The Ship of Death (1933)
By D.H. Lawrence

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.

Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
build your ship of death, for you will need it.

The grim frost is at hand, when the apples will fall
thick, almost thundrous, on the hardened earth.

And death is on the air like a smell of ashes!
Ah! can’t you smell it?

And in the bruised body, the frightened soul
finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold
that blows upon it through the orifices.

And can a man his own quietus make
with a bare bodkin?

With daggers,bodkins, bullets, man can make
a bruise or break of exit for his life;
but is that a quietus, O tell me, is it quietus?

Surely not so! for how could murder, even self-murder
ever a quietus make?

O let us talk of quiet that we know,
that we can know, the deep and lovely quiet
of a strong heart at peace!

How can we this, our own quietus, make?

Build then the ship of death, for you must take
the longest journey, to oblivion.

And die the death, the long and painful death
that lies between the old self and the new.

Already our bodies are fallen, bruised, badly bruised,
already our souls are oozing through the exit
of the cruel bruise.

Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
already the flood is upon us.

Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul
has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

We are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying
and nothing will stay the death-flood rising within us
and soon it will rise on the world, on the outside world.

We are dying, we are dying, piecemeal our bodies are dying
and our strength leaves us,
and our soul cowers naked in the dark rain over the flood,
cowering in the last branches of the tree of our life.

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.

A little ship, with oars and food
and little dishes, and all accoutrements
fitting and ready for the departing soul.

Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies
and life departs, launch out, the fragile soul
in the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
with its store of food and little cooking pans
and change of clothes,
upon the flood’s black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.

There is no port, there is nowhere to go
only the deepening black darkening still
blacker upon the soundless, ungurgling flood
darkness at one with darkness, up and down
and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more
and the little ship is there; yet she is gone.
She is not seen, for there is nothing to see her by.
She is gone! gone! and yet
somewhere she is there.

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone, entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.

It is the end, it is oblivion.

And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.

Is it illusion? or does the pallor fume
A little higher?
Ah wait, wait, for there’s the dawn,
the cruel dawn of coming back to life
out of oblivion.

Wait, wait, the little ship
drifting, beneath the deathly ashy grey
of a flood-dawn.

Wait, wait! even so, a flush of yellow
and strangely, O chilled wan soul, a flush of rose.

A flush of rose, and the whole thing starts again.

The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell
emerges strange and lovely.
And the little ship wings home, faltering and lapsing
on the pink flood,
and the frail soul steps out, into the house again
filling the heart with peace.

Swings the heart renewed with peace
even of oblivion.

Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.

Summary by Sections

The poem is about accepting death and the preparations leading into it. Lawrence wrote this poem when he was near death. It was not actually published until after his death in 1930, with the poem being published in 1933.

Lawrence uses autumn as the timeframe. Winter is usually associated with death because it is the most barren. Nature starts to slow down and decay during the autumn months. In Lawrence’s poem, he starts out as leading into death just as autumn does. He also compares death to apples. As an apple starts to rot, it also starts to bruise and it is slowly dying. It is at this point that it is time to accept death.

He suggests the dying to build a boat of death in preparation for death. He uses a boat as a mode of transportation to refer to the river Styx, a river that seperates the living and the dead. He refers back to the bruised apple, the wind hits it around and the apple is ready to fall to its death. He does not mean to literally build a boat, but to accept the ride to death.

3 and 4
Lawrence questions the use of suicide or euthanization. If one is slowly dying, is it worth it to end the misery and kill oneself? Lawrence does not think so. He believes that going through the motions of death will bring a strong heart at peace and that is what we should strive for.

This is an important stanza in Lawrence’s poem. He believes that death is long and painful. Yet he also believes that the pain is what lies between one life and another, the afterlife or reincarnation. Lawrence also writes that before you know it, death approaches.

Death approaches and there is nothing you can do about it. Lawrence merely sees people gripping the last twigs of the tree of our life.

7 and 8
Now that Lawrence is dying, the death ship must set sail. He cannot steer the ship and it just sets sail for the dark oblivion that is death. As he lays dying, it only gets darker and darker. At one point, while he is still on the ship, it gets so dark that he cannot even see the ship underneath him. “It is the end, it is oblivion” (80)

In the distance he sees a a thread, he can make something out in the darkness. He questions whether he really sees anything. As he gets closer he realizes it is the dawn of a new life. The ship is still drifting, but towards a color of rose, the start of a sunrise.

The body is refreshed. The ship is now leaving, most likely going to pick another person up. The pink color of the sunrise starts to fill his heart with peace. Lawrence is glad and his heart is at peace once more. He ends the poem with the advice, to be prepared for death, for you will never know when death approaches.

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Poem taken from:
Abrams, M. H., ed. “The Ship of Death” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th Edition. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1993. 2128.

Kristian Quiroz