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Last Updated on July 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

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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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

“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 come from beyond time and space, that the ship of death will be launched.

The body breaks up and falls into pieces in section 6, where the soul discovers that it cannot find anything solid outside its body. The flood waters are death-waters, now within as well as without the body. The soul is increasingly frightened, huddling in terror as it waits the final annihilating waves of destruction.

“We are dying, we are dying,” the poem says; since we are dying all the time, we can only resign ourselves to the inevitability of the end. We must help the soul by building a ship for it to cross the ocean of death; we must put aboard it the implements of life, “food/ and little dishes,” for comfort of the frightened soul. One departs the body as a soul launched upon a ship that has no destiny, no charts to guide it, and no means to steer it upon the dark waters of death. In the deepening darkness, both the soul and the ship disappear as they drift without direction and fall into nothing, toward “nowhere.”

Section 8 is a surrender, an absolute resignation to the disappearance of all: Both body and ship are “gone, entirely gone.” The end has been reached, and the end “is oblivion.” When all has sunk into nothing, something occurs. Section 9 is a break in the plane of oblivion, as “a thread” of light stretches itself out to make a horizon, to open a space for new consciousness. The stunned speaker is uncertain of what can be believed: “Is it illusion?” Then the thread of light “fumes” into a broader, dawn-like light. Suddenly, the ship is sighted, drifting beneath the gray light. Then the light turns yellow, and finally it is rose-colored; “The whole thing starts again.”

The flooding waters of death subside to open section 10. A “frail soul,” beaten and disoriented by the darksome voyage, leaves the ship and steps into a shell-like body waiting for its return. The ship returns upon the sea as the soul reenters its body. The soul now finds the peace of oblivion in its bodily being. This is what awaits the person who builds the ship of death, so each should begin to build what each will need to cross waters of death for the peace of oblivion.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

“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 Hamlet, it still works to align the modern soul with the heroic Hamlet in a more subtle way. When Hamlet is sent to England, he makes a strange voyage by ship, from which he returns a changed person, resigned to providence. Lawrence’s poem also aims for this. There are other, important allusions as well. The poem opens with strong references, through the imagery of the “falling fruit” of autumn, to John Keats’s “To Autumn,” as well as to Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605-1606), with its line, “the ripeness is all.”

The imagery of falling fruit as a symbol for the fallen body, from which a “soul” exits like a seed from rotting pulp, is a way to keep the process of death and dying in a natural dimension; therefore, when the soul returns from its journey at the end, it is more credible, because the soul is like the seed which sprouts into new life after a period of germination in earth’s darkness. The action of the fall is itself likened to a journey, and this is made to be a journey by water. References to the “ark” and “flood” make the journey an individual experience of the biblical narrative of Noah, so that the natural process is lifted into a spiritual and religious dimension as well.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292

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.”