Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The meaning of “The Ship of Death” is religious, because it draws upon traditional beliefs to shape its expression. Invoking Hamlet’s soliloquy puts the religious question of suicide in a Western, Judeo-Christian setting that rejects suicide. To allude to the building of the ark by Noah is to solicit the power of divine commandment for the preparation to die as a preparation to survive death; destruction is divinely determined, but obedience to God delivers one from the annihilation of that destruction.
There is ambiguity in the meaning of the ship as an ark, however, because there is quite clearly a connection between the “ship of death” and the model ships placed with corpses in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. This connection raises the possibility that the little ship may be less effective in its voyage than the story of Noah suggests. Those Egyptian ships have gone nowhere, have indeed sometimes lain ironically less preserved beside the better preserved bodies whose souls they were to protect.
Finally, “The Ship of Death” is less confidently a statement of certainty about religious hope for life eternal than it is about the stern necessity of psychological renewal in every person’s natural life. Perhaps each night’s sleep is a passage over the flood of death-darkness, so each morning is a survival of spirit from the death of the body in sleep’s oblivion. More clearly, though subtly, the poem’s meaning is limited to the search for self-identity: “to bid farewell/ to one’s own self, and find an exit/ from the fallen self.” This is a familiar theme of Lawrence’s writing, in fiction as well as in poetry, and it produces a meaning of self-discovery through self-renewal in “The Ship of Death.”