On “The White Ship” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

I am too principled to experience happiness.

Written in November 1919 and first published in the November 1919 issue of The United Amateur before being re-printed by Weird Tales in 1937. You can find the complete text of the story here.

“The White Ship” is – along with “Dagon” — one of the most famous and widely-read of Lovecraft’s early stories.  It is also one of the first fully-realised Dreamlands stories that did not seem to spring from an actual dream. While Lovecraft nerds may tell you that it is the first Lovecraft story to owe an acknowledged debt to the work of Lord Dunsany (in particular his 1910 story “Idle Days of the Yann”), it feels a lot like Lovecraft taking a second run at a voice first used in “Polaris” and a psycho-metaphorical register first used in “The Green Meadow”.

The story begins outside a lighthouse whose keeper is fond of staring out to sea. Melancholic, the narrator observes that while his grandfather looked out over those same waters to see a steady stream of ships, the narrator rarely sees any except for a mysterious white ship. This ship is powered by banks of oars and only appears on nights with a full moon and its stately passage through the waters seems unaffected by the force of the wind or the height of the swell.

One night, the narrator happens to look out at the white ship and notices that it is captained by a bearded man in robes. The man beckons for the lighthouse keeper to join him and when he does, he finds himself walking to the ship on a bridge of moonbeams.

The bearded man speaks softly to the lighthouse keeper and invites him on a journey to the mysterious south. On this journey, the ship passes a number of strange cities: Firstly, we have the Land of Zar, which is filled with beautiful things that were seen exactly once and then forgotten. The land is filled not only with beautiful things but also people such as poets who created something beautiful only for their work to go undiscovered. Our narrator is keen to visit this land but the captain tells him that those who set foot in the Land of Zar can never return home. Secondly, the ship passes Thalarion, the City of a Thousand Wonders where reside all the mysteries that man has strived to overcome. This too seems an inviting place as it is filled with impossibly beautiful architecture but the price of striving appears to be madness as the streets of Thalarion are filled with demons and unburied bones. At this point, the ship begins to be shadowed by a bird with plumage as blue as the sky. The narrator refers to this bird as the bird of heaven and it guides them past Xura, the Land of Pleasures Unattained, which seems like an impossibly beautiful flower garden until the wind shifts and the ship is engulfed by Xura’s graveyard stench.

The fourth point of call is Sona-Nyl, the Land of Fancy. The ship docks here and the lighthouse keeper decides to live there for many years. In Sona-Nyl, everyone is happy and nobody grows old.  The lighthouse keeper appears to spend his days in Sona-Nyl hiking the beautiful unearthly landscape until he spots the bird of heaven and starts to wonder what lies further along the coast. His restlessness growing, the lighthouse keeper convinces the bearded man to return to the seas but the captain warns him that the only thing beyond the Land of Fancy is Cathuria, the Land of Hope. The narrator has never been to the Land of Hope, but he soon starts fantasising about what it might look like:

“Cathuria,” I would say to myself, “is the abode of gods and the land of unnumbered cities of gold. Its forests are of aloe and sandalwood, even as the fragrant groves of Camorin, and among the trees flutter gay birds sweet with song. On the green and flowery mountains of Cathuria stand temples of pink marble, rich with carven and painted glories, and having in their courtyards cool fountains of silver, where purl with ravishing music the scented waters that come from the grotto-born river Narg. And the cities of Cathuria are cinctured with golden walls, and their pavements also are of gold. In the gardens of these cities are strange orchids, and perfumed lakes whose beds are of coral and amber. At night the streets and the gardens are lit with gay lanthorns fashioned from the three-coloured shell of the tortoise, and here resound the soft notes of the singer and the lutanist. And the houses of the cities of Cathuria are all palaces, each built over a fragrant canal bearing the waters of the sacred Narg. Of marble and porphyry are the houses, and roofed with glittering gold that reflects the rays of the sun and enhances the splendour of the cities as blissful gods view them from the distant peaks. Fairest of all is the palace of the great monarch Dorieb, whom some say to be a demigod and others a god. High is the palace of Dorieb, and many are the turrets of marble upon its walls. In its wide halls many multitudes assemble, and here hang the trophies of the ages. And the roof is of pure gold, set upon tall pillars of ruby and azure, and having such carven figures of gods and heroes that he who looks up to those heights seems to gaze upon the living Olympus. And the floor of the palace is of glass, under which flow the cunningly lighted waters of the Narg, gay with gaudy fish not known beyond the bounds of lovely Cathuria.”

However, in order to get to Cathuria, the White Ship must pass through the Pillars of the West and what they find on the other side of the pillars is a stormy maelstrom that breaks the ship and sucks the lighthouse keeper down into the depths of the sea before returning him to his lighthouse where he resumes watching the sea, hoping for the return of a White Ship that never comes.

So, as with “Polaris” we have someone from our world who is transported to a dream-like place where he witnesses some terrible event only to wake up right back where he started. However, unlike “Polaris” and “The Green Meadow”, Lovecraft does not go out of his way to ground the journey in any kind of material reality. This means that we can read “the White Ship” both as a literal description of a journey to a fantastical realm, or as a dream rich in emotional resonance and metaphorical significance.

Setting aside the idea that Sona-Nyl and Dorieb might be real (as in “The Green Meadow”) or historical (as in “Polaris”) places, “The White Ship” can be read as a kind of psychological parable about a man who watches ships come and go but never gets to leave his post. Given that his grandfather was a lighthouse keeper before him, it seems fairly reasonable to assume that our narrator is at least a third-generation lighthouse keeper and so has not seen much of the world beyond the North Point Light.

As he stares out to sea, the man either falls asleep or allows his imagination to drift. He imagines an ancient trireme that visits him on moonlit nights and dreams of joining the crew by walking on moonbeams. The captain of the ship then whisks him away on a journey and shows him a number of states in which he might reside:

Firstly, we have a land defined by fleeting beauty but the men reject this state as dwelling in the moment means losing one’s connection to both the future and the past.

Secondly, we have a great city defined by aspiration and achievement but they reject this state as achieving one’s full potential would involve running the risk of either becoming something ugly and hurting people or being hurt yourself.

Thirdly, the ship sails past what is quite obviously the land of sexual pleasure but the pair reject this state as they cannot distinguish the carnal from the charnel and so see death, decay, and squalor as hedonism’s natural partner.

The fourth state is one grounded on fancy. Nowadays we tend to use the word “Fancy” to refer either to something luxurious or something affected. I suspect that Lovecraft is using the term as a near-synonym for ‘whimsy’ or ‘ease’ and so Sona-Nyl should probably be understood as a place that is rooted in imagination and lightness but while the careless vibes prove entertaining for a while, they are ultimately unsatisfying because of their literal insubstantiality. Reading this section of the story I was reminded of the film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come where heaven is a place where you can make your dreams come true on a whim but the ease with which things can be summoned and replaced only serves to make them insubstantial so everything you ever wanted and yearned for turns out to be little more than colourful mud.

Having grown unhappy living in a state of perpetual ease, the narrator decides to press on and try to reach the Land of Hope but while the narrator summons this really quite vivid idea of what the Land of Hope might look like, he never quite gets there as hope is not and can never be reality. In order for something to become real, it must cease to be hope and become real, at which point the Land of Hope becomes something else, and that’s without mentioning the fact that people’s hopes tend not to line up and so there can be no single Land of Hope, only a maelstrom of becoming.

I must admit that I struggled a bit with “The White Ship”. Aside from the fact that I really dislike the Gilbert and Sullivan-style silliness of stories about ‘The Land of Niggly-Poo where hats are trousers and trousers are hats’ and the fact that I really dislike the fey high-fantasy tone that Lovecraft adopts when describing yet another far-away land full of decorously ruined temples (and it’s always fucking temples), I just find this story really on the nose. I mean… there’s using genre tropes to weave metaphors about the human condition and then there’s writing a story about a dude sailing on a ship and pointedly refusing to disembark at ‘Fleeting Beauty Park’ and ‘Whore Island’ only to settle for a while in ‘Shallowtown’ before setting off for the ‘Island of Who-Knows-Might-be-a-bit-Nicer’.

Looking beyond the story’s somewhat heavy-handed symbolism, I am intrigued by the story’s downbeat tone. When I first read the story, I was reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Man Who Loved Islands” as that story also uses physical places as manifestations of emotional states though Lawrence was less interested in the nature of the societies built on the islands than he was in the idea of social withdrawal, political purity, and utopias inevitably devolving into one person living on their own. However, while I do think that “The White Ship” is less emotionally complex than either “The Man who Loved Islands” or Dunsany’s “Idle Days of the Yann” I like the fact that the psychological landscape Lovecraft creates is one in which happiness is effectively impossible because certain quite conventional and popular paths to personal flourishing have been ruled out on general principle.

Most people, if placed on the deck of the White Ship, would happily take their chances in one of the first three cities because even if you weren’t content with the land of fleeting happiness, or the land of eternal ambition, you’d probably quite happily look for rooms in the land of perpetual blowjobs. That’s not even a calculation… that’s how most people live their lives and cope with the realities of human existence. If you can’t become the best possible version of yourself then you’ll probably settle for a few high-points or living a life where you experience pleasure. However, Lovecraft doesn’t even try to get off the boat at any of these islands and so he’s forced to choose between living in hope and the land of hollow mildly anhedonic escapism where everything is.. y’know… fine.

Given what we know about the way that Lovecraft approached life, I think this story tells us quite a lot about the mind-set of the man who wrote it. This is a man who looked at conventional paths to happiness and refused to partake or even experiment on general principle. As I said in my piece on “Old Bugs” I find it really interesting that Lovecraft responded to the suggestion that he try getting drunk by cooking up some weirdly spiteful fantasy involving a friend being turned into a ravening drunk who begs for beer and drugs from the floor of a tavern in the Chicago meat-packing district.

I think what bothers me about “The White Ship” is the fact that it has no basis in lived experience: When Lovecraft writes about being a weakling who looked on while others went off to war, he is talking about real feelings. When Lovecraft writes about being an embarrassing impoverished weirdo who derives all of his self-esteem from the fact that his family used to be rich, he is sharing some real insights into his own thoughts and feelings. These stories pulsate with life because they came from a place of genuine feeling. However, ask Lovecraft to write a story choosing not to get off the boat at ‘Whore Island’ and deciding to abandon stability to search for hope, it’s just a series of words. Lovecraft couldn’t even finish high-school or find a job in a booming economy so it’s hard to imagine him even bothering to get on the White Ship in the first place. Reading “The White Ship” I kept returning and returning to the word sterile and that’s ultimately what this story is: It is well-imagined, well-written, well-structured, and it put forwards a coherent viewpoint but it is utterly disconnected from anything as real and messy as feelings.

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