Literature Annotations

Lawrence, D. H. (David Herbert)
The Ship of Death

Genre Poem
KeywordsDeath and Dying, Human Worth, Loneliness, Patient Experience, Suffering, Tuberculosis

The long journey towards oblivion has begun, the poet announces. "And it is time to go, to bid farewell / to one's own self." He then asks, "Have you built your ship of death, O have you?" Our bodies are dying, we are slipping away piece by piece. The only hope (if it is a hope) for us is to be prepared for death by building a "little ark" and stocking it with the essentials to carry us through "the dark flight down oblivion."

In this way we achieve "quietus." The poet visualizes launching his ship, which has no rudder, upon the sea of death, which has no ports. Yet, after drifting for a long time in darkness, "the little ship wings home" and "the body, like a worn sea-shell / emerges strange and lovely." [106 lines]


Lawrence wrote this poem when he was terminally ill from tuberculosis in late 1929 or 1930. There are several versions of "The Ship of Death" and of "Bavarian Gentians," another death-poem written around the same time. It appears that Lawrence kept re-working the same material, perhaps in this way building his own ship of death.

Building a metaphorical ship is one way to prepare for the ultimate journey. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Christian "Ars Moriendi" of the Middle Ages are other forms of preparation. Our contemporary preference in the United States is to deny the approach of death and remain silent, while we allow our bodies to be impaled by machines in the name of "survival."

SourceSelected Poems
PublisherNew Directions
EditorsKenneth Rexroth
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 07/05/99