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The Rim, the Edge, the End, the Level: When Poetry Breaks the Sea “to bits” in Last Poems

Elise Brault-Dreux


I want to analyse how Lawrence, in Last Poems – that is when his poetic oeuvre reaches its ultimate limit, its edge – proposes a very visual approach to the sea. If scholars have shown interest in the depths of the ocean, in Lawrence’s idea of the sea as a place of origins, as a mysterious profound berth, I will show how he also poeticizes its angles, its “level,” “rim,” “edge,” “lip,” and lines. Lawrence’s phenomenological approach to the sea is poeticized in such a way that the latter repeatedly appears as solid block, almost sharply geometrical, eventually “breaking itself to bits” (which calls to mind the “kaleidoscope tossed at random” of “Moony” in Women in Love). The movements to and out of the sea further poeticize this idea of a clear-cut zone – “sea-ward” vs. “out of the sea” – of a fiercely eternal, sustaining block whose “distance never changes” (“Middle of the World”). And this irreducible distance, Lawrence seems to say, is just as irreducibly cognitive.
How does the sea therefore fit itself within the limits of the poems whose genre is by nature constrained? How is this constrain oddly transgressed in “The Ship of Death” – where the sea is this time metaphorical – and Lawrence refers to “the endless ocean of the end” - an intriguing and self-contradictory mise en abyme of this (im)possible “end?”

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1Throughout Lawrence’s work the sea appears as a beginning, an ever-obscure depth that mysteriously produces life. Yet, he repeatedly balances this birthing imagery with that of a sea whose jaws of darkness swallow life back to its depths. In Etruscan Places, he writes: “The sea is that vast primordial creature that has a soul also, whose inwardness is womb of all things, out of which all things emerged, and into which they are devoured back” (EP 53).

2In this article, I propose to look at the poems written by a man who, contemplating the sea in Bandol, was all too aware that he would soon be devoured back by the primordial creature. Written in 1929 (and posthumously published in 1932), Last Poems suggests how the sea, no longer womb, more a tomb, haunts Lawrence to the last. The symbolic weight of the sea, that he had cherished throughout his work, fed in part by mythology and various stories, is gradually coupled with an acute sense of immediate materiality – even corporality. Regularly, the sea appears in the poems as an almost solid presence.

3For if the sea cannot possibly be ordered nor contained, in his poems, Lawrence does try, subtly and only here and there, to grasp its form, to seize it, almost keep it within visual and poetic limits, till the end, or till his end.

4I will start with looking at the motif of the “end” and of the “edge”: the end of the poet’s life, somehow intuitively visible and not yet here, resonates in his evocations of the line of horizon on the surface of the sea; this echo may account for his poetic appropriation of the line, the “rim,” that eventually produces a sea (as we will explain in a second part) whose firm solidity is foregrounded. The sea is resisting for it is resistant, just like the frescoes Lawrence visits a little while before writing his Last Poems, and whose vertical pictoriality greatly inspired his depictions of the horizontal sea on the horizontal page. I will conclude with another parallel between the poet’s visual apprehension of the sea in “bits” and his picturing the end of human life as a “piecemeal” collapse, in both cases perhaps secretly expecting a reconstruction, a gathering of these bits and fragments together, towards renewal.

Approaching the edge

5Approaching must here be understood as both a getting closer and an apprehending, an appropriating even. For this is what Lawrence does in the opening poem of Last Poems, with “The Greeks are coming” where the sea appears as a limit, a cutting-edge. The poem starts

Little islands out at sea, on the horizon
keep suddenly showing a whiteness, a flash and a furl, a hail
of something coming, ships asail from over the rim of the sea (ll. 1-3)

6The expected fluidity of the sea becomes solid and firm in the eye of the poet. The islands are “out at sea,” with “at” a stressed syllable that evokes a sense of finality, a point of impact or resistance. This impression is magnified by the following “on” the horizon and by the image of the “rim of the sea.” These very mundane phrases are defamiliarized in the contained economy of the poem, which draws the reader’s attention to the resistance and sense of finitude they involve.

7That sea, thus phenomenologically limited by the observing eye, is daily visited by the proliferating presence of ancient ships whose nature has unfortunately evolved in the wrong direction, towards filthy modernity:

And every time, it is ships, it is ships
it is ships of Cnossos coming, out of the morning end of the sea,
it is Aegean ships, and men with archaic pointed beards
coming out of the eastern end.

But it is far-off foam.
And an ocean liner, going east, like a small beetle walking the edge
is leaving a long thread of dark smoke
like a bad smell. (ll. 4-11, my emphases)

8The mysterious “end” of ancient times that suggests the possibility of some unattainable living sparks beyond, is becoming a definite cutting “edge” – a sense of sharpness hence cancels the sense of a beyond, as he says in Etruscan Places. When in Vulci, Lawrence contemplates “the whitish emptiness of the sea’s edge. It gives a great sense of nothingness, the sea down there” (EP 82). This “edge,” then, on which the beetle ocean liner is tentatively progressing, courting the risk of falling into nothingness, may read as the expression of the poet’s intimate fear of falling into a sort of meaningless vacuum. For he in fact uses the word “edge” a few weeks before writing the poem, when still in Majorca. On May, 18th 1929, in a letter addressed to the Nichols, he writes:

I agree this isn’t a good place for work. I have tried to paint two pictures – and each time it’s been a failure and made me all on edge. So I accept the decree of destiny, and shall make no further attempt to work at all while I am in Spain (L vii. 284, my emphasis)

9Again, Lawrence reactivates the literal meaning of the familiar phrase “being on the edge,” drawing the reader’s attention to that idea of a limit, that unavoidable constraint imposed by “destiny.” The tone is more or less given for the following poems, which somehow invite the reader to move towards the line of horizon, towards the end.

10The poem that best conveys the movement towards oblivion is, famously, “The Ship of Death.” In it, the “I” voice encourages the other (himself in fact) to build a “little ark” for the soul to be peacefully carried towards the afterlife. Strongly inspired by Etruscan rituals, Lawrence uses the sea as the symbolic materialization of that dark passage, of the tombs through which the vulnerable soul will pass. The sea thus reads as the abyssal evocation of “the” end. Once the body is fallen and bruised, it is buried within folds of heavy floods:

Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
already the flood is upon us (ll. 35-7)

11The anaphoric “already” reveals the surprise at being caught too quickly, and helplessly, in the flow of death. Quite typical of Lawrence who, in his Preface to New Poems (1919) writes in defence of a Heraclitan, irrepressible flow of life, where “the law must come new each time from within” (648) here it is the flow of death that carries the dead irrepressibly. “Already” unleashes an iambic pentameter, “the dark and endless ocean of the end,” which, coupled with the dental alliteration, accelerates the process and heightens its irrepressibility. The other “already” likewise prompts an iambic rhythm. And this helpless haste is significantly moving towards the abyssal “endless ocean of the end”: a mise en abyme built on the repetition of “end,” whose predetermination by “the” evokes a fate common to all, and whose depth convokes an unattainable mystery that sharply contrasts with the nothingness beyond the “edge” evoked in the opening poem. Here, the sea “washes” through the wounds, physically fuses with the dying bodies. The sea thus is the experience of the end. A previous, shorter version of “The Ship of Death” concludes with the following stanza:

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. (ll. 25-7)

12The “last of seas” (which disappears from the final version) isolates that specific sea, draws lines around that one which ranks last is a series of other seas – in other words, in a succession of life experiences.

13The “rim” of the sea, or its “edge,” that in the first poem of the collection appears like the horizon of life, then moves into a more symbolic and fundamental experience in “The Ship of Death”: in this central poem, the sea is the ultimate and ever mysterious experience of dying.

14The eye (and I) that in “The Greeks are Coming” contemplates the distant “edge” and “end” of the sea that his vision thus contains is, in “The Ship of Death,” literally caught in the physical and existential experience of “the end” of the sea.

15But throughout Last Poems, what however remains unchanging, and what prompts these shifting modes of approaching the sea (either as a visible rim or an experience of endless end) is its own inflexibility. What changes is the human being’s position regarding the sea, his stance, his experience, his fallibility. But the sea, in Last Poems, stands firm, indifferent to human fears and finitude.

Solidity and indifference

16In “Middle of the World” the poetic I again contemplates the sea which is geometrically introduced. The middle appears as a visual focal point that ensures the balance of the surrounding world. Here the sea is not a “rim” but is presented as a central position, yet likewise envisaged in terms of delimited zones. This spatial approach to the sea is magnified by the first stanza, that insists on the atemporality of the sea. The sea is eternal space.

This sea will never die, neither will it ever grow old
nor cease to be blue, nor in the dawn
cease to lift up its hills
and let the slim black ship of Dionysos come sailing in… (ll. 1-4)

17The first three lines introduce the sea by successive negations of finitude and interruption – thus bringing forth the ironical resounding closeness of “sea” and “cease.” The sea, then, stands firm, outside time. Indifferent not only to man’s finitude, but to all forms of alteration, it gains a form of material power as it acquires geological features – “lift up its hills” – a poetic translation of the phenomenological perception of the massive density of water. In Etruscan Places, while Lawrence already solidifies the liquid element, the hills are here eroded: he refers to the “sea-plain” of Cerveteri (EP 6) or later in Tarquinia:

B. and I lay on the grey-black lava sand, by the flat, low sea, over which the sky, grey and shapeless, emitted a flat, wan evening light. Little waves curled green out of the sea’s dark greyness, from the curious low flatness of the water. It is a peculiarly forlorn coast, the sea peculiarly flat and sunken, lifeless-looking, the land as if it had given its last gasp, and was now for ever inert.
Yet this is the Tyrrhenian sea of the Etruscans, where their shipping spread sharp sails, and beat the sea with slave-oars, roving in from Greece and Sicily […] (EP 18)

18The hills of the poem are here flattened by Lawrence’s obstinate description: the quality “flat, low” is repeated and changed into the condition of “low flatness,” which comes close to granting a sort of materiality to the state of being “flat” (“-ness” somehow ensures embodiment). Here again, we sense the same geological hardness of the aforementioned “hills,” further heightened by its surface being beaten, like a slave itself, by “slave-oars,” and yet still enduring. In both Etruscan Places and “Middle of the World,” the sea resists. Its material fluidity disappears in favour of the solid strength outlined visually and by its permanence and inalterability, on which Lawrence insists in the second stanza of the poem:

What do I care if the smoking ships
of the P.&O. and the Orient Line and all the other stinkers
cross like clock-work the Minoan distance!
They only cross, the distance never changes. (ll. 6-9)

19Indifferent to its being exploited by industry, the unchanging sea is observed by a poet who explicitly expresses his own indifference to that very exploitation. Lawrence has thus chosen his side. That of the sea, that of the permanence outside the time of clocks, that of existence and experience freed from the various constraints of temporality.

20So, Lawrence, the poet who celebrates the flux of life and impermanence, the “quick of time” and “pulsating, carnal self” (Poems 647), brings the sea not to a poetic standstill (for the sea does evolve and change in his work) but to a resistant clear-cut solidity. This somehow unexpected outline of the sea is arguably accounted for by his experience among the Etruscan tombs. The vertical permanent, and persistent, representations of the sea on the tomb walls significantly inspired Lawrence in his poetic re-production of the seascape on the horizontal page. How have pictorial captures of the sea been captured by Lawrence’s eye, who in turn captured it in poetic form?

21It seems that the mediation by the frescoes, if it undoubtedly brings the sea back to life, at the same time, fixes it, gives it edges and a sense of permanency. About the tombs in Tarquinia, Lawrence writes:

And as we take heart and look closer we see the little room is frescoed all round with hazy sky and sea, with birds flying and fishes leaping, and little men hunting, fishing, rowing in boats. The lower part of the wall is all a blue-green sea with a silhouette surface that ripples all round the room. (EP 34)

22The eye suspends its disbelief, it seeks to fathom the depths, imagines what lies beyond this synecdochic evocations which convokes a sea out of a limited trace of “blue-green.” This ekphrastic passage, which reactivates the viewer’s disbelief as Lawrence draws our attention to its material format (“the lower part of the wall”), thus reveals how life is contained by the walls themselves, by the limitation of the room, and the necessarily limited means of a pictorial imitation of reality. Still in Tarquinia, he writes: “There is a haunting quality in the Etruscan representations […] we see the wavy edge of the sea” (EP 48). The ambiguity of the phrase lies in what is meant by “the sea”: do we see the wavy edge of the sea on the representation (basically the material wavy line drawn on the wall) or “the” wavy edge of the real sea, that is part of our shared knowledge? This confusion ironically sets off the movement reproduced fixedly on the wall, and which has been thus enduring for centuries: the permanence of movement or the capture of the pulse. Lawrence, in Last Poems, in limiting the sea with “at the sea,” with “rims,” “ends” and “limits,” with “out of the sea” (in “The Man of Tyre” and “Whales Weep Not”), likewise contains the liveliness of the element. Sixty years ago, Christopher Hassall, in a lecture about Lawrence’s Etruscan Places, argued that Lawrence’s perception of these “wavy edge” or “edge of the figures” (EP 68) significantly influenced the poet’s own line of writing. Hassall writes:

  • 1 Quoted by Vivian De Sola Pinto in his essay “D.H. Lawrence: Poet without a mask.”

It is this “suggestive edge” of his own verse, which at first gives the appearance of a rough sketch, and instead of exhibiting formal shape suggests a state of flux, a flowing contour, where the body “suddenly leaves off, upon the atmosphere” (CP 17)1

23The contour then, the edge, may be (following on Hassall) what primarily drew Lawrence’s eye and led him to appropriate the line for his own poetry. It may account for his poetic attention to surfaces, zones, textures even. Its solidity and sense of permanence. Qualities perhaps, which the poet, on the verge of death, was seeking to endow his poetry with: to make his poetic oeuvre somewhat permanent, despite his relentless efforts at explaining that there was nothing permanent in poetry – contained within the solid edges and rims of language and, more materially, of the page, while at the same time remaining faithful to his idiosyncratic poetic theory, so as to evoke the flux and impermanence of life. The “wavy edge” then, though at first sight oxymoronic, wraps up the Lawrencian ambition to have the living sea – and existence as a whole – fit into the various formal and linguistic limits of poetry.

24But is it an acute awareness of the limits that has led the poet, in “Mana of the Sea,” to bring the sea “to bits,” beyond the limits of flexibility, hence showing, once more, the fragile solidity of the sea (at once solid and in bits) and through which he proposes a material translation of its permanence.

Expectation: putting the “bits” back together

25In “Mana of the Sea” the sea keeps its solid aspect:

Do you see the sea, breaking itself to bits against the islands
yet remaining unbroken, the level great sea? (ll.1-2)

26The poetic voice convokes our eye to measure the creative collapse of the sea, at once broken and persistently “unbroken.” The second line, like a wave, immediately repairs the chaos introduced in the first. The sea, once again, resists. The “bits” are not lost, they reorganize themselves on the same plane, that of “the level great sea.” This kaleidoscopic image, beyond referring back to the “black and white kaleidoscope tossed at random” in the chapter “Moony” of Women in Love (WL 247-248), evokes the “choppy sea” Lawrence sees in Volterra (EP 115). Cut out but together. And this image quite significantly introduces the poet’s body, which is revivified, in a sort of unexpected fusion, with the “bits” of sea:

Have I caught from it
the tide in my arms
that runs down to the shallows of my wrists, and breaks
abroad in my hands, like waves among the rocks of substance?

Do the rollers of the sea
roll down my thighs
and over the submerged islets of my knees
with power, sea-power
to break against the ground
in the flat, recurrent breakers of my two feet?

And is my body ocean, ocean
whose power runs to the shores along my arms
and breaks in the foamy hands, whose power rolls out
to the white-treading waves of two salt feet?

I am the sea, I am the sea!
(my emphases)

27The sea and body embark on their metonymic confrontation, touching each other as two resisting solid bodies. The sea breaks against the body, and against poetry as the metapoetic “two feet” repeatedly suggests: the sea submits to the feet. The simile (“like waves”), that keeps sea and body apart, related by imagination and language only, yields, under the pressure of poetic insistence, to the final metaphor, that in the end equates “I” with the sea. The sea, solid, resistant, persistent, whose bits constantly fall back together, bears this symbolic idea of a possible renewal. If, as argued in the introduction to this article, the sea for Lawrence was alternately, or at once, a womb and a tomb (“out of which all things emerged, and into which they are devoured back” [EP 53]), it is also a force of renewal. The broken “bits” of sea in “Mana of the Sea” in fact quite obviously echo other bits in the collection: that of the body which in “The Ship of Death” is “piecemeal dying” (“We are dying, we are dying, piecemeal our bodies are dying”); in “Shadows” (written shortly before his death) the subject likewise breaks down (“I fall in sickness and in misery / my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead” [ll.22-3]). And as with the “bits” of the sea that get back together in “Mana of the Sea,” in both “The Ship of Death” and “Shadows” the physical breaking apart and piecemeal collapse are followed by a rebirth. Quite interestingly, in “Shadows,” this rebirth is prompted by “snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal” (l. 26).

28Last Poems then, itself a collection made of poetic bits put together, different snatches that make a coherent whole as the poems echo and respond to each other, holds the sea and the poet together, and in similar modes, Lawrence’s awareness of being close to death may be perceived in his visual apprehension of the “rim,” “edge” and “end” of the sea, that element which “devours back,” which draws the individual in the “endless [depths] of the end.” But the sea, womb and tomb, is solid, resistant and indifferent – a possible metaphor of the poet himself, solid in spite of his pulsating, flowing nature, indifferent to the tragedy of human existence, and expressing no fear on the verge of death. Like the sea, the “I” is held together throughout the collection of poems: it is a poetic version of the paintings of the sea and little beings on the Etruscan walls. And in the striking echo between the breaking down and renewal of the sea and of the individual being, one may read in Lawrence’s poetic use of the sea a means to evoke expectation or optimism. “I am the sea” caught in a relentless process of renewal.

29This recollection of fragments as renewal, we are all aware, Lawrence has expressed by way of other metaphoric figures, as at the end of his essay “Life,” for instance, where the metaphor is this time organic: “For this is my final satisfaction, to be gathered blossom by blossom, all my life long, into the finality of the unknown which is my end” (Phoenix 698)

30In Last Poems then, the sea-trope varies from metonymy, simile, echo and metaphor. The solid, resistant sea shows flexibility in thus fitting the poetic exigencies of the poet, who quite successfully manages to curb the rims, edges and ends of the natural element to make it evoke his own individual finitude.

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Lawrence, D.H. Etruscan Places. Harmondsworth, Mddx: Penguin, 1972.

Lawrence, D.H. Letters, Volume VII. Eds. Keith Sagar and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: CUP, 1994.

Lawrence, D.H. Phoenix. Harmondsworth, Mddx: Penguin, 1980.

Lawrence, D.H. The Poems. Volume I. Ed. by Christopher Pollnitz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. London: Penguin Classic, 2000.

Pinto, Vivian de S. “D.H. Lawrence: A poet without a mask.” in The Complete Poems. Lawrence, D.H., Harmondsworth, Mddx: Penguin, 1994.

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1 Quoted by Vivian De Sola Pinto in his essay “D.H. Lawrence: Poet without a mask.”

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Elise Brault-Dreux, « The Rim, the Edge, the End, the Level: When Poetry Breaks the Sea “to bits” in Last Poems »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 55 | 2023, mis en ligne le 27 octobre 2023, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Elise Brault-Dreux

Elise Brault-Dreux is senior lecturer at the University of Valenciennes where she teaches translation and English literature. She has been doing research on Lawrence for years, especially on his poetry. She published a book Le Je et ses masques dans la poésie de D.H. Lawrence in 2014, and several articles in Études Lawrenciennes, DHLS, and other journals. She has also written articles on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and, more recently, of Philip Larkin.

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