I arrived at the conclusion that D.H. Lawrence never wrote a line worth remembering when a junior high school English teacher read “The Ship of Death” aloud and with great feeling. I thought it was a joke, a parody of poetic flatulence à la Percy Dovetonsils, but Miss Clymer read it straight:
“And can a man his own quietus make
with a bare bodkin?”
Be honest now: Can you seriously answer that question? I’m not familiar with the pertinent scholarship but I suspect Philip Larkin, not yet 30 years old, had Lawrence’s poem in mind when he wrote “Next, Please” (from his second book, XX Poems, 1951). My brother happened upon this grim little poem last week and it prompted him to make three paintings using nautical imagery:
“Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,
“Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!
“Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
“Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last
“We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:
“Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.”
As always, Larkin’s theme is our gift for self-delusion. Along these lines, “Watching from a bluff” reminds me of the seaside resort at Bournemouth, where poor Dencombe meets his end in Henry James’ “The Middle Years”:
“He sat and stared at the sea, which appeared all surface and twinkle, far shallower than the spirit of man. It was the abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep.”
Dr. Johnson defines “to prink” as “To prank; to deck for show.” In other words, to preen or strut one’s stuff. Such is the “Sparkling armada of promises,” until you remember what happened in 1588. The final stanza sinks Lawrence’s bombast for good with the “black- / Sailed unfamiliar.” What other poet would write of a “huge and birdless silence?” The poem, despite such wonders, is early, relatively minor Larkin. “Church Going” and “Aubade” are still in the future and by then he will have cast off the unnaturally “poetic” flavor of a ship of death. Larkin was at home in the close-at-hand, the dreary and wonderful place where most of us dwell. As he told an interviewer:
“I don’t want to transcend the commonplace, I love the commonplace, I lead a very commonplace life. Everyday things are lovely to me.”