The Ship of Death

by D. H. Lawrence

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

Lawrence implicitly evokes different poetic traditions and material cultures in order to discuss the subject of death. First, the poem uses natural imagery—that of autumn and an apple falling from a tree—in order to establish not only the ubiquitous nature of death but also it imminence. The very first line of the poem is “Now it is autumn.” In other words, the season that precedes death has arrived, and thus the inevitability of winter and death and oblivion is approaching: the “grim frost” is not far off.

The central image of the poem, the “ship of death,” is also evocative of the material preparations for death that are prevalent in many cultures. In ancient Egypt, for example, people were buried with many objects that were believed to help the soul make a successful journey to the afterlife. While this practice is not universal to all cultures, the connection between the material aspect of burial rites and the associated immaterial journey of a departed soul is central to most burial practices. By evoking specifically the idea of the “ship of death,” Lawrence is bringing to the forefront of his work the preparation—material or otherwise—that is associated with death.

The speaker also makes several biblical illusions throughout the poem. This ship is likened to an “ark,” a word which is almost inextricably associated with the flood of the Old Testament. Lawrence uses this allusion to liken the preparation of the “ship of death” to Noah’s preparation of the ark. Lawrence further alludes to this story when the speaker references the “death-flood” that is coming from within and without, as it will “soon . . . rise on the world.” As Noah was warned and prepared, the speaker is warning the reader to prepare for this flood as well. However, unlike the physical biblical flood, this flood is the ever-present and encroaching flood of decline that inevitably results in death.

Furthermore, the falling apple that Lawrence uses to symbolize the ultimate transition toward death is also evocative of the “first” descent of Christian doctrine: that of Adam and Eve before paradise. Just as the apple cannot die while it is still a part of the tree, so, too, can death not exist in Paradise. However, the apple eventually fell, just as Eve was tempted to bring mortality into the world of humanity. This symbol is also potent in relation to the theme of the “knowledge” of death; because humanity is now aware of its own mortality, a fundamental crisis arises with how to deal with this knowledge. However, the speaker urges that it is this knowledge that allows us to prepare—the only possible defense against death.

The speaker also alludes to Hamlet through a reference to the famous soliloquy in act 3 that Hamlet makes concerning suicide. In this speech, Hamlet is anxious for relief from the wrongs and evils of the material world, but his hand is ultimately stayed by the inscrutability of death—he is stopped for no greater reason than that death is unknown and life is known (and is therefore preferable). The speaker of this poem insists that, despite Hamlet’s conclusion, there is no possible way that suicide could bring peace. Instead, the speaker urges that, even if a life in decline is painful, we must bear it out in order to make sufficient preparation for death.

Thus, by drawing on varied sources that have contemplated the nature of death and concerned themselves with the preparations therein, Lawrence introduces his work as part of a pantheon of works on the subject of death. He makes note of the ideas that have come before, especially ones that are famous, in order to introduce his own perspective in relation to them. Most notable is his infusion of ancient burial practices with Christian imagery—seemingly contradictory motifs that are used in harmony to depict a more holistic understanding of what death is or could be.

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