The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Ship of Death” is composed of 107 lines, divided into ten sections of varying lengths (section 4 has four lines, section 7 twenty-five lines). The title refers to the ancient burial practice of placing a model ship in the tomb with the corpse to carry the soul to heaven.

Section 1 describes the time of death as autumn, when apples fall and their seeds are dropped into the earth through the rotting fruit. Each person passes through such a period of autumn, as the person undergoes a separation of self from self. Each must prepare for such a separation. Thus, section 2 calls upon all (“you,” the readers) to build a ship of death, because the season of frost has arrived and apples are ready to fall. The smell of death is in the air, and the soul cowers within the cold body.

Section 3 questions the success of suicide, refusing to believe that the murder of one’s self could be rewarded with the desired tranquillity of death. Instead, section 4 asserts, one should rely upon one’s experience of the peace that comes from “a strong heart.” This is the kind of quiet that one hopes for, and it cannot be had through suicide.

The task of all is, therefore, to begin to prepare for the death that is a part of natural process, for the fall from life that is like the fall of the ripe apple in autumn. Each should build a ship of death for the long journey into “oblivion.” Each can experience in the body the decline of nature as a bruising of being, as a passage of the soul from the weakening body. Time and space are experienced by the aging body as the buffeting of ocean waves against the beach; it is upon that limitless ocean, whose sources...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Ship of Death” is an irregular form of lyric with elegiac material in free verse. Each section is made up of verses grouped into stanzalike units of independent clauses: These may be one line, or they may be as many as nine lines (as in section 7). The effect is a tone suggesting talk, solemn but intimate and ordinary. The intimacy is a product of bringing together the speaker and audience/readers at the opening of section 4: “O let us talk.”

The main devices of this poem are symbolic images, literary allusions, and rhetorical questions. The poem moves in an undulating, shifting way from the declarative statements of section 1 to the interrogatives of 2, 3, and 4. Then there is an increase in the imperative, commanding tone: “Build then,you must.” With little exception, this is the tone sustained to the end, with its “oh build it!” The form of biblical prophecy or pastoral sermon helps shape the poem.

Literary allusions range from obvious to subtle, as Lawrence draws upon his rich literary heritage to help create the themes of his poem. The most obvious is in section 3, with its echoes of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600-1601) “can a man his own quietus make/ with a bare bodkin?” Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide is invoked to put the issue of the poem on a line of courage that confronts death in a positive and heroic way. While this may be slightly ironic, indicating that modern souls are more timid than...

(The entire section is 469 words.)