The Ship of Death

by D. H. Lawrence

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

When the poem begins, the speaker describes the season of autumn, calling it the beginning of death. Seasonal imagery is often evoked in comparison to the stages of life (spring is birth, summer is youth and vigor, autumn is mid-life, and winter is death). Here, the speaker compares the soul to an apple falling from a tree, and the imagery used here conveys a sense of life in decline; once the apple begins to fall, it will no longer grow—only decay. The imagery of autumn coupled with the metaphorical “turn” of life toward its ultimate end conveys a sense of impending death. Death at the beginning of the poem has not arrived, but it is imminent.

The speaker then asks if the reader has “built [their] ship of death”—which can be understood as a preparation for death and oblivion (i.e., the ship that will carry the soul out of this life and into whatever follows). Building on the imminence of death established in the beginning of poem, the speaker then implores the reader to consider the kind of preparation that accompanies the questions and concerns that arise once someone starts considering death as not only inevitable but fast-approaching.

Then in the third stanza the speaker evokes the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet (arguably one of the most famous speeches regarding death in the English language): “And can a man his own quietus make / with a bare bodkin?” By evoking this speech, and this line specifically, the speaker addresses the nature of suicide in relation to death. In the soliloquy, Hamlet famously muses on what prevents someone from taking their own life—and considers whether or not it is merely because they fear the unknown. This evocation serves to situate Lawrence’s work in relation to this subject, as he is also writing on the nature of death and considers the fear that accompanies journeying into the unknown.

However, unlike Hamlet, the speaker unequivocally states that suicide could never make “quietus” (or peace) because peace could never follow from murder—especially self-murder. The speaker then states that the only way to truly achieve this peace is to prepare: to build the ship of death and furnish it with anything that is necessary to face oblivion:

We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do
is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship
of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.

The speaker states that, when the body eventually dies, the soul becomes untethered and lost in oblivion. This is compared to a flood (similar to the great biblical flood of the Old Testament)—a flood of death that gradually accumulates and eventually overwhelms and confounds the soul. And, like Noah, the speaker argues that we must prepare in order to make our way through it.

The speaker then describes how, when this ship is launched at the moment of death, the soul becomes inexorably lost in the darkness of oblivion. Even the ship is indiscernible in the complete and enduring darkness. There is nowhere for the ship to dock; no respite from the untethered, confounding nature of death on the soul. However, out of this darkness there eventually arises a thin line of light: “a flush of yellow . . . a flush of rose.” From this light, the speaker states, the soul swells with peace and brightness. The speaker then ends by imploring the reader to build the ship of death, as it is the only way to voyage through oblivion—at the end of which awaits this light.

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