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Lawrence’s Angst: The Transformative Journey from Sardinia to “The Ship of Death”

Soha El Samad


Though D.H. Lawrence proudly declared in his 1908 letter to Blanche Jennings that his knowledge of the sea far exceeds that of experienced sailors, he affirmed that he never touched the water when in a boat and that his bathing was restricted to the shore. Apparently, this relationship is defined by surface and depth, and oscillates between the two moods of awe and anxiety. The former is reflected in his poetry, while the latter is pervasive in his prose writings. From a Heideggerean perspective, and with particular focus on Sea and Sardinia where his shifting moods conspicuously drive the narrative, we argue here that Lawrence’s occasionally aggressive reactions stem from a deep-seated anxiety that is heightened by his proximity to the sea. As Dasein, his moods and lived experiences eventually lead to his reconciliation with the existential inevitability of death. The reading which is proposed here juxtaposes Sea and Sardinia with one early and two later poems, “The Sea,” “Mana of the Sea,” and “The Ship of Death,” in order to trace the vicissitudes of his emotional states. Basically, the aim of this study is to draw attention to the transformative power of Lawrence’s angst by analyzing how the shift in attitude towards the sea reflects his acceptance or coming to terms with death.

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  • 1 Cousteau 16.

It is all strange, unearthly, and yet familiar. Strange, because the sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.1


  • 2 Heidegger BT 163.
  • 3 Ibid., BT 48.

1Socially and physically “unhoused” because of his estrangement from his country and the affliction of his weakened body, D.H. Lawrence spent most of his life on the move, crossing seas and oceans in search of an environment and a place that would compensate for these essential individual lacks. Not only did he strive to ease his physical malaise, he also endeavored in the early stages of his life to establish his unique version of “home” – an ideal community he named Rananim – to help overcome his existential crisis. Unfortunately, the blissful, concrete mode of dwelling he yearned for proved difficult or impossible to achieve in a world where man’s materialistic existence prevailed, a world which Martin Heidegger aptly describes as a place where “Everyone is the other and no one is himself.”2 Lawrence’s works are therefore characterized by a profound preoccupation with the significance of life, an issue addressed in varying tones, depending on context and genre. In this respect, his portrayal of the sea at certain points in his life appears to suggest that its “presence-at-hand”3 reminds him of the nothingness at the centre of existence, since it is a context in which his mood shifts are starkly manifested, notably his irritability. Lawrence’s disposition therefore makes him a Dasein whose mood shifts seem to be heightened by his proximity to the sea.

  • 4 Lawrence The Letters of D.H. Lawrence 178.

2Though the sea features prominently in Lawrence’s fiction, the reader cannot overlook the sense of ambivalence surrounding his relationship to this fluid, liminal cosmic element. While he proudly declares in his letter to Blanche Jennings (1908) that his knowledge of the sea far exceeds that of experienced sailors, he also affirms, “But as for getting in a boat, never! The shore is good enough for me. I strip and bathe on the shore, and that is quite enough for me.”4 Evidently, this relationship is defined by the polarities of surface and depth, oscillating between his two moods of awe and anxiety. It is also noteworthy that the former is reflected in his poetry, while the latter is perceptible in his fiction, through several Lawrencian alter-egos, and in his travel writings.

  • 5 Wright 230.
  • 6 The Trespasser 40.

3In this regard, in The Trespasser, which is set on the Isle of Wight and is based on Helen Corke’s personal experience, Lawrence remains true to the main events; while adopting an authorial attitude that reflects his unique artistry and his understanding of other beings. According to Louise Wright “though Lawrence depended on Helen for his story, the treatment of it is his own.”5 The fact that Siegmund, like Lawrence, is a careful, “poor swimmer”6 brings the protagonist and author closer together; even more so when Helena compares Siegmund to the sea in a manner reminiscent of the comparison Lawrence makes in his poem “The Sea.” At that point in time, it is with a sense of awe and fear that Lawrence portrays the sea in both genres. For instance, in The Trespasser we are told that Siegmund loves the purifying effect of the water, but his fear of the sea’s power intensifies after he and Helena are trapped by the incoming tide. Haunted by the secrets of its depth, he fantasizes that:

  • 7 The Trespasser 111.

There under water, clamoring in a throng at the base of the submerged walls, were sea-women with dark locks, and young sea-girls, with soft hair, vividly green, striving to climb up out of the darkness into the morning, their hair swirling in abandon. Siegmund was half afraid of their frantic efforts.7

  • 8 Heidegger BT 289.

4Consequently, the basic question is that of the role which the sea plays in Lawrence’s coming to terms with death, and the extent to which anxiety informs his moods. For this purpose, a Heideggerean analysis of Sea and Sardinia can enable us to apprehend the sea as a catalyst which affects his disposition and eventually helps transform him into a “being-towards-the-end.”8 By juxtaposing Sea and Sardinia with his early poem, “The Sea” and his two final sea-focused poems, “Mana of the Sea,” and “The Ship of Death,” it will be possible for us to chart the vicissitudes of Lawrence’s emotional states and perceive how, as Dasein, he eventually accepts death as a “being-towards-death.”

  • 9 Heidegger Basic Writings, “Letter on Humanism” p. 218.

5Lawrence felt estranged in a modern world that has fallen into a state of “homelessness,” to draw on a Heideggerean concept signifying “the abandonment of Being by beings. [It] is the symptom of an oblivion of Being. Because of it, the truth of being remains unthought.”9 Together with this sense of estrangement, his ailment was an incentive for him to travel, meet other peoples and cultures, and reconnect with primal instincts and desires. Accordingly, Lawrence explains:

  • 10 Lawrence Sea and Sardinia 122.

So that for us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.10

  • 11 Kalnins xxiii.
  • 12 Kalnins xxvii.
  • 13 Ibid. xxxiii.
  • 14 Ibid. xxiii.

6Thus, while he sought to find man’s lost, authentic reality, or in Heideggerean terms, to relieve his homesickness by retrieving the primordial spirit, “the unchanging laws of human nature which had governed man in the past,”11 both his ill temper and incidental good-humor emerge as the distinguishing features of Sea and Sardinia. The former seems to have been more pronounced prior to the book’s publication, since his American publisher, Thomas Seltzer, removed “Some passages that might have given offense.”12 The text was also largely criticized for its excessive self-consciousness,13 but remains one of Lawrence’s most authentic accomplishments, for which he makes the claim that it is “an exact and real travel book.”14

  • 15 Forster 75.
  • 16 Amis 117.

7There remains nevertheless that Lawrence’s emotional state was evident to his family and friends, and transpired in writings which were criticized for intolerance in his descriptions of various encounters with different “others.” E.M. Forster stated: “There is something prickly in Lawrence’s nature which makes him intolerant of all that does not share his private aspirations. He has the courage of his convictions, but they are narrow convictions and the result is a series of vicious attacks upon all whom he dislikes or misunderstands.”15 For his part, Martin Amis described him as “[...] perhaps the most foul-tempered writer of all time.”16

  • 17 Booth 171.

8On a more positive note, Howard Booth writes that “Lawrence’s interest is in the possibility of an encounter with the ‘other’ that transforms and changes the self.”17 Furthermore, Virginia Woolf, though initially critical of Lawrence’s works, offered a favorable assessment after her reading of Sons and Lovers:

  • 18 Woolf 82.

[…] one feels that he echoes nobody, continues no tradition, is unaware of the past, of the present save as it affects the future […] the thought plumps directly into his mind; up spurt the sentences as hard, as direct as water thrown out in all directions by the impact of a stone. One feels that not a single word has been chosen for its beauty, or for its effect upon the architecture of the sentence.18

  • 19 Heidegger BT 385.

9Her insightful reference to Lawrence’s preoccupation with the future is in agreement with Heidegger’s description of a Dasein for whom what lies ahead “makes ontologically possible an entity which is in such a way that it exists understandably in its potentiality-for-being.”19

Sailing as Dasein

  • 20 Fernihough 7.
  • 21 Heidegger BT 34
  • 22 Ibid. BT 71.

10The connection between Lawrence and Heidegger has already been established by Michael Bell, Dawid De Villiers, and Anne Fernihough, with the latter affirming that “there are […] very intricate and deep-rooted links between Lawrence’s work and Heideggerean philosophy.”20 Nonetheless, to be more specific, Lawrence is a Dasein – one who, according to Heidegger, cares about his own being while possessing knowledge of all entities having a character other than his own21 – and has yet to embrace his existence and non-existence. As such, what Lawrence says or what his everyday actions signify, in the ontical sense, calls for an answer to the ontological question as to who he really is. Considering Heidegger’s claim that “any entity is either a ‘who’ (existence) or a ‘what’ (presence-at-hand in the broadest sense),”22 an existential analytic approach requires an understanding of a being-in-the-world, akin to Lawrence, who incorporates the ontological “who” with the ontical “what.” 

  • 23 Heidegger BT 231.
  • 24 Lawrence SCAL Chap. 1&SS 55.
  • 25 Weiner 233.

11To reveal how the sea can be regarded as a phenomenon arousing Lawrence’s anxiety regarding his poor health, his likely life-span, his dissatisfaction with modernity, it is worthwhile referring to Heidegger’s assertion; “That in the face of which one has anxiety is not an entity within-the-world” and “what threatens is nowhere.23 It is a conviction demonstrated in Sea and Sardinia which, with its reflection on the effects of the “Spirit of Place,”24 follows the trip which Lawrence and Frieda made to Sardinia in 1921. S. Ronald Weiner affirms that the blend of Lawrence the man and the novelist in Sea and Sardinia makes it “a most unconventional travel book.”25 Justifiably, it is Lawrence’s anxiety, his distinctive state of mind, which conspicuously drives the narrative against the background of the titular “sea” and stimulates his reconciliation with his authentic being. According to Heidegger,

  • 26 Heidegger BT 175-176.

Dasein becomes blind to itself, the environment with which it is concerned veils itself, the circumspection of concern gets led astray. States-of-mind are so far from being reflected upon, that precisely what they do is to assail Dasein in its unreflecting devotion to the “world” with which it is concerned and on which it expends itself |] The mood has already disclosed, in every case, Being-in-the-world as a whole, and makes it possible first of all to direct oneself towards something.26

  • 27 Heidegger BT 173.

12Essentially, the beautiful, vast and dangerous expanse of the sea is a key component in voyages of discovery and self-discovery. In Lawrence’s case, his penchant for the former leads to the latter. On his way to Sardinia, we cannot but notice that he tends to ignore the overwhelming presence of the sea as he gives in to his moods. To a large extent, expressing exasperation is a form of release which gives him a sense of satisfaction – in Heideggerean terms, he “become[s] satiated”27 following an existential anxiety that arises through his attraction to, and his fear of, this unpredictable natural wonder.

  • 28 Ibid., BT 174. Heidegger’s “Geworfenheit” is a concept denoting the existential state whereby human (...)
  • 29 Ibid., BT 174.

13For the most part, Sea and Sardinia is an expression of Lawrence’s capacity for non-relation. What transpires during his trip to Sardinia is that he becomes moody, expresses exasperation with others, withdraws into himself, and is occasionally lighthearted. It could be that the sea’s presence reawakens his anxiety of “thrownness,”28 makes him conscious of the oppressive weight of his being, and apprehensive about his temporal “being-in-the-world.”29 As Heidegger elucidates:

  • 30 Ibid., 295.

This anxiety is not an accidental or random mood of “weakness” in some individual; but, as a basic state-of-mind of Dasein, it amounts to the disclosedness of the fact that Dasein exists as thrown Being towards its end.30

  • 31 Kalnins xxii. The final title might have been settled by Robert Mountsier, his literary agent or by (...)

14More importantly, the significant titular presence of the sea does not necessarily imply that it is foregrounded in the successive chapters of the book – that is, the sea in Sea and Sardinia is an intermittent presence. This is not surprising, considering that the choice of title was not Lawrence’s, and that he simply referred to it as “‘Sardinia’ or ‘the Sardinia book.’”31 Nevertheless, the titular sea is revealingly indicative of something amiss, and is what prompted this investigation into Lawrence’s deepest troubles, bearing in mind that it is unusual for him to downplay the sea’s presence and its wonders, or the diverse range of creatures that dwell within its depths. Essentially, as an entity which harbors an elusive and incomprehensible unknown, the sea reminds Lawrence of the “nothingness” at the center of existence.

15Consequently, distancing himself from the sea is an anxiety-driven reaction expressed in a moodiness which would eventually ease his path to a state of individuality or “wholeness” through a process that is, paradoxically speaking, a spiritually healing anxiety. In this respect, it is worthwhile to refer to Heidegger’s meditation on the state and function of anxiety:

  • 32 Heidegger BT 232.

Anxiety throws Dasein back upon that which it is anxious about its authentic potentiality-for-Being-in-the-world. Anxiety individualizes Dasein for its ownmost Being-in-the-world, which as something that understands, projects itself essentially upon possibilities. Therefore, with that which it is anxious about, anxiety discloses Dasein as Being-possible, and indeed as the only kind of thing which it can be of its own accord as something individualized in individualization.32

Land and Sea

  • 33 Lawrence Sea and Sardinia 1.
  • 34 Sontag 15.

16At this point, it is relevant to draw attention to the opening lines of Sea and Sardinia: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move […] A double necessity.”33 At the outset, we notice how the indefinite pronoun “one” allows Lawrence to distance himself from that which ails him. According to Susan Sontag, “The TB sufferer was a drop out, a wanderer in endless search of the healthy place […] [and TB] became a new version for exile, for a life that was mainly travelling.”34 In Lawrence’s case, he appears to detach himself from the motive behind his reason to travel before he resumes his first person narrative. He adopts a similar attitude when he downplays his illness in his letters:

  • 35 Boulton et al. 3

the true source of Lawrence’s ill health was not acknowledged. He did not conceal from his correspondents the ill health itself […]; rather he assured them that it could be attributed external agencies; an organic source was never admitted. His condition was associated with his increasing age […], or explained by the Malaria he contracted in Mexico in 1925.35

  • 36 Heidegger BT 297.

17In a sense, his opening reference to himself as “one” indicates both denial and negation. Evidently, “one” lacks specificity, it is a generalization eliciting a sense of commonality and universality, since what is to be signified is unspecified. From a Heideggerean point-of-view, “‘one’ is effectively the ‘nobody’.”36 In this manner, it could be that Lawrence is intentionally denying the personal and inalienable nature of his affliction, thus ascribing a non-personalised generic normality to his longing for movement or travel.

18The “double necessity” could furthermore be the medically induced obligation to travel and the desire to travel for pleasure: two distinct desires, one latent, the other manifest. According to Heidegger:  

  • 37 Heidegger BT 234.

[…] only because anxiety is always latent in Being-in-the-world, can such Being- in-the-world, as Being which is alongside the “world” and which is concernful in its state-of-mind, ever be afraid. Fear is anxiety, fallen into the “world,” inauthentic, and, as such, hidden from itself. 37

19More to the point, since the narrative begins with signs of denial, it is possible to interpret the titular sea as a presence possessing secrets of existential absence – what is beyond “thrownness.” As an island, the signification of “Sardinia” naturally includes the surrounding sea. In which case, its foregrounding in the title seems to give it a focal role in spite of the fact that its presence appears to be minimized within the text in comparison to the manner in which land is described. It is minimized in the sense that its existence is made dependable on the surrounding natural elements. Yet, placing the sea in the spotlight, and portraying its existence as relational serves to draw attention to the influential part it plays in Lawrence’s development at a point in time when his moods alternate between the irritable and the humorous.

  • 38 Sea and Sardinia 1.
  • 39 Ibid., 4.
  • 40 Ibid., 5.
  • 41 Ibid., 5.
  • 42 Ibid., my italics 8.
  • 43 Ibid., 20.

20In the opening chapter, as Lawrence and q-b sail from Sicily, the sea’s relational presence is intricately intertwined with the surrounding elements: the “fire-opal” Ionian Sea is described in relation to Etna, on its “edge,” with the stars “across,”38 the light “at the rim of the” sea,39 and “The dawn-red widening, between the purpling sea and the troubled sky.”40 Moreover, fraught with a feeling of sadness to be leaving the colorful “steep terraces ledged high up above the sea,”41 Lawrence notices the women picking oranges that are “lurking as if in the undersea.”42 Of course, the oranges are not under the sea at all, as is evident by the hypothetical connotation of the conjunction “as if.” Moreover, the second chapter, entitled “The Sea,” reveals this liminal space to be cold and with a “horrible dawn-pallor.”43

21This profound interplay between the sea and its surroundings becomes pronounced when Lawrence lands in Sardinia and ventures beyond the coastal regions. He delves into the heartland of the island and into the people’s beliefs, customs, and their way of life, shedding light on their struggles and resilience, but all the while, remaining aloof from and impatient with the Sardinians. Indeed, the textual marginalization of the sea is accentuated by a skillful blend of poetic imagery that serves to foreground its absence. Notice the introspective manner in which Lawrence describes the arduous journey through the mountainous terrain towards Terranova:

  • 44 Sea and Sardinia 158.

The road ran along by the sea, above the sea, swinging gently up and down, and running on to a sea-encroaching hilly promontory in the distance. There were no high lands. The valley was left behind, and moors surrounded us, wild, desolate, uninhabited and uninhabitable moors sweeping up gently on the left, and finishing where the land dropped low and clifflike to the sea on the right. No life was now in sight: even no ship upon the pale blue sea. The great globe of the sky was unblemished and royal in its blueness and its ringing cerulean light.44

  • 45 Heidegger BT 176.

22It is the picture of a savage and untamed land, forsaken by human habitation and serene in its abandonment. Lawrence’s fascination with such raw beauty evokes a sense of awe and wonder. Yet amidst this admiration, allusions to the vast expanse of the sea and its connection to the surrounding land harbor unsettling notions of the unpredictable, with “no life […] in sight: even no ship.” They draw attention to Lawrence’s apprehension of the unknown and his sense of groundlessness. For Heidegger, it is a sensation caused by the challenge concealed in the familiar, since “what is environmentally ready-to-hand is threatening.”45

  • 46 Booth 174.

23Overall, Lawrence’s admiration for the landscape and the sea is imbued with a sense of wonder and apprehension of the afterlife. However, it is clear that on the Mediterranean, Lawrence highlights his deep connection to the land while keeping the sea at bay – near yet kept at a distance. Such a presence/absence accentuates the sea’s pivotal role as a catalyst for his moods, which in turn trigger an introspective exploration of his own being, fostering a broader comprehension of the human experience. According to Booth, Lawrence adopted the view that when faced with something new or different, individuals are provoked to respond by changing their own lives, “that change opens people to the possibility of transformation.”46

  • 47 Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia 26.
  • 48 Ibid., 26.

24Through vivid, vibrant, and sensory images, readers are offered a space to contemplate the sea and share the travel experience, and the grace and dynamism of the vessel, its surge and pitch as she “come[s] up – then slide[s] slowly forward, with a sound of the smashing of waters.”47 Its movement is further enhanced in this reiterated image, “magic gallop of the sky” and the “magic gallop of elemental space.”48

Dasein’s Moods

  • 49 Ibid., 99.
  • 50 Heidegger BT 173.
  • 51 Sea and Sardinia 48-49.
  • 52 Heidegger BT 208.

25For the most part, Lawrence’s narrative is undeniably an ongoing exploration of shifting moods, as Frieda, or q-b, fittingly remarks, “[…] You petrify that man at the inn by the very way you speak to him, such condemnation! Why don’t you take it as it comes? It’s all life!”49 For Heidegger, it is moods that make “primordial disclosure” possible and enhance individual transformation since they are the way “in which Dasein is brought before its Being as ‘there.’”50 In such a state, one can understand his irritation and refusal to engage in conversation with the Italian, a “they” self, who speaks of the war, tries to destabilize his culture, and addresses him as though he were representative of all England.51 Throughout, Lawrence maintains his silence, thereby endorsing Heidegger’s claim that it is “one’s reticence [that] makes something manifest, and does away with ‘idle talk.’”52

  • 53 Sea and Sardinia 24.
  • 54 Heidegger BT 221.
  • 55 Heidegger BT 214.

26Furthermore, it is possible to discern the sea’s effect on Lawrence’s disposition in the fittingly titled “Sea” chapter. Consider Lawrence’s exasperated thoughts and how easily he is provoked upon hearing a fellow passenger’s remark about the wind: “How they love to come up with alarming, disquieting, or annoying news!”53 His use of “they” is an anxiety-driven expression that betrays his reluctance to merge with those passengers or the masses who have lost their individuality by “falling into groundlessness”54 and is directly reminiscent of the Heideggerean “they” self. As Dasein, he willfully disengages from “idle talk” since, “when Dasein maintains itself in idle talk, it is as Being-in-the-world-cut off from its primary and primordially genuine relationships-of-Being towards the world, towards Dasein-with, and towards its very Being-in.”55

27In contrast to Lawrence’s prevailing moods of discontent, there are moments where he exhibits a calmer and more lighthearted state of mind. Though infrequent, these counter-moods indicate his tendency to favour the primitive and authentic and reveal his profound appreciation of terrestrial nature, as fittingly expressed in the following description:

  • 56 Sea and Sardinia 83.

Wonderful to go out on a frozen road, to see the grass in shadow bluish with hoar- frost, to see the grass in the yellow winter-sunrise beams melting and going cold- twinkly. Wonderful the bluish, cold air, and things standing up in cold distance. After two southern winters, with roses blooming all the time, this bleakness and this touch of frost in the ringing morning go to my soul like an intoxication. I am so glad, on this lonely naked road, I dont know what to do with myself. 56

28The titular sea remains there in the background as the beauty of the island’s natural world is skillfully foregrounded. The senses of sight and touch are awakened in this portrayal of the winter landscape whose “frozen road” and “shadow bluish with hoar-frost” are melting under the heat of the yellow winter sun, and creating a “cold-twinkly” effect in the “bluish, cold air.” Lawrence takes in the whole scene, doing so with an intense emotion that “goes to [his] soul like an intoxication” aroused by this untouched landscape of the island, regardless of the loneliness suggested by the transferred epithet “lonely naked road.”

  • 57 Sea and Sardinia 58
  • 58 Heidegger BT 43.
  • 59 Heidegger BT 376.

29Another occasion which completely captivates Lawrence is that of the carnival which he and Frieda chance upon, with the street performers dancing, their masks, and especially the man “dressed as a peasant woman.”57 His fascination with their performance manifests his nostalgia for the past, for what is primitive, and offers him a window through which he can reconnect with a more primal and authentic form of human expression. Their communal, ritualistic, colourful, lively aesthetic movements, stem from a yearning for a “historicality so thoroughly uprooted by tradition.”58 Basically, Lawrence’s nostalgia for prehistoric cultures, his interest in indigenous peoples and their traditions, supports the idea that “only as long as Dasein is, can it be as having been.”59 That is, his homesickness is relieved through facing and acknowledging the past – the primordial truth lost to modernity.

  • 60 Sea and Sardinia 111.

30There are also rare occasions when Lawrence laughs and relieves both himself and the readers from the seriousness of the pervasive mood and tone. Apparently, his humour signifies a recognition of his authentic being, and one scene in which Lawrence achieves this clearly and wholeheartedly is the one with the “girovago,” who boldly calls his companion his “wife.” Fascinated by the man’s authenticity, his care-free and uninhibited nature, Lawrence is unable to restrain his laughter, while remarking, “I like the lone wolf souls best — better than the sheep.”60 Strictly speaking, what Lawrence admires about the man is the spontaneity with which he discards caution and presents himself as opposed to a “they” self.

A cold sea turned spiritual

  • 61 Huxley, Selected Letters 28.
  • 62 Heidegger BT 168.
  • 63 The Trespasser 103.
  • 64 de Sola Pinto, “Introduction,” Lawrence, Complete Poems 5.

31The split between Lawrence’s real self and his inner being as perceived in Sea and Sardinia can also be identified in his early “sea” poems. They reveal a chasm between his actual existence and his artistic being which, in his later poems, blend harmoniously. Though Aldous Huxley remembers that Lawrence’s “springing mountain of vitality” had, in his last two years, given way to “bitter” laughter and “terrifyingly savage” low spirits,61 his final poems are the words of one who has overcome his troubles and anxieties. Evidently, these aspects of his personality, his irritability and rage, are maintained till the end but they do not weigh on the development of his poetry or creativity. This suggests a split between his actual, conscious self and his spiritual self which, in Heideggerean terms, signifies the ontological divide between the self-identity of “the authentically existing Self from the identity of that ‘I’ [Lawrence] which maintains itself throughout its manifold Experiences.”62 It is a form of doubleness also reflected in the way he denies his ill-health in real life and irritably dismisses medical treatment, yet testifies to a spiritual affirmation of his imminent death in his later poems. Interestingly, the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual appears as early as “The Sea” poem and in The Trespasser. With respect to the latter, when describing Siegmund’s emotional turmoil, Lawrence states that even though he “had Helena in his arms […] in spirit he was quite alone.”63 Thus Lawrence finds spiritual solace in poetic expression, especially in his final poems. According to Vivian de Sola Pinto, “He said something in his verse that he could never have said in prose.”64

  • 65 Complete Poems, ed. Pinto and Roberts, 197.

32As for his 1912 poem “The Sea,”65 it bears some resemblance to Sea and Sardinia in that the speaker clearly expresses preference for the terrestrial world over the “all unloving, loveless, sea.” Note the tone and the diction:

Not like the earth, the spouse all full of increase
Moiled over with the rearing of her many-mouthed young.

  • 66 De Villiers 85.
  • 67 Complete Poems, ed. Pinto and Roberts 197.

33The words “spouse” and “rearing” in the second stanza evoke a sense of nurturing, growth and abundance associated with the earth. In contrast, the sea is portrayed as lacking such qualities: “you who toil not, you who spin not, / Surely but for you and your like, toiling/ Were not worth while, nor spinning worth the effort.” The tone foregrounds and accentuates the dichotomy between earth and sea, with the earth presented favorably, in contrast to the sea. The word “moiled” further emphasizes the earth’s properties of growth and abundance, and is suggestive of the toil and hardship associated with the rearing of the young. Interestingly, this contrast can be understood in the context of de Villiers’ statement that the sea, as a boundary-making phenomenon, is a site of anxieties that relativizes or renders uncanny our “usual world.”66 More specifically, the poem’s final line uncovers the poet’s lurking anxiety caused by that “shadow of all things, [who] mock us to death with your shadowing”67 – that is, the sea. Though Lawrence begins by comparing his moodiness to that of the sea, his concluding statement subverts this analogy, as he unequivocally asserts that their respective moods are incomparable. As a matter of fact, his emotionally volatile nature is harmless in comparison to the sea’s mighty, deadly force.

  • 68 Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine 62.

34It was several years after writing this poem that Lawrence embarked to Sardinia, where he unreservedly gave vent to his moods. While there, it would seem that the sea’s overpowering presence, its association with the mysterious unknown, is what prompted him to become attuned to his being-in-the-world. From this point, it would take a few more years to see Lawrence’s philosophy “While we live, we change, and our flowering is a constant change”68 enacted in poems which reflect a state of inner and outer peace.

Blending with the Sea

  • 69 “Mana of the Sea” 84.

35Lawrence’s difficulty to connect with the sea a decade prior to writing Sea and Sardinia would be overcome ten years later in “Mana of the Sea.”69 Published posthumously in the Last Poems collection, it is one of several poems that follow the trajectory of Lawrence’s development in the months immediately before his death. In this poignant piece, he presents a series of evocative images that reveal his gradual fusion with the sea, ending with a dramatic affirmation of their profound oneness, in a resounding and reiterated proclamation: “I am the sea, I am the sea!” His excitement is expressed with a breathlessness and a sense of awe, suggested by the enjambment of rhetorical questions which come to a halt in a line that stands apart, almost proudly, with an assertive exclamation mark. The sea is personified as a great, supernatural force, which gradually absorbs him into its “sea-power” until his body oscillates between oceanic fluidity and a formidable strength. He becomes alternately ocean and fluid, hard and strong. The sea breaks on his body in the manner of its breaking on the island’s rocks, and he fearlessly immerses himself into its depths. Note how each consecutive stanza introduces a vivid image of the water covering his “arms,” “wrist,” “hands,” “thighs,” “knees,” “two feet.” He abandons himself to the sea’s power as he rapturously gives himself over to the water allowing it to engulf his body.

36In contrast to “The Sea” poem, in which Lawrence addresses the sea directly with a “you” which is reiterated throughout the poem, in “Mana of the Sea,” he directs his words to an anonymous “you,” with whom he seems to have a shared understanding. By addressing an unidentified observer (the reader), the poet involves the latter in this intimate and personal experience, a sharing in the beauty and significance of the moment. Moreover, while “The Sea” emphasizes the dichotomy between the ocean and humanity by highlighting its perceived indifference in the final line, “Sea, you shadow of all things, now mock us to death with your shadowing,” in “Mana of the Sea” the focus is on the speaker’s union with this mighty force.

Embracing the afterlife

  • 70 “The Ship of Death” 85-89.
  • 71 Buntz
  • 72 Heidegger BT 485.

37“The Ship of Death”70 is the harmonious and passionate expression of a Dasein transformed and disburdened of the anxieties of non-existence and “thrownness.” Published shortly before his death, the poem evokes humanity’s inevitable fate, doing so in the tone of one whose lived experiences have made him an authority on preparation for the afterlife. In this regard, Sam Buntz hails it as “one of 20th Century poetry’s only sincere visions of the Beyond.”71 Undoubtedly, the last months of Lawrence’s life endowed him with a sense of peace and tranquility, following his acknowledgement of death’s ineluctable commonality. In a sense, this shared destiny alleviates his anxiety and leads to his transformation into a “Being-towards-death” who has come to terms with both his physical and spiritual existence and has acquired the freedom to both choose and accept his fate. A free Dasein is one whose spirit is free, one who does not exclude his fears or anxieties but faces them in order to overcome them. In Heideggerean terms, it is a transformation or “progress” that “has the quality of spirit.”72

  • 73 de Sola Pinto “Introduction,” Lawrence, Complete Poems 15.
  • 74 Heidegger BT 232.

38The poem opens in the present time with an image of autumn, a metaphor for old age – a fitting time to prepare for the unpredictable, critical moment when man will inevitably “exit” this world. The speaker (Lawrence) associates the dying body with a “falling fruit,” more specifically with apples, and the poem expands on this vivid analogy of humanity’s inevitable path to death with the image of a soul who is to be released from a battered and sick body. Here Lawrence’s tone is that of a wizened individual. It is for this reason that de Sola Pinto pointed out that in the last poems Lawrence’s “voice is that of a seer with a majestic vision of God and life and earth.”73 The speaker is now a Dasein transformed, far from the Dasein of “The Sea” poem and the traveler of Sea and Sardinia. The use of “they” in reference to apples suggests a humanity which is bound to fall, to die, to “bruise themselves an exit from themselves.” The repeated reflexive pronoun not only emphasizes the shared reality, it also presents the images of “falling fruit” and “apples falling” as metonymies, for it is man who has “fallen” to earth on account of the forbidden fruit and who goes on to fall, not so much into sin as into the wrong kind of knowledge. In other words, man has fallen into modernity, into a state of detachment and spiritual disconnection, “homelessness,” or “not-being-at-home,” in an “uncanny” modern world.74 The path to transformation therefore rests on reaching a state of harmony with the past, present and the future, while interacting with fellow beings. Further on, in stanza IX, the symbol of rebirth, transformation and continuity is represented in the image of the lively, radiant skycolor suggestive of a huge cosmic explosion, “A flush of rose, and the whole thing starts again.”

  • 75 Ibid.

39Indeed, the ship’s overwhelmingly melancholic but serene atmosphere testifies to the sea’s overshadowing presence as that which “brings Dasein face to face with […] the authenticity of its Being.”75 Through the themes of spiritual progression and the inevitability of death, Lawrence is also revealing his own resignation and surrender to the natural cycle of life and death reflected in the ebb and flow of the sea. The collective pronoun “we” in stanza VI further stresses this shared and fundamental reality, offering a sense of interconnectedness that disregards individual or cultural differences: “We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do/is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship/of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.” Knowing he is part of a complex tapestry of human interconnectedness alleviates his angst and endows him with the responsibility to guide his fellow men and direct them to prepare for the journey ahead.

40Religious imagery serves to further enhance the sense of spirituality. The Ship becomes “the ark of faith” and, interestingly, “its store of food and little cooking pans/ and change of clothes,” symbolizes the accumulation of individual lived experiences and memories that will sustain the travelers on their journey to the afterlife. Moreover, the flood in stanza V, “already the flood is upon us,” represents the biblical deluge and the ark that survived the ordeal, “[…] of coming back to life/out of oblivion” through “a flood-dawn” (Stanza IX). The poet goes on to foresee his own return through the “pink flood” in stanza X, with a heart and soul filled with peace.

41More significantly, the apostrophe in the last three lines is a harmonious and uplifting summons, a call to embrace death and rebirth:

Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.

42Ultimately, Lawrence accepts his being-towards-death and prepares for the ultimate fate, “the longest journey” that will lead him to oblivion before he is reborn and his “frail soul steps out,/into the house again.” It is a return from oblivion to the primordial origin, to a house, the home, what he had always longed for and where his heart will be at peace – the sense of “homeliness” which should appease his physical and mental restlessness. In this transformed state, Lawrence’s propensity to identify profoundly with other beings, acquires a distinctly preachy and condescending tone. For instance, though Stanza III reveals an instance when he seems to identify with Hamlet as a fellow “homeless” being, according to Elise Brault-Dreux it is so as “to furtively interpret his very personal version of Hamlet’s ‘being’ which […] he subversively blames for not knowing how to be.” As an authority on being and not being, he continues by mentioning the various instruments man can use to exit life, then exasperatingly asks, “is that a quietus, O tell me, is it quietus?” His denial and disapproval of “murder, even self-murder” gives ethical closure to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” question.

  • 76 Heidegger BT 84.

43In a sense, the water that submerges Lawrence in “Mana of the Sea” helps contributes to his reconciliation with the sea’s mysterious depth, empowering him to make the journey into oblivion: the path he has to cross before his return to the world or his return home. “The Ship of Death” therefore projects Lawrence’s profound sense of care for man’s existence, and for humanity’s suffering, death and rebirth. It depicts his deep engagement with the world and his profound sense of responsibility as an enlightened and unique individual – a Dasein who, “understood ontologically, is care.”76 Overall, Lawrence redefines what it means to be truly alive in the shadow of death; a shadow whose presence can be figured like the angst-laden proximity to the sea, until, phoenix-like he rises from the ashes, and with “a strong heart at peace!” (stanza IV) he embraces the call of rebirth, and the boundless possibilities that lie ahead. He is finally ready to soar to new heights sustained by the wonders of an authentic existence.

Dasein and interconnectedness

  • 77 “Complete Works of D.H. Lawrence” 8554.
  • 78 Heidegger BT 176.

44Following this analysis of Sea and Sardinia and the selected poems, it becomes evident that the sea can account for the changes in Lawrence, insofar as his initial horror eventually gives way to acceptance, when he becomes an authentic Dasein. To a certain extent, the sea can be considered a catalyst which unsettles and destabilizes him, drives his anxiety, and awakens him from his imbalanced predispositions. His transformation into an ultimate being is revealed through his harmonious connection with time and his interconnection with fellow beings and creation. Appropriately, this transformation crystallizes in his final philosophical work, Apocalypse: “I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea.”77 He thus attests a kinship with the sea as guardian of his Dionysian attributes – what is fluid in him – in an embrace of the promise of rebirth, and in an openness typical of a Dasein who “is constituted existentially by the attunement of his state-of-mind.”78

  • 79 Heidegger BT 24.
  • 80 Ibid., 315.

45Lawrence’s experiences and emotional reactions in Sea and Sardinia thus help unveil the intricate dynamics of his relationship with the world and the ever-unfolding nature of his being. On the path to this enlightened stage, it is his anxiety, more specifically his sea-angst, which allows him to explore the intricacies of existence and to delve into the depths of his emotions, thoughts, and perceptions. As Dasein, he acquires an “existential understanding of care,”79 along with the patience and responsibility to listen to Others as a “Being-with.”80 In fact, the self-consciousness which some critics deemed a fault in this narrative is what led to the reciprocity characteristic of Dasein.

  • 81 Said 16-29.
  • 82 Studies in Classic American Literature 2.

46More importantly, our analysis of Lawrence’s sea-angst can lead us to question the prevailing assumptions as tor his colonial or racist mindset. Indeed, the psychological reasons for travel, together with the ramifications of relocation, have not only been depicted by travel writers, but have also been examined and scrutinized by philosophers and critics whose aim is to elucidate the ambivalent and confusing reactions arising from encounters with “others.” Foremost among these critics is Edward Said, who contends that, since each critic and writer belongs to his/her own particular world, or cultural and political background, their works become the subjective “worldly” reflections of their affiliations.81 However, by emphasizing the credibility of the tale rather than the artist, Said clearly shares Lawrence’s opinion that “The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”82 In view of the fact that Lawrence was a voluntary exile, and as such someone far removed from the ideological atmosphere of empire, his writings express a rigorously subversive attitude to all facets of uniformity and can only be judged on such a basis.

  • 83 Heidegger BT 175.

47In the end, Lawrence is defined by his energy, his search for authenticity, for new experiences and, most importantly, for inner peace. What lives on in his vast body of work is thus his singular voice, the vitality and rhythms, and an emotional honesty that attempts to reform the reader. Hence, the anguish that is expressed through his changing moods and exposed as angst in Sea and Sardinia is what eventually opens the path towards transformation. For the most part, the sea is what stirs the depth of his being, what awakens his desire to surpass earthly anguish, exposes Lawrence as a “factical Dasein” who “can, should, and must, through knowledge and will become master of its moods.”83

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Amis, Martin. Experience. London: Vintage, 2001.

Booth, Howard J. “‘Give Me Differences’: Lawrence, Psychoanalysis, and Race.” In The D.H. Lawrence Review 27, no. 2/3 (1997): 171-196.

Boulton, James. T., Boulton Margaret H. and Lacy Gerald M. “Introduction.” In The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Vol. VI. March 1927-November 1928. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Brault-Dreux, Elise. “How not to be: D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Ship of Death’.” In New Readings, issue 12, 2012, 52-63. DOI: 10.18573/newreadings.85.

Buntz, Sam. “The Ship of Death: D.H. Lawrence’s Last Poems.” In The Muted Trumpet, 14 Nov. 2012,

Cousteau, Jacques-Yves. Life and death in a Coral Sea. Trans. J. F. Bernard. N.Y: Doubleday& Company, inc., 1971.

De Villiers, Dawid W. “‘Shadow of All Things’: Oceanic Alterity in the Poetry of D.H. Lawrence.” In The D.H. Lawrence Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 2015, p. 84-102. JSTOR,

Fernihough, Anne. “Introduction.” in D.H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology. Oxford, 1993; online ed., Oxford Academic, 3 Oct. 2011., accessed 1 Aug. 2023.

Forster, E.M. “Notes on the English character.” In Two cheers for democracy. Harcourt Brace, 1936. (p. 73-89).

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time (1967). Trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001.

Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” In Basic Writings, Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Huxley, Aldous. “Introduction.” to Selected Letters by D.H. Lawrence. Ed. Richard Aldington. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1954.

Kalnins, Mara. “Introduction.” In Sea and Sardinia. By D.H. Lawrence. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lawrence, D.H. Sea and Sardinia. London: William Heinemann Limited, 1956.

Lawrence, D.H. Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine. London: Indiana University Press, 1969.

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Lawrence, D.H. “Mana of the Sea” & “The Ship of Death” in Everyman’s Poetry. Ed. John Lawton. Everyman, 1998.

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Weiner, S. Ronald. “The Rhetoric of Travel: The example of Sea and Sardinia.” In The D.H. Lawrence Review, vol. 2, no. 3, 1969, p. 230-244. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Aug. 2023.

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1 Cousteau 16.

2 Heidegger BT 163.

3 Ibid., BT 48.

4 Lawrence The Letters of D.H. Lawrence 178.

5 Wright 230.

6 The Trespasser 40.

7 The Trespasser 111.

8 Heidegger BT 289.

9 Heidegger Basic Writings, “Letter on Humanism” p. 218.

10 Lawrence Sea and Sardinia 122.

11 Kalnins xxiii.

12 Kalnins xxvii.

13 Ibid. xxxiii.

14 Ibid. xxiii.

15 Forster 75.

16 Amis 117.

17 Booth 171.

18 Woolf 82.

19 Heidegger BT 385.

20 Fernihough 7.

21 Heidegger BT 34

22 Ibid. BT 71.

23 Heidegger BT 231.

24 Lawrence SCAL Chap. 1&SS 55.

25 Weiner 233.

26 Heidegger BT 175-176.

27 Heidegger BT 173.

28 Ibid., BT 174. Heidegger’s “Geworfenheit” is a concept denoting the existential state whereby humans realize that they are already in the world, “thrown” into the world without their choice or consent.

29 Ibid., BT 174.

30 Ibid., 295.

31 Kalnins xxii. The final title might have been settled by Robert Mountsier, his literary agent or by Thomas Seltzer, his American Publisher.

32 Heidegger BT 232.

33 Lawrence Sea and Sardinia 1.

34 Sontag 15.

35 Boulton et al. 3

36 Heidegger BT 297.

37 Heidegger BT 234.

38 Sea and Sardinia 1.

39 Ibid., 4.

40 Ibid., 5.

41 Ibid., 5.

42 Ibid., my italics 8.

43 Ibid., 20.

44 Sea and Sardinia 158.

45 Heidegger BT 176.

46 Booth 174.

47 Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia 26.

48 Ibid., 26.

49 Ibid., 99.

50 Heidegger BT 173.

51 Sea and Sardinia 48-49.

52 Heidegger BT 208.

53 Sea and Sardinia 24.

54 Heidegger BT 221.

55 Heidegger BT 214.

56 Sea and Sardinia 83.

57 Sea and Sardinia 58

58 Heidegger BT 43.

59 Heidegger BT 376.

60 Sea and Sardinia 111.

61 Huxley, Selected Letters 28.

62 Heidegger BT 168.

63 The Trespasser 103.

64 de Sola Pinto, “Introduction,” Lawrence, Complete Poems 5.

65 Complete Poems, ed. Pinto and Roberts, 197.

66 De Villiers 85.

67 Complete Poems, ed. Pinto and Roberts 197.

68 Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine 62.

69 “Mana of the Sea” 84.

70 “The Ship of Death” 85-89.

71 Buntz

72 Heidegger BT 485.

73 de Sola Pinto “Introduction,” Lawrence, Complete Poems 15.

74 Heidegger BT 232.

75 Ibid.

76 Heidegger BT 84.

77 “Complete Works of D.H. Lawrence” 8554.

78 Heidegger BT 176.

79 Heidegger BT 24.

80 Ibid., 315.

81 Said 16-29.

82 Studies in Classic American Literature 2.

83 Heidegger BT 175.

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Soha El Samad, « Lawrence’s Angst: The Transformative Journey from Sardinia to “The Ship of Death” »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 55 | 2023, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Soha El Samad

Soha El Samad is an associate professor of English Language and Literature at the Lebanese University, Lebanon, and currently the head of department. She specializes in postcolonial studies and currently teaches World Literature, Modern British fiction, and intercultural communication. Her primary research interests include cultural studies and existential philosophy, with articles recently published focusing on The Arabian Nights and cultural reinscription, nostalgia and trauma in a postmodern world. Apart from participating in international conferences, she has given several teacher–training workshops and seminars on intercultural sensitivity.

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