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Dylan Thomas’ Concept of Death and
Humanity’s Search for Purpose
Death and the existence of purpose are undoubtedly two of the most controversial issues to discuss. Poetry is one of the most common mediums for people to express their opinions of these topics, and these opinions vary greatly from poet to poet. Dylan Thomas contributes a very unique opinion to the world of poetry. Many scholars see his opinions to simply reflect the rebellion against Death and eventually coming to accept Death. However, Thomas’ poetry establishes a much more profound idea about the role Death plays in both hurting human life and, oddly, giving human life purpose. Thomas uses Imagery to reveal his own perception of Death as a malicious force that physically touches and burdens human life. Scrutinizing his poetry reveals that he views humanity’s purpose to be to fight against death, even though such a fight is futile.
Thomas uses figurative language to create imagery that reveals his perception of death as a malevolent foe whose influence pervades every human’s life.
The omnipresence and evil of Death is constructed through Thomas’ frequently used nature imagery. In I Dreamed my Genesis, one man is given the opportunity to live his life over and over again but in life is forced to endure “Twice in the feeding sea” (Thomas / Dreamed). Though the ocean is typically a symbol of life and rebirth, “feeding” implies the ocean is constantly consuming something from the man’s life, like a parasite. This force is nothing other than Death.
Typically, Death is seen as something one encounters at the end of his life. However, here, Thomas is revealing that Death is really something that burdens one’s entire life. He further informs the living that they all lie under the “windings of the sea” but will not “die windily” (Thomas And Death Shall). With the notion of Death as a parasite, Thomas is further warning us of Death’s ubiquity. He creates an image of humanity suffocating or drowning under Death’s presence. However, there is no mention of people being consumed by Death’s waves at the end of their lives, for they are actually always lying beneath them. Thomas sees Death as more than the hooded figure one meets on his last day. He elucidates that humanity is constantly beneath Death’s influence, alive or dead. This depiction of Death is further detailed with Thomas’ descriptions of its evilness.
Thomas even uses his imagery of nature to establish how cruel Death is. In one case, Thomas uses the image of the sea to describe Death as evil. In Find Meat on Bones, a father begs his son to resist Death’s influence, calling such influence “the kingcrafts of the wicked sea” (Thomas Find Meat). In conjunction with the overbearing presence of Death, this imagery reveals such a presence is not benevolent but rather harsh and despotic. In fact, Thomas later goes on to call Death’s rule the “Autocracy o night and day” (Thomas Find Meat). Calling Death an autocracy in and of itself reveals it’s more malicious motives, but the fact that that it rules day and night is even more worrisome. The intimate connection between Death and nature through Thomas’ imagery reveals Deaths true power: it restricts the lives of man. Human lives are not only physically bound to this world by Death’s influence but also restricted in time. Thomas perceives Death as controlling the clock which determines how long we live, controlling night and day. He further refers to this restriction as the “binding moon” (Thomas Find Meat). Although objectively the passage of time may be good or bad, Thomas sees it as an evil ploy of Death. Using the negative imagery of an autocracy that he asks us to rebel against, Thomas paints Death as evil.
Although Thomas’ use of incorporeal imagery like the ocean and nature may seem to depict Death as a more abstract concept, he carefully uses other techniques to demonstrate that Death is actually a tangible force. In a very different light from nature imagery, blood is a common image in Thomas’ poems. He repeats the same exactly line in two different poems, calling every human an “Heir to the scalding veins that hold love’s drop” (Thomas All that I Owe, I Dreamed). Blood is a symbol of life and vitality. It keeps us alive and moving. Thomas states here that that which keeps us alive is painful. It seems paradoxical that this be true. Yet, Thomas is unveiling a deeper idea. Wherever there is life, there is Death. The flow of life throughout the human body is contingent upon the existence of Death, which causes the scalding in peoples’ veins. Thus, regardless of how much life sustains us, it will always be accompanied by Death. Death is physically within humans, constantly reminding them of its presence with them by burning their veins. This idea is reinforced when Thomas writes, “All that I owe the fellows of the grave …/ Lies in the fortuned bone, the flask of blood” (Thomas All that I Owe). Death is not only in blood but also in humans’ bones. Every person owes his existence to the deceased. Not only for the materials that compose his body but also for his conception. Thomas’ image here is not of thanking the dead for what they provided humanity but of declaring that humanity must one day return it’s essence to the dead. Evidently, the only way one can return what we have been given is by dying. Humanity is thus always carrying around debt that it will one day have to repay to Death. Death’s touch literally lies within every molecule in a human because each must return each and every molecule to Death one day. This imagery is not the only tool Thomas uses to demonstrate Death’s physical presence.
Thomas’ physical concept of Death is further emphasized by his personification of Death. One of Thomas’s narrators discusses trying to “murder …/ Season and sunshine,” which, in context, are references to Death’s influence over the world (Thomas Find Meat). Though this is use of personification is very subtle, it still reveals how Thomas clearly sees Death as something tangible. In fact, he sees Death’s presence as so tangible that is like another human being existing beside us. Thomas even calls death “the man no rope can hang” (Thomas Find Meat). There is nothing more tangible and real than another human, so calling death one reveals how sure Thomas is of its physical nature. Thomas’ personification of Death reveals too that Death is with humanity every step of the way, not only within us but also right beside us as another physical entity.
To respond to any notion of Death, many philosophies call for humanity to seize the day. In fact, many interpret Thomas’ poetry and conclude, “If we ignore the cosmic round to seize the moment when we think we have it, we are both deluded and doomed” (Cox 18). This is the classical interpretation of Thomas’ poetry, especially “Do Not Go Gentle.” Thomas’ conclusions, however, extend far beyond this basic idea. Thomas does not merely say the humans should seize every moment and that is the ultimate purpose. With his concept of idea of Death, Thomas demands that humanity fights against Death, and although the fight is futile, he reveals that it is through this fight that humanity finds an ultimately selfish purpose.
Thomas prefixes his demand for humanity to fight against Death by calling it futile, in that humanity can neither escape Death at the end of life nor stop its influence during life. Thomas explains that Death, and by extension Death’s influence, can never be killed. Death is explicitly described as the “maggot that no man can kill” (Thomas Find Meat). Thomas’ message could not be clearer, regardless of how foolish it seems. He wants humanity to fight Death, but he knows humanity cannot beat it. Quite literally, Death cannot be killed. The imagery of a maggot returns to Death’s physical grasp as a parasite, so Thomas is conceding that humanity cannot remove Death from its bones. Conceding to this fact has a great consequence. If one can never escape the malevolent force of Death, then he shall eternally suffer from Death’s presence. Regardless of one thinking that he may not fear death, Thomas’ concept of Death reveals that no human can ever truly be free of the pain Death causes. One of Thomas’ narrators begs his father to admit his helplessness, imploring, “Before death takes you [narrator’s father], O take back” your “War on the spider and the wren!’ and curse of “”Doom on the sun!” (Thomas Find Meat). This is the ultimate admission of helplessness. The relationship between father and son is almost always dominated by the guidance of the father. The fact that here the son is telling the father to give up and accept his helplessness demonstrates how clearly futile it is to try and escape death. The son even says that regardless of his father’s attempts, “Black night still minister the moon” (Thomas Find Meat). The “Black night” is Death’s hand in influencing the world. No matter what one tries, death will still bring darkness upon his life. Again, Thomas reveals that not only is an attempt to fight Death futile, but also that Death’s evil will continue to poison the world and humanity throughout life. The futility of this fight extends beyond life to the end of life and after death.
Thomas’ futile description of the fight against Death further reveals that with the coming of Death comes the inevitable destruction of all of a human’s soul, including the degradation of both his spiritual and physical essence. In much of Thomas’ poetry, and poetry in general, light symbolizes the spirit of a human. It symbolizes what makes up the soul, including one’s happiness, pleasure, and conscious. In Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night, he repeatedly refers to the coming of Death as “The dying of the light” (Thomas Do Not Go Gentle). This is not merely a reference to the setting of the sun. At the end of life, light too is consumed by Death. This idea implies that all the pleasure and good in one’s life dies along with him. Death therefore not only consumes the life of a person, but also essentially his soul. The word “dying” implies that the sun will not rise again, and thus the soul will not continue into some afterlife. Along with the death of the spirit comes the death of the body. Thomas describes that Death brings shrapnel / Rammed in the marching heart, hole / In the stitched wound” (Thomas I Dreamed). Literally, Death rips apart one’s body. Thomas does not write that Death merely stops the heart. Death’s use of “shrapnel” means it spreads throughout the entire body and claims it for itself. Shrapnel is very hard or impossible to remove from the body. Thomas is therefore saying that the even after death, one’s body is no longer his own. Further, the heart is a symbol of action and endeavors. Shrapnel being aggressively rammed into the heart is a description of Death cutting off humanity’s actions in the physical world. Yes, once somebody dies he can no longer act. However, what Thomas is saying here is that what someone leaves on the Earth when they die is no longer his own. Once one dies, his pursuits are no longer his own, for Death takes away one’s existence. Death does not even let humans keep their legacy, the only thing that ties the dead to the physical world. Although the futility of fighting against Death would make it seem like humanity should give up, Thomas elucidates why humanity keeps on fighting.
Despite the fact that Thomas asks humanity to fight for a futile cause is foolish, the fight is what gives us purpose. Clearly, fighting for a futile cause is childish. To be stubborn enough to not give up fighting Death is undoubtedly naïve. However, it is human nature to “beat] against the confines of the world …[and crave] for a more satisfying existence, even for an ideal world” (Emery 160). Theoretically, killing Death would free us from its bonds. Humans would no longer have to suffer through the inevitability of their destruction or loss of their soul. This adolescent belief to fight regardless of futility is integral to human nature. Everyday, humans challenge the inevitable. Whether or not one’s actions leave an imprint on the world is no importance. The human psyche is programmed to question and challenge, which, although adolescent, gives us purpose. Thomas writes that “All night and day 1 [the narrator] wander in these same / Wax clothes that wax upon the ageing ribs; / All night my fortune slumbers in its sheet” (Thomas All that I Owe). This narrator knows his fortune, dying, is inevitable. He can even feel his own body stiffening as he ages. Yet, he continues on living. He chooses to “look, my [his] heart, upon the scarlet trove. / And look, my grain, upon the falling wheat” (Thomas All that I Owe). By being alive, he is combatting death. One looks at his property to reassure himself that he is fighting Death, he is living. Thus, by merely living, humans satisfy their desire to beat the impossible, to beat death one day after the other.
By fighting for physical experiences, humans also find purpose by satisfying their immature desire to taunt death as if it were a real foe. Thomas, in one of his most famous poems, recounts that “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay” (Thomas Do Not Go Gentle). As before, even with little physical connection to the world, blind men still find purpose because they fight death. It is interesting that Thomas uses such strong imagery to describe their feelings. To have purpose should make one happy, but there is more to this than just finding purpose. The adolescence of humans entails more than naiveté. Blind men are so happy because their lives taunt Death. Death has taken nearly everything away from them, including their sight and, probably, most of their strength, endeavors, and people they love. Yet, Death has still failed to take their lives. These men’s being happy is a subtle mocking of Death’s failure to take their lives. Such feelings of triumph make humans feel successful, like they have a purpose; but these feelings just manifest from the most immature of human behaviors. The entirety of And Death Shall Have No Dominion is a mocking of Death. The line “And death shall have no dominion” in and of itself is a vocalization of these primitive feelings of humans (Thomas And Death Shall). Thomas describes that though Death takes away everything, it cannot prevent the creation of new life, for all shall “rise again” (Thomas And Death Shall). This is not to say that Thomas believes in the afterlife, but rather that he is aware that life is passed on through physical actions. In essence, humanity is asserting that it has fooled Death. The poem is a statement of humanity’s pride in doing so. There is never any mention of passing down knowledge to children or making the world a better place, only the fact that humanity is capable of defeating death by fighting for sensation and also creating new life. Although this mocking of Death satisfies a primitive human desire and provides humanity with purpose, it is ultimately only a selfish purpose.
Classically, scholars discuss the purpose of humans to be leaving their mark on the world. Even Thomas succumbs to such an aphorism in “Do not Go Gentle.” However, Thomas reveals, more profoundly, that these attempts to leave a mark are selfish acts. After being given the opportunity to be reborn, one of Thomas’ characters describes that “Sharp in my [the character’s] second death, I marked the hills” (Thomas I Dreamed). This man’s only motive is to cheat Death by leaving his mark on the Earth, though Death will eventually take this mark away from him. This marking of the Earth is not meant to be taken literally, for it really symbolizes any attempt for man to leave his mark on the Earth. Even in reality, all efforts of man are attempts to cheat Death. Though the things humans do may make the world a better place for generations to come, their endeavors are fundamentally caused by their own wish to exist, to cheat Death in the moment and after their death. The man Thomas creates suffers in his first life suffers from existence, and it is only from discovering selfish desires that he finds purpose, which is true for all mankind. Thomas describes “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced” (Thomas Do Not Go Gentle). Men want their deeds to leave them with a legacy. They selfishly want to cheat death by leaving an image of what they did in the world, not necessarily helping the world. Man’s search for purpose is thus fundamentally a selfish mocking of Death. Thomas too used these selfish desires to find purpose. Later in his life “the celebration of unity in all life … became an important theme of comfort for him” (Cox 20). Thomas eventually leaning towards believing in the afterlife or the integration of man’s soul into nature upon dying is an example of mankind’s selfish creation of purpose. He begins to believe in the unity of all life because it means he will live on, and his life will serve a higher purpose by becoming one with nature. The purpose humanity creates for itself by fighting Death is ultimately a manifestation of its selfishness.
Dylan Thomas ultimately creates a much more complicated version of Death than what is typically written about. He sees humanity’s purpose to be intimately tied to an omnipresent, yet palpably oppressive, form of Death. Death’s torture and inevitability gives humanity an enemy to fight against, a challenge to surmount. Such a belief drastically changes the way one must look at the decisions humans make. If fighting Death is what ultimately provides us with purpose, or an ultimate goal, then are all actions merely more and more complex manifestations of a desire to defeat death in some manner? The pleasure humans get from experiencing fun, love, and friendship certainly feels good and real, but it could ultimately be pointless. Every decision humans make could be meaningless if all that fundamentally matters to them is the battle against Death. Evidently, Thomas’ thoughts have drastic implications. His idea of purpose opens up new doors for perspectives on life as a whole and brings up questions that shake the very foundations of the typical perception of why humans live their lives the way they do.
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