Though not as popular or as well known as many of his later stories, Lovecraft’s prose poems and dream narratives offer sharp insight into the author’s difficult and frustrating life. They serve as psycho-biographical snapshots of his emotional and spiritual struggles. If the reader can sift through the floral verbosity and archaic grammar that Lovecraft throws up as a kind of smoke screen, he or she will find something revealed of the author’s great pain and despair.
(Readers who want a deeper understanding and appreciation of the author’s life and work will want to consult S.T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, and L. Sprague De Camp’s Lovecraft, A Biography, among other fine biographies.)
A Course is Set
An example of one of these prose poem/dream narratives is H.P. Lovecraft’s The White Ship, originally published in 1919 and one of his earlier stories. He was 29 when this was published, about 5 years before his ill fated move to New York and brief marriage to Sonia Greene. As with so many of the stories he published before the 1920s, themes and ideas that would be developed in later work are already present. (Some of these stories were actually “juvenilia” that were published years after they were actually written.) The course Lovecraft would later take in his fiction as well as in his life seems to have been set around the time of these early publications.
According to L. Sprague De Camp’s biography, Lovecraft did not like The White Ship and considered it “mawkish and namby-pamby”. The biographer felt that Lovecraft was perhaps overly critical of faults that could be found in several of his stories.
The White Ship is unusual in that it has a lead character who is actually named: Basil Elton.
Since Lovecraft is almost always the main character in most of his stories, a name is probably unnecessary. It does not appear again in the story. Basil informs us that he is the last of a line of lighthouse keepers, and that business has declined markedly across generations. Grandfather was most successful, as was the case in Lovecraft’s own family history; his father is less so, and he himself is almost irrelevant and unnecessary.
(At this point it is impossible not to think of Basil Fawlty, of the old British TV comedy Fawlty Towers. The character shares some of Lovecraft’s pretentiousness.)
He is fascinated by a great white ship that comes from the south—one of the very few ships that pass by the lighthouse now. This is no ordinary boat. It is completely unaffected by weather or the condition of the seas, but maintains its smooth glide across the water. The White Ship has to be a symbol of some kind. On the deck is a bearded man in robes who beckons to Basil to come and join him. Basil walks Jesus-like across the water from the rocks to the ship on moonbeams—an image that is difficult for readers in the 21st century to relate to outside of a Disney theme park.
Itinerary With Large Blue Bird
He and the bearded man pass by various dream cities and countries, each with a name and a special meaning. Unlike the sailing stories of William Hope Hodgson, Lovecraft does not talk to the crew of the white ship at all, other than making very occasional exchanges with the bearded man. (Hodgson’s merchant marine crews never seem to have much to do while at sea, and often get pretty chatty.) Basil and the ship are led by the “blue bird of heaven.” Is this the “blue bird of happiness” conflated with that other bird of heaven, that is the Holy Spirit? Is it a kind of Albatross? The bird is an interesting but suspicious image.
Old and New Testament Lovecraft Again
As in the Old Testament book of Exodus, place names in The White Ship do double duty as symbols of some struggle or event or quality. Lovecraft’s character translates the following locations:
1. Land of Zar—where dreams and thoughts of beauty dwell.
2. Thalarion—“the City of a Thousand Wonders”, full of mysteries that men have tried to understand.
3. Xura—“The Land of Pleasures Unattained”. This one smells bad.
4. Sona-Nyl—a land of pure fancy, where there is no suffering or death, no time or space.
Basil again walks across the water on moonbeams and stays in Sona-Nyl for “aeons.” He describes the wonders of this beautiful place. But he grows restless again, and the strange blue bird seems to call him to travel on. The bearded man tries to dissuade him, but Basil is set on visiting Cathuria, where no man has gone before. Although no one has ever been there, Basil is able to give a very detailed description of it in his mind’s eye.
Lovecraft’s brighter cities and countries often resemble the description of the New Jerusalem in the New Testament book of Revelation. This is especially the case when he talks about Sona-Nyl and Cathuria. Here are some of Basil’s comments about Cathuria:
“And the cities of Cathuria are cinctured with golden walls, and their pavements also are of gold...And the houses of the cities of Cathuria are all palaces, each built over a fragrant canal bearing the waters of the sacred Narg…High is the palace of Dorieb, and many are the turrets of marble…And the roof is of pure gold, set upon tall pillars of ruby and azure…”
Here is a similar description of the New Jerusalem from the book of Revelation:
“It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal…The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony (etcetera)…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street…” (Revelation 21: 11-21, 22: 1-2)
Pride Goeth Before a Fall
As the white ship draws near the two basalt pillars beyond which lay Cathuria, Lovecraft’s character believes he hears music and singing—it sounds as if someone is singing his praises, and acknowledging his accomplishment as a traveler in these parts. There is terrible irony here, and the bearded man chastises him for leaving the pleasant Sona-Nyl behind for this reckless journey.
For the singing is a deception, perhaps a self-deception, and the pillars have concealed an enormous cataract over which the ship now plummets to its doom. Basil suddenly awakens on a stony platform near the lighthouse, from which he had begun this dream journey. He has allowed the light to go out in the lighthouse, the first time ever, and below him he sees the wreckage of the white ship breaking up on the rocks below. In the morning he discovers the body of the now dead bird, and a piece of the ship.
Back On The Rocky Shore
In some respects, The White Ship is not really about the dream sequence at all. This is really just extraneous detail. The real story is what happens in the last few paragraphs. It is the story of how the descendent of a once successful line of lighthouse keepers allows his life’s purpose to founder on the rocks while he is literally off dreaming. “And as I glanced out over the waste, I saw that the light had failed for the first time since my grandfather had assumed its care’’—this must surely be a comment about the author’s inability to succeed as his grandfather had and a metaphor for the loss of his family’s wealth and position. He may have hated this story mostly because of this very painful truth underlying the dream fantasy.