“HAVE you built your ship of death, oh have you? …”
If you don’t know this poem by D.H.Lawrence you may, like me, find the subject off-putting or depressing. But give it a chance and consider it. As humans the fact that we all must die is one of the things we all have in common. Much of the wisdom passed down to us over the centuries has aimed to help with this transition.
I have illustrated this post with a painting “Owlship” because the poem has a connection to the story of its creation. I was made aware of the poem while I was working on the painting. I am grateful to Dr David Louis Magee for this.
On a June morning in 2014 when David came up to my studio, my beagle Rolo, then a puppy, was tied to the walnut tree while we worked and talked at a table outside. Katherine (Kitty) Joyce, my late mother in law came outside with a chair to sit in the sunshine and a memorable conversation happened. Kitty had just been diagnosed with cancer and had had a stroke a few years before. We talked about the painting, which Kitty seemed to like. David had brought a photocopy of the poem and I did an impromptu reading. We spoke of death and I think she found it comforting. She had been preparing herself for this for a while.
Three months later I read it again at the “removal” (it’s an Irish thing) for Kitty the night before her funeral. It was moving and seemed and seemed a significant way to say farewell.
When I researched the poem online I found that there are many versions – the poet kept revising. However I prefer the one below.
THE SHIP OF DEATH
HAVE you built your ship of death, oh have you?
Oh build your ship of death, for you will need it.
Now in the twilight, sit by the invisible sea
Of peace, and build your little ship
Of death, that will carry the soul
On it’s last journey, on and on, so still
So beautiful, over the last of seas.
When the day comes, that will come.
Oh think of it in the twilight peacefully!
The last day, and the setting forth
Om the longest journey, over the hidden sea
To the last wonder of oblivion.
Oblivion, the last wonder!
When we have trusted ourselves entirely
To the unknown, and are taken up
Out of our little ships of death
Into pure oblivion.
Oh build your ship of death, be building it now
With dim, calm thoughts and quiet hands
Putting its timbers together in the dusk,
Rigging its mast with the silent, invisible sail
That will spread in death to the breeze
Of the kindness of the cosmos,, that will waft
The little ship with its soul to the wonder-goal.
Ah, if you want to live in peace on the face of the earth
Then build your ship of death, in readiness
For the longest journey, over the last of seas.
There is another poem which is relevant to this painting. This is “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear. Another painting in this collection with an owl in it which also seems to refer obliquely to the nursery rhyme is called “Owl’s Failed Shipbuilding” and is an assemblage on breadboard too. There are no guitars or pigs in either piece, so they are by no means literal illustrations.
In this one (Owlship) there is not exactly a silvery moon (unless you see the owl’s head as a stand-in), and the boat is not exactly pea-green. However, unusually for my practice, I must have known from early on in the process what the subject was going to be. I hope it’s evident somewhere in the magpie-like accretion of found objects in this post-apocalyptic, ridiculous vessel that I really enjoyed the making of this. The construction of these assemblages always challenges my ingenuity and sets puzzles of making that I love solving. Objects randomly found and picked up, or whose original usefulness has passed, are incorporated into a new purpose.