly before and after Nietzsche’s death. As I have alluded, the “Nietzsche fevers” of European nations, Japan, China, Russia and America made his death a global event, a festival of awakening from the repression, stagnation and monotony of traditionalist cultures.[19] Modernist poetry in the Anglosphere woke up during this intellectual and cultural earthquake, with Pound, Eliot, and Yeats seeking to either create new mythologies or subvert and displace the old. Nietzsche and Dylan Thomas, each anticipating the mass culture in which we live, sought to create a myth which would act as a habitation or dwelling for the new age.  Recalling the mythologies surrounding Pythagoras or Empedocles (or the other poet philosophers at the incipience of Western thought), Nietzsche and Thomas created a mythology which displayed their fundamental philosophical notions and concomitant ways of life. Such mythoi serve not only as a storehouse, but also as an active trope of dissemination in the general economy of mortal existence.[20] In other words, “Nietzsche” is no longer the clean bones in a coffin, but a “womb of war”, a place of contestation and indication that we have taken up into our language and culture. Such an elevation, as it is the case with all famous artists, has a profound cultural significance as one name is chosen to persist to the exclusion of myriad others.

Or, perhaps, Nietzsche has not been chosen, but has chosen us, has placed questions before us that we cannot answer – that he has given us glimpses of ecstasy and joy, that have remained forbidden.

Dylan Thomas was such a global, tragic event, and he has also been elevated to remembrance, again, not merely by institutions, but as one who has chosen us, who continues to ask us questions about the most urgent concerns for a mortal being. Dylan Thomas writes for the mortal being and seeks to give expression to the voices of all that is, including the voices of the natural world around him, the sea, the gulls, wind, rain and laughter – all the sounds one usually expects to hear in his native Wales.

The spirit of Dylan Thomas, the drunken poet who died young (but perhaps at the right time) is still celebrated by the Welsh in the pubs, streets, and festivals by those who share the poet’s quest for tragic joy. Others will always find the legend unsavoury or even disreputable – yet, we must not only, again, remember the artistic function of myth, but also be honest about the “womb of war” that is Dylan Thomas. In this context, the myth is meant to create a dwelling for the contradictions of mortal existence, expressed through the controversial perspectives of Dylan Thomas. Death, the tragic, is central to the myth, surely.  Yet, for Thomas, the tragic or Dionysian perspective is not merely concerned with death or with the consolations of intoxication, but also with rebirth, re-creation, and erotic joy – of the persistence of the community and remembrance of the voices of the dead.

The myth is the symbolic means by which we not only remember Dylan Thomas, but also know his type: it provides us with a clue of what we may expect from such a figure. The weapons Thomas deployed in the “womb of war” were paradox, polysemy, laughter, scorn – love and hate – as well as honesty in the wake of the brutality and terror of mortal existence. But, Thomas does not suggest that one must acquiesce to this monstrous site – on the contrary, he incites us to rebel against the horror of existence, to rage (often mockingly) against the dying of the light and the hypocrisy and hideousness of Western culture. This is the mischievous spirit of human freedom that Thomas celebrates in his poem “And death shall have no dominion.”  This poem, which is often read (un-ironically) at Christian funerals is just such an example of Thomas’ rebellious and subversive temperament and gives us a feel for not only his destructive attitude toward tradition, but also his re-valuation (creation, recreation, destruction, construction) of life, and of his poetic dissemination of the sacred intimacy of life.

And Death Shall Hold No Dominion

We will begin by simply reading the poem, followed by the more surprising task of decoding its meaning.  For the poem is in fact a site of contestation, and its meaning and affiliation have been contested since its publication in 1933 – not to mention its continuing array of effects as a preserved and living thread of poetic and philosophical culture. There can be many readings of this poem, which I will provisionally describe as Devout Christian,[21] Neo-Romantic,[22] Blakean,[23] Pagan,[24] and Nietzschean.[25] While there will be overlapping aspects to these heuristic positions, a deeper understanding of Thomas’ own poetic methodology will provide a pathway for a navigation of the meaning and purpose of the poem itself.  We begin our meditation by reading “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, published in 1933 when Thomas was 19 years old.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion


And death shall have no dominion.

Dead men 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.[26]

In each of the many possible readings of this poem (and there are indefinite iterations) – Devout Christian, Neo-Romantic, Blakean, Pagan, and Nietzschean – that which is thematized are myriad senses of “immortality” – or, perhaps better, “eternity”. Prior to an in depth reading of the poem, a rough sketch of each of these perspectives will suffice.

The case for the Devout Christian reading is the title of the poem which is derived from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, an exhortation to the Christians and Christ-curious pagans of Rome to embrace faith in God, imitation of his son Jesus Christ, belief in his resurrection, and action in accordance to the law. Paul wanted to downplay “works” in the pagan sense (idolatry), but emphasised Hebrew law and the notion that affinity with the resurrection of Christ would provide the basis by which one could receive grace. Death held no dominion over Jesus Christ and if we behave accordingly and are given grace, we may too evade the dominion of death. Such a literal, sequentialist reading also gives us a look at those who disobeyed or were fated to have their eyes and ears closed off to God by God himself. From this perspective, the poem is merely a reiteration of Christian orthodoxy, written by an allegedly devout poet, imbued with the sensibilities of the Welsh chapel culture.

A neo-romantic reading, moreover, would also emphasise, as the British and German romantics had done,  the divine comedy of existence and the overcoming of the ugliness of tragedy and death in beauty, whether in Nature or in God. Less axiomatic and ecclesiastical than the devout, the concern remains a life after death, and the situatedness of “eternity” in otherworldly hopes. The realm of life is that of tragic fragmentation, Schlegel reflected in his Lucinde, but Christian love will allow us to escape from our tragic predicament.

It should be immediately noted, in this connection, however, that Dylan Thomas expressed, at this time, a “theoretical hatred” for the romantics, as noted in his letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1933.[27] Thomas would incite us to embrace the tragedy and the joy that is disclosed with it, to have the courage to acknowledge the singularity of tragic existence – not seeking to escape, but to affirm the agonistic suspense of the moment. Nevertheless, there remains an uncritical and ubiquitous attribution of romanticism to Dylan Thomas, on the all-too-superficial grounds that he dares to mention nature.

Blake, for his part, would bring us back to our senses, to our flesh, to ugliness and joy amidst a life that is to be lived in the moment. He turns the tables upon the devout Christian, emphasising the alleged energy of evil and the rebellious character of life. We could, with ease, map Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”[28] upon Thomas’ poem – though Blake’s Spinozistic pantheism (just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ) is not assured by Thomas on a first reading. A more resolutely pagan notion of the rebirth of nature would also be amenable to Thomas’ schema and could perhaps provide a different perspective on the second stanza, one casting into relief the defiant suffering of the damned under the tortures of the inquisitor – and not merely the Christian fancy of the eternal punishment of sinners in hell.

Each of these first four readings would seem intent on prioritizing an interpretation of “eternity” as a persistence of being beyond death or to set forth a perspective that nullifies the terror and brutality of mortal existence – in redemption, in another Apollonian dream. But, is this the true meaning of the poem? Is it merely the result of juvenilia, of a childish wish to nullify the tragic double bind? One could ask, moreover, if any notion of personal survival after death can be consistent with the tragic.

In this way, two other Nietzschean readings become possible: either, on the one hand, his early tragic pessimism in The Birth of Tragedy[29], which narrates the drama of Dionysus fated to annihilation and rebirth as an eternally recurring force of nature. Such a view leaves not a trace of the singular, but still provides a notion of the prolific character of life. A second Nietzschean reading would come from Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which eternity becomes the joy of the absolute singular, fated to recur eternally as this singular life – a parodic, laughing narrative which in truth states the singular is all and one, a terrible truth, hidden in the Trojan Horse  of a pseudo-eschatology, in the nihilistic garments of disseminators of otherworldly hopes, the prophets of sleep and the old law tablets.

Does “And death shall have no dominion” reflect any of these interpretive strands? Is it seeking to tell us that death is somehow unreal or irrelevant – or, is it seeking a revaluation of values in which eternity is re-situated into these-worldly hopes and possibilities, into love and hate, sorrow and joy in this life and not in some world to come? For Nietzsche, what is at stake is affirmation itself versus a nihilism that finds guilt in the radical temporality of mortal existence. Such a judgment of guilt upon existence ironically subverts the very possibility of a sense of eternity, of freedom and the innocence of life.

In order to be in a position to decide, we must undertake another reading of the poem, transcending the naïve and literal readings – or the all-too-woolly religious readings honing in on any scent of spirituality so as to neutralise a rebellious voice with a death bed conversion. In the following, the “momentary peace of the poem” will be cast into fragmentation through a reading based upon a self-description by Dylan Thomas of his poetic methodology in a letter to Henry Treece in 1938.  He writes:

A poem by myself needs a host of images, because its centre is a host of images. I make one image, – though ‘make’ is not the word; I let, perhaps, an image be made emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual & critical forces I possess – let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within any imposed formal limits, conflict. Each image holds within it the seed of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time.

Reading back over that, I agree it looks preciously like nonsense. To say that I ‘let’ images breed and conflict is to deny my critical part in the business. But what I want to try to explain – and it’s necessarily vague to me – is that the life in any poem of mine cannot move concentrically round a central image; the life must come out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions…. Out of the inevitable conflict of images – inevitable, because of the creative, recreative, destructive and contradictory nature of the motivating centre, the womb of war – I try to make that momentary peace which is a poem. I do not want a poem of mine to be, nor can it be, a circular piece of experience placed nearly outside the living stream of time from which it came; a poem of mine is, or should be, a watertight section of the stream that is flowing all ways; all warring images within it should be reconciled for that small stop of time.[30]

Out of the womb of war, the central seed of poetic conflict – as with the counterpoint of music or the logos of the early Greeks (the poet philosophers of flux)[31] – the life of a Dylan Thomas poem arises as an embedded linguistic complex of contradictory images, each containing the “seed of its own destruction”. The center builds up and breaks down images that arise with the death of conflicting images. Thomas conjures forth an image (first stanza), then a second that stands in conflict with the first (second stanza), a third image bred out of the two (third stanza), and in this case (since it has only three stanzas) “let them all, within any imposed formal limits, conflict.” Reminiscent of Eisenstein’s cinema of juxtaposition, this process, enacted via what Thomas calls a “dialectical method,” is focused upon the counterpunctal double bind of existence, of the musicality of life (as per Modernist poetics) in which the poem is a “small stop of time”, a fleeting peace, traced from the universal jurisdiction of strife (Heraclitus).

Thomas’ reference to “dialectical method”, moreover, especially together with “seeds of its own destruction,” will call to mind not only Hegel’s Science of Logic in which he commands us to “Think contradiction!,”[32] but also Marx’s prophesy that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.[33]  This latter reference, in terms of the “unity of opposites”, would also bring into play Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit,[34] and thus, the question of freedom in relation to Death as the Master.  This would provide another, kindred interpretation the specificity of Thomas’ Modernist meaning and let them all, within any imposed formal limits, conflict.  It would also suggest that within the overall context of Nietzschean rebellion, a Marxian thread to our reading would also be pertinent. Let us see how this insight plays itself out in the poem, when using Thomas’ own technique.

First Image – Stanza One

The stanza, as with the other two, has nine lines (a multiple of three) and begins and ends with the refrain “And death shall have no dominion.” The first image, often linked by Christian or Blakean readers to Heaven, sets out a scenario of grace, the focus of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. As it is conjured, we see the dead, naked joined with “man in the wind” and the “west moon”, their “bones picked clean,” but stars at “elbow and foot.” But, while the mad will be redeemed (“shall be sane”) along with those who have drowned (“shall rise again”), it is strange that “lovers be lost, though love shall not.” Thomas’ complex image, however, seems to have little resonance with the imagery and artifices of St. Paul and is thus an unlikely statement of Christian orthodoxy – if not for its affirmation of Love, a notion shared by Christian mythopoiesis. We could perhaps regard some aspects of the image to be of Blakean, pagan or occult significance. But, we must ask: why will the lovers be lost, when all else seems to be redeemed? From the devout perspective, carnal lovers have been traditionally equated with transgressors, with sexuality which is a corruption of the “ideal of Love”. Such an emphasis upon this line would also open the necessity of alternative Nietzschean and Bataillean[35] readings of this poem, ostensibly about “immortality.”

Before we decide the meaning of this image and why it contains the seeds of its own destruction, let us move onto the next, contradictory, image, cast into relief in the second stanza.

Second Image – Stanza Two

The second stanza begins and ends, again, with the refrain, “And death shall have no dominion.” The second image brings us under the winding sea where the dead “shall not die windily” – drowned, they will not be killed by the sea, nor will they be granted last words. They will twist on racks, their sinews giving way, strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break. Faith will break in two in their hands, and even though they are tortured, they will not crack. This image presents a conflicting, if ironic, sense of immortality, susceptible of a Blakean or Nietzschean interpretation. The devout Christian reading regards this second stanza as Hell, and specifically in the sense of eternal punishment. Yet, if this is Hell, it does not celebrate God’s justice, but the eternal resistance of the transgressors and lovers against the torturers – and the refusal of the “devils” to acquiesce to faith in otherworldly nihilism.

If we juxtapose these images, we note a contradiction in the doctrine of immortality, in which there remains permanent opposition, and immortality for each and all, regardless of either the doctrine of faith or the strictures of the law. Such celebration of resistance lends itself to Blakean, Nietzschean or Marxian readings, as Thomas’ poem is setting forth a heretical parody of the Pauline advocacy of resurrection in Jesus Christ. How could one, after all, advocate a religion of love and redemption that celebrates such eternal vengeance? The cruel hypocrisy of totalitarian love smacks of narcissism, greed and sadism – and seems to have prompted Thomas to take the side of the underdog, of the lovers, among whom he found his poetic lifeworld.

With the stark contradiction standing before us, threatening the very binary structure of innocence and guilt, of redemption and resurrection, we turn to the third stanza.

Third Image – Stanza Three

The third stanza begins and ends, again, finally, with the refrain, “And death shall have no dominion.” We will regard this last stanza, as it does not yet meet the quaternary indicated in his statement on method, as that which not only holds both of the previous images together, but also as that contradiction which allows us to view the entirety of the contradictory situation of “immortality.” The stanza itself is divided in itself.  We are first given the image of desolation, silence: the absence of the sounds of gulls, of waves of the sea, where a flower can no longer hold its head up to the rain. But, this image is quickly juxtaposed to another with a conflicting sense, a differing possibility for silence and desolation: though “mad and dead as nails”, the “heads of the characters hammer through daisies”; break upon the sun until the “sun breaks down.” As if the dead themselves assure continued life, Thomas imagines heads hammering through daisies and breaking like waves upon a mortal sun. Contrary to the obsession of St Paul upon the bodily brand of personal resurrection, we are shown a different priority for the dead, who share the task of enabling new life, as an insurrection against nothingness in which death provides an impetus for new creation.  This resonates with the Blakean or pagan reading, a pantheist vision which stands in direct conflict with the binary of guilt and innocence.  Such realities are inexplicable for Thomas and the third stanza could be called “beyond heaven and hell, toward a new life.”

On the surface, Thomas sets forth an ambiguous, seemingly indecipherable account of immortality – but, with our reading, we can begin to dismantle the traditional schema laid out in the letter of Paul. The masters and the slaves of immortality stand in contradiction, but, at the end of the day, it will be the slaves, the transgressors, who, associated with the “lovers”, will supply the energy for the recreation of new life. Indeed, from a Nietzschean perspective, the real contradiction would be between the life-denying and life-affirming, who, in this schema, would correspond to the first and second images of Thomas’ poem, respectively. Those who would follow Paul to death will not affirm the sublimity of the creation itself, regarded by them as merely the testing-ground of God’s wrath, and not as his gift.

A Nietzschean reading, for its part, would not be concerned with the continuation of life in a romantic sense, but would be concerned with this life and the tragic joy which one desires will eternally recur. Thomas thematizes the tragic struggle of life (“sun breaks down,” “lovers be lost”), exposing his distance from the Christian interpretation of his own work. As mortals, we are equal before death – and regardless of who happens to end up as either sinners or saints.  While death itself spurs new life, the location of eternity becomes the singular life of a mortal hanging over the abyss of an ultimately tragic situation, one of brutality and terror. Through this Nietzschean lens, Thomas would prioritize this-worldly existence, remaining true to the lovers and the earth, expressed across the topography of his lyrical poetic world. As Thomas writes in “In my craft or sullen art”:

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers lie abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

On the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.[36]

Thomas’ “And death shall have no dominion” also sings for the lovers, of the fleeting temporality of mortal love, of lovers who are lost with the disintegration of the specious moment. Yet, he contends that death’s sorrow is no reason to take vengeance upon life.

The Meaning of Dylan Thomas

From the foregoing readings we have sketched a perspective that places Dylan Thomas at odds with Pauline Christianity.  Indeed, we can safely say that he is not a Christian and does not share the castigation of sexuality – vis-a-vis its “unicorn evils.”[37] What is at stake is his message, or in Nietzsche’s sense, his revaluation of values that hammers against a traditional culture which he seeks to radically transform.  Such a message, after all, contributes to the activating sense of his poetry in contemporary Welsh culture and beyond. Thomas was a Modernist, we will remember, and on the cusp of his poetic lyrical world stood his post-Darwinistic, post-Einsteinian, post-Freudian and decidedly anti-establishment personality and world-view.

Such a joyful and Dionysian sense of remembrance still attends Dylan Thomas in the popular engagement of poetic associations, festivals and institutions devoted to his literary engagement. It should be emphasised that Dylan Thomas’ contribution to the Modernist poetic protect was the rebirth of poetry as spoken word. Revived from its death and stagnation upon the silent page, poetry and the musical voice, as with Edith Sitwell, infused the singular perspective of a poet with the power of communication and mass effect.  Poetry became an agent of change in a culture dominated by the suffocating monotony of a staid Mandarin academic caste and a tired ecclesiastical regime of limited appeal.  Poetry disseminates not only a message of contestation, but also a divergent way of life outside of the strictures of traditional mores.  Poetry was the only voice of resistance in a decadent culture, one which orchestrated not only the bonfire of innocents in the First World War, but also enabled fascist atavisms to provoke a second conflagration.  It is the poets who sing of these tragedies, condemning these negligent outrages, giving voice to the masses of faceless suffering and reminding us of our freedom to resist the seemingly inevitable.

With the ascendance of Dylan Thomas as an Icon of culture, there are, we have seen, attempts to turn the rebellious poet into a plaster saint, even a near-Christian (as if, amidst a constant state of manufactured forgetfulness, Christianity can still be considered something unproblematic). Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, in his article “Myth-busting: Rowan Williams on Dylan Thomas”[38], ends with evidence from Welsh poet Vernon Watkins to the effect that Dylan Thomas lived a Christian life.  Such a statement, of course, sounds like a rear-guard defence of a moribund church as it refuses to truly meditate upon the reasons for Dylan Thomas’ rebellion against Christianity. He followed the pathway carved out by his Nietzschean father – though in his own manner – and, in his letters, Thomas explicitly – and mockingly – attacked the churchgoers and the anti-erotic St Paul:

Thank God it’s dark. Now I can’t see the people outside. I might be in a world of my own, owing nothing but the seeds of hate to all the dark passers scuttling to the rub-a-dub-dub in the bebatted belfries of the stinking churches, scuttling homewards again or out on their half-frustrated amatory expeditions after the sin of love has been emphasised by St Paul and his pimply apostles.[39]

Nevertheless, Williams, like a carrion bird sniffing out scents of “spirituality” in the druidic Thomas, applies his own “angelic magic” to his reputation, descrying his echo of and appeal to adolescents and his celebration of tragic joy as “embarrassing”. Inexplicably, and not even with an inkling of our contemporary post-Christian, secular culture, he claims it is “patronising” to remember Thomas as a “doomed Dionysus.”  Williams contends Thomas must instead be regarded as a great, though troubled poet, whom we must ultimately regard as a cautionary tale.  He turns Dylan Thomas from a bohemian subversive into a Christian morality play – forgetting Dionysus as a symbol of tragic rebirth.

Seeking to close off any Pagan or Nietzschean (read Modernist) interpretation of Thomas, Williams seeks to rub out those aspects of Thomas’ character which do not conform to his “churchy” perspective, insulting Dylan Thomas and his admirers (regardless of age) from the self-appointed ground of an alleged seriousness, sobriety and virtue. Yet, we would be more truthful to discern Dylan Thomas as a “devil” (in the Blakean sense) and his work as a poetically housed existential philosophy, a poetics of mortality.

Modernist poetics played its part in the birth of contemporary popular culture, and Dylan Thomas, having penetrated to the heart of the culture industry, was one of the first deaths of the celebrity culture. His own mythology, surrounding the themes of death, eroticism and the drunken, tragico-comedic poet – and, remembrance of a still easy child, playing in freedom – became stamped upon the new culture, provoking its own poetic wake in the rebellion of the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg.  The latter, having written Howl[40] in the two years following Thomas’ death, was put on trial for obscenity, a watershed case he won on October 3, 1957.  Poetry had become dangerous, a threat to public morals and the youth, but unlike Socrates, Ginsberg, a gay, Jewish communist, held the day in a ruling that lead to the full-scale demolition of censorship laws.  This rarely discussed event gave others such as Burroughs and Henry Miller (belatedly) access to the mass market as well as opening up a free space for film, literature, music theatre – and personal freedom.

Dylan Thomas’ poetic – albeit tragic – rebellion did not go unnoticed – he had forked his way into the heart of mass, popular and academic culture.  Living with an intensity that many would never dare, he sought to enact a cultural revolution before his self-prophesied demise.  This evokes the vertiginous freedom at the heart of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same and life conceived as an artwork, a self-given mytho-poetic destiny amid the fate of mortality. There is clearly an extensive resonance between Nietzsche and Dylan Thomas. At the same time, however, it would be mistaken to merely consider Dylan Thomas as somehow a derivation of Nietzsche. Just as it is the case with W.B. Yeats, the Nietzschean dimension of Thomas’ work lies more in the “Nietzsche event,” of the anti-establishment opening attendant upon his name. In a similar, though much more profound, manner than the Ginsberg’s obscenity trial, the Nietzschean opening resonated with revolutionary political and cultural movements, contributing, for instance, to the zeitgeist which overthrew of the Chinese monarchy in 1911.[41]

Dylan Thomas was also such an event, but despite his artistic kinship with Nietzsche, he remains original and differently aligned in terms of his political and cultural orientations. Thomas’ reference to Marxian terminology was no accident, something he repeated (and joked about) on stage during his final tour of McCarthyite America, shortly before his death.[42]  While Nietzsche inspired him as an artist, Thomas did not see that as an obstacle to having markedly leftist political leanings. After all, did not Nietzsche himself ask us: this is my way, what is yours? But, in agreement with Nietzsche, he sought a less realist – or merely atheistic – interpretation of the mortal significance of tragic existence.

In the end, “And death shall have no dominion,” sets before us a spiritual crossroads. We are left with a clever poetic repetition of the motif of “pushing up daisies.” Beyond this, we have only a nameless apprehension of the singularity of life.  Yet, what is it or who is it that is unsatisfied by a single, mortal life? That which is thrown into relief by Thomas are the lovers, the daisy, this life itself – even as they are fatally haunted by the shadow of death. He enacts a revaluation of values: from the narcissism and greed of those demanding personal resurrection to the gratitude of the nunc stans and the joy of the carpe diem.

All in all, in a final consideration of the trials and tribulations of the Dylan Thomas myth – and of his reputation more generally as an artist and as a persistent target of moral surveillance – it would be fitting to end by simply stating that there is no dishonour in dying young, just as there is no honour in merely living to be old. That which is essential, Nietzsche remarked, is the creator – the child finding the world in its innocence. In this light, let us end with the first stanza of “Vision and Prayer” by Dylan Thomas.

W h o

A r e  y o u

Who   is   born

In   the   next   room

So   loud    to   my   own

That  I  can  hear  the  womb

Opening   and    the    dark   run

Over the ghost and the dropped son

Behind  the  wall  thin as a wren’s bone ?

In  the  birth  bloody  room  unknown

To  the  burn  and  turn  of  time

And  the  heart  print  of  man

Bo w s   n o   b a p t i s m

Bu t   d a r k   a l o n e

Blessing       on

The  wild




[1] Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas: Collected Letters, “Letter to Pamela Hanford Johnson”, early November, 1933.

[2] Hans Meyerhoff, “The Violence of Dylan Thomas,” The New Republic, 11 July 1955, pp. 17-19, a review of Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trs. by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Penguin, 1995, p. 15.

[4] Leslie Lavigne, Nietzschean elements in the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Masters thesis, Concordia University, 1987. It is somewhat shocking that this work is the only text which undertakes any extensive investigation of the affinity of Dylan Thomas and Friedrich Nietzsche. While he does not site Thomas’ explicit reference to Nietzsche in his letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson of 1933, Lavigne presents a compelling case for a Nietzschean Thomas, even if he did not find the evidence for a direct link.

[5] Walford Davies, Dylan Thomas, University of Wales Press, 2014.

[6] Theodore Dalrymple, “The Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive:  Dylan Thomas, the last true bohemian,” City Journal, Winter, 2015.

[7] Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas: Collected Letters, “Letter to Richard Church,” 22 June 1936.

[8] Dylan Thomas, “The force that through the green fuse,” Dylan Thomas Omnibus: Under Milk Wood, Poems, Stories and Broadcasts, London: W&N, 2014, p. 11.

[9] Kate Crockett, Mwy na Bardd – Bywyd a Gwaith Dylan Thomas, Cyhoeddiadau Barddas, 2014. In this book, Crockett seeks to nullify the divide between Dylan Thomas and the Welsh language by discussing his work in Welsh translation and its relationship to Wales and many of its people.

[10] Bryony Wood,  “A Celebration of Dylan Thomas, Cardiff Times, 27 October 2014.

[11] Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, Routledge, 2001.

[12] Hannah Ellis-Petersen & Alison Flood, “Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize in Literature,” Guardian, 13 October 2016.

[13] John Goodby, The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall, Liverpool University Press, 2013.

[14] Such a castigation of the Dylan Thomas myth seems to be inspired by an analytic methodology strictly at odds with the poetological spirit of Dylan Thomas and the meaning of his myth-making.

[15] James Luchte, Mortal Thought: Hölderlin and Philosophy, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

[16] James Luchte, Pythagoras and the Doctrine of Transmigration, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008.

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trs. by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Penguin, 1995.

[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Sils-Maria,” The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche, 2nd Edition, trs. by James Luchte, London: Bloombury Publishing, 2010.

[19] James Luchte, “Daggers and Spears: Lu Xun and Nietzsche on Cultural Revolution,” Nietzsche and Chinese Thought, New York: The Agonist, Spring, 2016.

[20] James Luchte, “Prometheus Dismembered: Bataille on Van Gogh,” Van Gogh Among the Philosophers: Painting, Thinking, Being, Lexington Books, 2017.

[21] John Logan, “Dylan Thomas and the Ark of Art.” Renascence , XII, 1960, 59-66; David Larsen, The Company of the Creative: A Christian Reader’s Guide to Great Literature, Kregel, 2000.

[22] Amos Wilder, The New Voice: Religion, Literature, Hermeneutics, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013.

[23] William T. Moynihan, The art and craft of Dylan Thomas, Cornell University Press, 1966. See also Hyman H. Kleinman, The Religious Sonnets of Dylan Thomas: A Study in Imagery and Meaning, University of California Press, 1963.

[24] Hans Meyerhoff, “The Violence of Dylan Thomas,” The New Republic, 11 July 1955, pp. 17-19, a review of Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories.

[25] Leslie Lavigne, Nietzschean elements in the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

[26] Dylan Thomas, “And death shall have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas Omnibus: Under Milk Wood, Poems, Stories and Broadcasts, London: W&N, 2014, p. 51. This poem was published in its entirety as it is necessary for the argument outlined in the essay.

[27] Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas: Collected Letters, “Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson,” 25 December 1933, London: Hatchette, 2014.

[28] William Blake, William Blake: The Complete Poems, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” London: Penguin, 1977, pp. 180-195.

[29] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trs. by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Penguin, 2010.

[30] Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas: Collected Letters, “Letter to Henry Treece”, March 23, 1938. The quotation from this letter is necessary for the purposes of the argument in the essay.

[31] James Luchte, Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.

[32] GWF Hegel, The Science of Logic, trs. by AV Miller, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, pp. 431-443.

[33] Karl Marx, “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League,” (1850), Delphi Collected Works of Karl Marx, Delphi Classics, 2016.

[34] GWF Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trs. by AV miller, Oxford University Press, 1976.

[35] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, Ingram, 2001.

[36] Dylan Thomas, “In my craft of sullen art,” Dylan Thomas Omnibus, p. 91.

[37] The unicorn is a Christological symbol of purity, symbolized in virginity.

[38] Rowan Williams, “Myth-busting: Rowan Williams on Dylan Thomas,” New Statesman, 1 August 2014.

[39] Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas: Collected Letters, “Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson,” 15 April 1934. This letter should be read more widely to ascertain Thomas’ radical cultural and political sentiments.

[40] Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” New York: Penguin, 2015.

[41] Cf. James Luchte, “Daggers and Spears: Lu Xun and Nietzsche on Cultural Revolution.”

[42] Dylan Thomas at the ‘Cinema 16’ symposium “Poetry and the Film” held in New York in October 28, 1953 mentioned the dialectic in relationship to poetry and film, “One images makes another in the ordinary dialectic process,” joking that it would fall to him mention “dialectic”, a repetition of his 1938 letter to Henry Treece.

[43] Dylan Thomas, “Vision and Prayer,” Dylan Thomas Omnibus, p. 99-110. This quotation is necessary for the purposes of the argument in the essay.