By this time, Lawrence was in the last year of his life. He was expecting to die, but he had no religious relief in an afterlife – he severely doubted the Catholic religion in which he was brought up. The poems from Last Poems are his way of reassuring himself that death is simply another stage in the journey through life. He was fascinated by the Ancient culture, especially the Greeks, and transformed their mythology and beliefs into his own ‘religion’ and belief in an afterlife.
In “The Ship of Death” Lawrence is focusing on the Egyptian idea of the dead travelling by a “ship of death” to their next life. The people journeyed on and had an afterlife. In ancient Egypt, bodies were buried with goods that they expected to take with them on their journey:
“with food, with little cakes and wine”,
” A little ship, with oars and food
and little dishes, and all accoutrements”
In this way, the people had a means of preparing themselves for death. Death was thought of as neither happiness nor torture, but a natural continuation of life. The Egyptians were prepared and had a strong belief in their next life. D.H Lawrence longed to know what was ahead of him, but as he had no clear idea (” the long journey towards oblivion”), he could not prepare himself fully. In this poem, he sees the journey of death as something frightening, “grim frost, “bruised body”, “our soul cowers naked”, “the long and painful death”. But he also realises that it is a necessary part of life, and he tells us that:
“We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do
is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship”
It is as though there is no hope anymore, so he has to face up to the unknown journey that is inevitable.
The ship sails on “the dark and endless ocean of the end”, implying that he sees the journey as an ongoing one, into “eternity”. However, there is a paradox in the poem: towards the end, the ship sails “out of eternity” and “out of oblivion”. Perhaps Lawrence feels that, for those whose faith is strong enough to withstand the “dark flood”, “the grim frost” and the “painful death” there is an afterlife, but for those whose faith is weak, “It is the end, it is oblivion”. It has parallels with the Biblical account of Noah’s Ark, in which an ark is prepared by a man with strong faith, so that when the flood comes, he survives, but the other non-believer and sinful people are doomed. D.H Lawrence uses the same idea: that self-preparation is essential, “O build your ship of death, for you will need it”. Perhaps he is desperate to become a believer, so that he will not be ‘doomed’.
In the final verses of the poem, the “death-flood” becomes “the pink flood”. The mood has heightened and Lawrence sees an alternative ending:
“and the frail soul steps out, into her house again
filling the heart with peace.”
He sees the soul as being the same entity as the human, but at a later stage in its development – in the same way that a chrysalis becomes a butterfly,
“………………and the body, like a worn sea-shell
emerges strange and lovely.”
The soul has found its resting place and the “little ship wings home”. The use of the word “home” suggests that Lawrence imagined the after-life to be in a place that he recognised, that he knew. In other words, here on earth. In “The Ship of Death”, the journey is a terrifying experience, but at the end of it, one can come out of “oblivion and find “peace”.
However, later on, Lawrence begins to believe in a more natural type of journey, as he begins to look at the ancient Greeks’ way of life. The Greeks symbolise adventure and this is how Lawrence begins to view the journey of death. He retains the image of the ‘ship’ and the ‘journey’ throughout most of these poems, because the Greeks’ voyages provide him with a symbol for the journey of death. For example, in the poem “The Argonauts”, Lawrence envisages them as having lived on: “They are not dead!” The Argonauts, led by Jason, are still on their never-ending journey (following on from the theme of eternity in “The Ship of Death”), but for them, the voyage is a glorious one: “Odysseus…..steers” the ship – he is a Greek hero.