March 17, 2018

D. H. Lawrence's "Ship of Death"

On this day in 1930 forty-four-year-old D. H. Lawrence died in Vence, France, of tuberculosis. Lawrence was so scoffing of medical (or any other) science that he refused to name or accept his condition, or to submit to any of the "magic mountain" treatments recommended to him. This fatalism was combined with a belief that he was in the grip of an evil spirit, visited upon him by a lifetime of vilification from misguided critics and an outraged public -- most recently for the banned Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), and for an exhibition of paintings condemned as "filth" by the press and confiscated by the police. "The hatred which my books have aroused comes back at me and gets me here," he told a friend, tapping his chest. "If I get the better of if in one place it goes to another."

In order to escape the English attitude and weather, and to cope with his usual impoverishment, Lawrence spent decades on the move -- Europe, Ceylon, Australia, Mexico, a year and a half at the ranch near Taos, New Mexico which he had swapped for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers. Whether due to his illness or to a lifetime of being temperamental, outspoken and eccentric, Lawrence's last years were characterized by an ever-narrowing circle of friends, an increasingly conflicted relationship with his wife, Frieda, and an attempt to face what he knew was coming. From "The Ship of Death," written several months before he died:
    Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
    O build your ship of death, for you will need it.

    The grim frost is at hand, when the apples fall
    thick, almost thundrous, on the hardened earth.

    And death is on the air like a smell of ashes!
    Ah! can't you smell it?
Given his views on personality and reincarnation, Lawrence was buried without ceremony in Vence, a simple marker with his phoenix symbol done in seashore pebbles marking the spot. Given Frieda's personality, what happened next became so bizarre as to have been eventually taken up in a television episode of "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Five years after Lawrence's death Frieda dispatched her new partner to bring his remains back to the Taos ranch. He either did this, or did what he later drunkenly told friends he had done: dutifully collect the ashes in Vence; decide not to bother with the trouble of transporting them and instead just dump them somewhere outside Marseille; hand over to Frieda ersatz ashes, though in the fancy urn she had given him. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Frieda's plans were under attack by others who had been close to Lawrence; tired of the dispute over whether the ashes should be scattered (their view) or enshrined (Frieda's view), she is said to have dumped whatever her lover had delivered to her into a batch of cement being used to build the memorial altar, saying, "now let's see them steal this!" Whether in the presence of D. H. Lawrence or not, those who attended Frieda's dedication ceremony -- the Pueblo dancers, the Mexican orchestra, the crowd of strangers eating hot dogs and drinking homemade wine (Frieda had put an announcement in the Santa Fe paper) -- apparently enjoyed themselves.

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