“’The Ship of Death:’ D.H. Lawrence’s Last Poems”

by Sam Buntz

T.S. Eliot once said that any serious belief in life ultimately must lead to a serious belief in death.  It’s an eerie statement, but Eliot meant that when we realize that life can never offer us “full requital to desire” we hope that death will eventually provide us with the bliss or peace we struggled for on earth.  He seemed uncertain as to whether a contemporary of his, D.H. Lawrence, had attained to such a belief, but Lawrence’s great collection, Last Poems, released posthumously, indicate that he did develop certain intense convictions about death – though perhaps not the kind the devoutly Christian Eliot might’ve wanted him to develop.  Dying of tuberculosis at age 35, Lawrence wrote what have proved to be – along with some of Wallace Stevens’ poems – the greatest meditations on death in the 20th Century (in my opinion).

Lawrence was an immense creative force, endlessly writing short stories, essays, reviews, plays, and novels – and his poems are an often overlooked yet central part of his achievement (at least, the best of them).  The longest and most important poem in Last Poems is entitled “The Ship of Death,” in which Lawrence wrestles with the preparations he must make for his own imminent demise.  He begins by relating his own decay to that of the autumnal world surrounding him: “The apples falling like great drops of dew / To bruise themselves an exit from themselves.”  He recognizes that it is time to “find an exit from the fallen self,” and considers how this should be done.  He rejects suicide, alluding to Hamlet: “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?”  Lawrence responds with the great exhortation, “Build then the ship of death, for you must take / the longest journey, to oblivion.”  I take it that Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” is another term for what William Blake called “the Imaginative Body.”  Blake believed—or, he would say, knew—that the bodies human beings would live in after death were composed of the total form their imaginations had managed to put forward on earth—all the best they had been able to do or create.  And he meant this in a perfectly literal way—not in the sense that someone would say Abe Lincoln attained a soft, fictional immortality since the good he did lived after him.  Lawrence means something akin to what Blake meant, but lacking the visionary’s ability to perceive the reality of his own intuitions, Lawrence provides a shadowy but suggestive intimation of the Beyond.

Sensing his own disintegration, he imagines his entire body and mind receding completely into oblivion – before a strange resurrection at the end.  Lawrence was something like a “Pagan Christian” (if you’ll accept the oxymoron) and had the courage to evolve his own religion – thus “The Ship of Death” provides one of 20th Century poetry’s only sincere visions of the Beyond.  No poet of comparable talents in his era ever attempted to be a seer of the Beyond, as Lawrence did.  In the end, he sees to the other side of oblivion, to a new life: “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.”

But, in addition to grappling with his death, Lawrence further evolves his idiosyncratic religious sense of the cosmos.  He discusses the nature of hell, for example, asserting that hell is not a place, but a state of mind, in which the ego continually loops back to itself and never reaches out to touch Reality.  He sees it as a wheel ever turning monotonously: “fixed upon the hub of the ego / going, yet never wandering, fixed, yet in motion, / the kind of hell that is real, grey and awful / sinless and stainless going round and round…”  By contrast, Lawrence provides the image of the free or saved self as “a thing of kisses and strife / a lit-up shaft of rain / a calling column of blood…”  Wrestling with his own death, Lawrence is attempting to commune with something beyond himself – trying to attain, like the characters in his novels, “a connection with the Infinite” – and, consequently, he recoils in disgust from what he sees as the opposite: the tiny, finite self content to continually retract the entire universe into itself, to see only its own reflection everywhere.  World War I is condemned in passing as a supreme instance of the consequences of this hellish communing-with-the-selfhood.  He turns away from the mere ego, and desires, in death, to forget its own small world entirely: “To be able to forget is to be able to yield / to God who dwells in deep oblivion.”

Additionally—and it doesn’t have that much to do with death—Last Poems includes one of the craziest of all Lawrence poems (and this for a man who wrote some truly crazy poems—the earlier “Tortoise Shout,” for example.)  “Whales Weep Not!” is fairly hilarious: mating whales are depicted with cosmic zest. “Out of the inward roaring of the inner red ocean of whale blood / the long tip reaches strong, intense, like the maelstrom-tip, and comes to rest / in the clasp, and the soft, wild clutch of a she-whale’s fathomless body. / And over the bridge of the whale’s strong phallus, linking the wonder of whales / the burning archangels under the sea keep passing, back and forth, keep passing, archangels of bliss…”  This is the kind of thing that provoked T.S. Eliot’s profound reservations and equivocations about Lawrence – but it is a totally sublime poem!  We are moved to an odd variety of laughter, but also to wonder at the splendid fact that, lying on his death-bed, this is one of the places Lawrence’s imagination went to.  He could lie there, dying of consumption, visualizing his own end with intense poignancy, and also experience visions of whales having sex in what is also a kind of bizarre spiritual union.  Angels were never put to literary use with such wild yet justifiable abandon.

In one of my favorite Lawrence poems – and one of the greatest of all death poems, ever – “Shadows,” he says goodbye with courage and grace, while confessing that he is falling apart: “And if, in the changing phases of man’s life / my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead / and strength is gone, and my life / is only the leavings of a life…”  Yet, he suddenly finds a beauty in his life that he has never found before: “and still among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion… /odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet knew strange flowers / such as my life has not brought forth before…”  It ends with an extremely moving affirmation: “then I must know that still / I am in the hands of the unknown God, / he is breaking me down to his own oblivion / to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”

What Lawrence teaches in these poems is acceptance, courage, faith—all the old, sanctified virtues—but so transfigured through the strangeness of his unique religion as to appear wholly new and attractive to us.  “Oblivion” is one of Lawrence’s favorite words in the Last Poems – although he hopes to be resurrected, he sees death as a passage through a complete and total forgetting which he calls “oblivion”—he sees it as a total cleansing of the self, the pure relaxation that it never could find even in the deepest depths of sleep, when it completely forgets itself and everything comprising its world.  “Oblivion” is, in Lawrence’s mythic understanding of it, a kind of marriage between the soul and the deep void out of which it was first called—the depth where God dwells.  He relates his own death to the journey down to the underworld, undertaken by Perspehone and her husband, Pluto: “a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark / of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom, / among the splendour of torches and darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.”  It is this marriage that Lawrence desires for himself – almost a sort of marriage with God, in which he ceases from his own existence and becomes lost in something deeper and greater.  The process bears a certain relationship to what the Sufis called fana, or annihilation – before the soul can be resurrected to a new perfected life, it first must go through deepest oblivion – but it emerges again, reconstituted, on the other side, in the “New Heaven and the New Earth” – that “undiscovered country” for which David Herbert Lawrence was always searching. Taken together, these poems actually are a kind of “ship of death,” since they are the vehicle their author built to transport him across oblivion, to farther shores and stranger skies.


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