Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543
Death and Decay
D. H. Lawrence masterfully evokes potent imagery in order to give body and shape to something as immaterial as the concept of decline and death. This “enfleshing” is achieved by the use of nature imagery: the falling apple in autumn (in itself representative of a transition toward death) in the first lines of the poem. The soul approaching death is likened to an apple falling from a tree. However, Lawrence does not present death as the instant of rupture between the tree and the apple; this moment is merely the pinnacle of life after which everything begins to decline.
Instead, he describes death as the gradual evanescence of our souls through the bruises and punctures in our bodies—openings at which the “endless ocean of the end” is inexorably pouring in and the soul is “oozing” out. The image of the apple is especially salient here, as the reader can imagine the fruit rotting on the ground, gradually losing its vitality the longer it has been severed from the tree. Thus, Lawrence uses natural imagery in order to solidly materialize the concept of the decadence toward death. This idea is important (and ironic) since the idea that Lawrence is treating within this work is the idea of the soul leaving the body, the incorporeal being divorced from the corporeal.
Death as a Journey
The fundamental assertion that the poem conveys is the necessity of “build[ing] the ship of death” that will be used to carry the soul on “the longest journey, to oblivion.” This ship, rather than being merely a metaphor for spiritual preparation, is explicitly stored with material necessities; the speaker asserts that it should be stocked with a “store of food and little cooking pans / and change of clothes.”
In relation to the severity of the subject that Lawrence is addressing, the idea that what is needed to carry the soul through oblivion is a “change of clothes” seems somewhat irreverent. However, this statement also has a soothing effect, in that the speaker implies that the journey into oblivion can be treated like any other journey. The speaker states that the only thing that can be done with the knowledge of death is to prepare for it and implicitly urges the reader to regard it with a calm kind of pragmatism, especially since it is ultimately inevitable.
The Cyclicality of Life and Death
In the first stanza, Lawrence likens the process of decline to autumn, which has often been used as a symbol of the period before death. However, Lawrence also factors the cyclicality of the seasons into this imagery: ultimately, the speaker asserts that the process from life to death is reciprocal and recurring. In the ninth stanza, the speaker speaks of the “flush of rose” that emerges within the oblivion that follows death, causing the “whole thing” to start again—suggesting that the voyage to oblivion is also a voyage back to life. The soul, despite losing its form and wandering aimlessly though oblivion, eventually “emerges, strange and lovely”—embodied once again to start the process over. The ship of death, then, can be understood as a metaphor for the beliefs that protect us from disappearing finally into oblivion; it is a way to rebirth.