“Have you built your ship of death, O have you?” D.H. Lawrence asks in his dark and compelling work of poetry entitled “The Ship of Death”. Written shortly before his own death in early 1930, the poem is divided into ten separate parts that proceed in what seems like a circular motion, efficiently chronicling the long and painful process of aging, the deceptive “suddenness” of death, and the pink, fleshy reappearance into the world with a miraculous rebirth. It centers itself around the images of a boat, our “ship of death” that allows the soul to survive the “soundless, ungurgling flood” that threatens to sweep us up and, if not for “the ship of death,” would swallow that little shred of ourselves that is left as the abysmal sea of eternity submerges “the last branches of the tree” of the individual’s earthly existence.
D.H. Lawrence uses excellent imagery when describing the process of aging and the woes of the elderly in this poem, beginning the piece with the idea that: “it is autumn [with] the falling fruit / and [that] the long journey towards oblivion” has begun. In this sense, he is speaking of the “autumn” of the body itself, when everything is wrinkled and sags and the ancient corporeal form in which the soul has resided for so long is nearing its eternal demise. The first forty lines of the piece, proceeding through the first half of the poem’s numbered stanzas, seem to beckon to the reader, crying “die the death”! as it moves through a slow, almost painful to read, approach to death itself. In the same sense that the dark and melancholy imagery (I.E. “The grim frost is at hand,” “The dark and endless ocean of the end,” ) increases the overall feeling of hopelessness, fear, and loss, the way Lawrence constructs this piece, dragging on and on but inevitably arriving at death nonetheless, makes the actual event all the more welcome when reached.
Some of Lawrence’s lines through this section are reminiscent of the opening passages of the second stanza of William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” where he states “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick”. Consider, for example, lines 32 - 34, where Lawrence suggests that “Already our bodies are fallen, bruised, badly bruised, / already our souls are oozing through the exit / of the cruel bruise.” Both communicate the ragged scab of a man that the most disturbing (and possibly leprous) elderly males eventually become, with the tell-tale smell of death hanging about them. The entire forty-line process of dying seems to reek of death! “Ah! Can’t you smell it?”
“Piecemeal the body dies,” begins stanza six, heralding the descent into the death of the individual and the coming of the flood which Lawrence associates with eternal death, but it is not until stanza eight that complete and utter death occurs, culminating with the line: “Everything is gone, the body is gone.” The climax of this little section of death is buried in lines 56 & 57, where it reads: “Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies / and life departs.” The actual process of death, like the process of aging and dying before it, seems to drag on and on, as does the actual process, (in most cases, especially violent ones, which it seems Lawrence was trying hardest to portray,) giving the individual time to construct his little “ship of death” and fill it with all manner of supplies. ( Lawrence mentions food, clothing, wine, and a ‘all accouterments’) It’s almost biblical, the way Lawrence uses the idea of a vessel built to allow the individual to survive a great flood, even going so far as to refer to it as “your little ark”. Apparently, however, Lawrence gets most of his imagery, indeed the entire “ship of death” idea from an ancient Viking death ritual where the deceased is lain on a raft (or boat) with a few of their earthly possessions, and sent “down the river,” as it were, after the boat has been set on fire. So, drawing from these two images, (Noah’s ark and the flaming death-raft,) Lawrence seems to have constructed a unique form of “ship,” one which, like the Viking rafts, carries the dead out upon the water, but at the same time seems to serve the purpose of preserving life, like the Ark. Lawrence’s spiral into the depths of death continues with the steady darkening and slipping into oblivion that begins with lines 65 & 66, where it reads “There is no port, there is nowhere to go / only the deepening blackness darkening still”. As the poem progresses from this point, the little ship promptly disappears, swallowed by the encroaching night of eternity and slipping into the sacred void of oblivion, until all seems utterly lost.
What happens next seems to cry out “but wait!” as eternity seems to finally part, revealing the hazy, pink dawn of rebirth. It does not start immediately, however, but is a slow, steady culmination which first makes its appearance at the beginning of stanza nine, where Lawrence speaks of the sudden materialization of a “thread” that “separates itself on the blackness,” and “fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.” As the poem progresses from this point, the melancholy feelings instilled by Lawrence throughout the earlier parts of the poem seem to evaporate, allowing the little thread to brighten and expand, becoming “the cruel dawn of coming back to life”. Our little ship has reappeared as dawn breaks, “faltering and lapsing / on the pink flood”. The individual re-appears near the end of the poem, seen “strange and lovely,” indicating the transference of the soul to a new body, one both unfamiliar, and yet beautiful in the way that infants are beautiful. Lawrence describes the individual as having a heart full of peace, which is reminiscent of how an infant is when he or she first finds its mother’s breast, and lays down in a calm, relaxed state of quiet love. That is, until the final line of stanza nine which hangs like a dark cloud on the horizon, ominous and full of a dark promise: “and the whole thing starts again.”
And so, we are born anew, age, die, and, having braved the torturous flood of oblivion, are again, born anew. In this sense, “The Ship of Death” is a circular piece, and could, theoretically, be read over and over again with no real definitive end. His use of autumn and winter, interspersed throughout the piece with the phases of night and day seem to communicate his central theme of dying, death, and rebirth in a way that is not only brilliant, but seems to hearken back to the days of the ancient Greek philosophers and the little riddles that arose from that period in human history. In all, it is an excellent and very well written piece which bravely dives into the darkest waters of oblivion and returns alive, yet remains haunted by the final line of the final stanza, which solemnly states the inevitability of death in seven carefully picked words, reading “For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.”