The North Ship

Philip Larkin

‘The North Ship’ by Philip Larkin is a poignant poem about that uses the images of ships to ruminate on the kinds of journeys one experiences in the course of their life.

Philip Larkin

Nationality: English

Philip Larkin was an English poet and novelist born in 1922.

He is best known for his poetry collection The Whitsun Weddings, published in 1964.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: A lucid sense of optimism about life's odyssey

Themes: Dreams, Failure, Journey

Speaker: A person on the shore

Emotions Evoked: Fear, Optimism, Resilience

Poetic Form: Ballad

Time Period: 20th Century

Philip Larkin's poem uses the quaint imagery of three ships embarking on vastly different voyages, using a compelling array of figurative language to explore the variety of life's different journeys.

‘The North Ship’ is a poem about journeys and the immense ways they can vary for those who embark on them. Philip Larkin’s poem examines the routes of three different ships that symbolize the various paths we might find ourselves on in life. The poem emphasizes a sense of optimism in the face of life’s turbulence which is adequately symbolized by the sea’s chaotic nature.


‘The North Ship’ by Philip Larkin describes the various departures of three distinct ships that evoke a sense of bittersweet melancholy within the speaker.

‘The North Ship’ begins with a somewhat mundane and everyday observation by the speaker: “I saw three ships go sailing by,” they remark to the reader. What follows is a description of their departures as well as their travels and respective returns (with the exception of the third vessel).

The first ship appears to fair the best of the trio, as it’s aided in its westward course by the wind and is lucky enough to be headed toward “a rich country.” The second ship doesn’t fair so well: heading east, it is greeted by a “quaking sea” and wind that hunts it “like a beast.” On top of that, its destination is far less profitable, and the speaker remarks that it will be anchored in “captivity.”

The third ship is the one referenced in the title and, as such, is unsurprisingly headed north. Unlike the previous ships, no wind comes to carry this vessel. Instead, it just floats steadily on its course shining “frostily” in the cold weather. But when the eastbound and westbound ships return — “Happily or unhappily” — the northern ship is still nowhere to be found. The final stanza concludes that the ship is still on its “long journey,” travailing an “unforgiving sea” beneath a “fire-spilling star.”

Structure and Form

‘The North Ship’ is composed of six quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ‘ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH IJIJ KLKL.’ Many of these are slant rhymes, but it still creates a lyrical cadence throughout the poem.

Literary Devices

‘The North Ship’ relies mainly on imagery and figurative language. There are examples of visual/kinesthetic imagery: “I saw three ships go sailing by” (1). Visual imagery: “And one was rigged for a long journey” (4, 24); “And the decks shone frostily” (16); “Under a fire-spilling star” (23). Kinesthetic imagery: “the lifting sea” (2); “the running sea” (6); “the quaking sea” (10).

Larkin also employs an extended metaphor in three ships, each symbolizing a different path taken through life. There is also an example of metaphor: “And by the wind was all possessed” (7). As well as a simile: “like a beast” (11). Personification is also present: “And the wind hunted it” (11); “But no breath of wind came forth” (15); “Over the proud unfruitful sea” (18); “Into an unforgiving sea” (22).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

I saw three ships go sailing by,
Over the sea, the lifting sea,
And the wind rose in the morning sky,
And one was rigged for a long journey.

In the first stanza of ‘The North Ship,‘ the speaker offers a wealth of imagery to describe a seemingly ordinary moment. It begins with the passage of three ships “over the sea, the lifting sea” (2), identifying one as being “rigged for a long journey” (4). Throughout the poem, the speaker’s descriptions of the sea and the wind are constantly shifting. Yet, in this first stanza, conditions appear rather ideal, especially for the three vessels about to begin their respective journeys.

Stanza Two

The first ship turned towards the west,
And carried to a rich country.

The first ship is described as turning westward, diverging from the other two. The diction of this stanza indicates that the westbound ship fairs the best of the trio. For one, they experience a swift journey thanks to the “running sea” (6) and being “possessed” (7) by the wind. In this way, they are “carried” (8) to their destination, which itself implies the relative ease with which they reach it. On top of that, their destination is revealed to be “a rich country” (8). So not only is the first ship’s journey relatively easy, but it’s also quite profitable.

Stanza Three

The second ship turned towards the east,
To anchor in captivity.

In the third stanza of ‘The North Ship,‘ the speaker turns their attention to the second ship. This one heads east and immediately sees a change in fortune. Unlike the calm and swift waves that have been described by the speaker up to this point, the second ship encounters a “quaking sea” (10). In addition to the violent waters, the wind is also rendered virulent and personified as a hunter that hounds the ships across the sea “like a beast” (11).

After such a harrowing journey, the ship is greeted not with riches like the first ship but rather a dreadful fate: “To anchor in captivity” (12). If the first ship was an example of everything going right on a journey, then the second is, without a doubt, the worst-case scenario.

Stanza Four

The third ship drove towards the north,
And the decks shone frostily.

The speaker then focuses on the final ship and its northern course. Here, Larkin uses much more ambiguous diction to describe both the sea and the wind. A “darkening sea” (14) is bleak but not malicious like the one experienced by the second ship, while the absence of wind might mean a long journey, but that’s arguably better than being hunted by a storm.

The cold weather encountered on its journey into the north is illustrated via imagery — “And the decks shone frostily” (16) — and the sluggish movement that characterizes the stanza.

Stanza Five

The northern sky rose high and black
Happily or unhappily:

The fifth stanza of ‘The North Ship’ narrates the return of the first two ships. The speaker opens the stanza still focused on the “northern sky” (17), which might indicate they are still looking for the third ship’s return on the horizon. They also describe the sea as “proud unfruitful” (18), another example of personification that characterizes the expansive waters as tumultuous and futile.

Given how the first ship experienced a fair journey through apparent chance and the second suffered — this is a pretty apt description. As a result, the ships return either “happily or unhappily” (20), but they do return eventually.

Stanza Six

But the third went wide and far
And it was rigged for a long journey.

The final stanza reveals that the third ship has not yet returned, as its journey, compared to the other two ships, is far longer. Once again, the speaker mingles a certain longing bittersweetness with their choice of diction: the sea the ship travels on is “unforgiving” (22), but the majestic beauty of it sailing beneath a “fire-spilling star” (23) alludes to more romantic sentiments.

There is even a sense of optimism that’s quietly implied by the way the third ship has surpassed the obstacles it encounters in stanza four. Although it hasn’t reached its destination yet, it continues to sail “wide and far” (21), undeterred by the sea and more than prepared for what lies ahead.

The fact that the poem ends by repeating the last line of the fourth stanza punctuates the idea that the third ship’s endurance is crucial to the poem’s theme. One could even read the final line as a sort of cyclical allusion that the ship has actually made it to another port and is being once again made ready for another long journey.


What is the theme of ‘The North Ship?

The poem’s theme is an optimistic outlook on the different journeys one might embark on in life. The speaker’s narration of the three ships’ respective experiences sailing the ocean hones in on their belief that we have little control over many things in life. All we can do is prepare ourselves and stay the course.

Why did Philip Larkin write ‘The North Ship?

The way the poem unfolds might imply that this is based on a memory that the Larkin might’ve experienced themselves. The sight of three ships disembarking stirs something inside them as it does with the speaker. He no doubt wrote the poem as a meditation on those sentiments and the kind of longing they might evoke.

What does the sea symbolize in ‘The North Ship?

The sea could symbolize quite a lot in this poem, though a general interpretation might settle on life’s unpredictability and tumultuousness. Each ship is treated differently by the sea and wind, also indicating the individual uniqueness of people’s experiences.

What is the significance of the different directions?

The fact that each ship departs heading in a different direction also underscores the way we, as people, are all bound for different destinations.

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Here are a few more poems you might enjoy:

Poetry+ Review Corner

The North Ship

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Philip Larkin

This poem by Philip Larkin is indicative of his tendency to communicate profound truths using plain, everyday language. Much of this has to do with the poem's heavy symbolism and allegorical insinuations. It might not be one of the poet's most famous pieces of verse, but it is still an affecting poem that can be universally appreciated.
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20th Century

As a poet of the 20th century, Larkin's works are defined by their focus on the subjective. But that perspective is also informed by a desire to render the experiences of the individual universal. This poem is a great example of that, as it focuses on the journeys of three different ships as a means of conveying the multiplicity of human experience.
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Larkin was an English modernist poet, and this poem highlights all the subtle ways his writing is so affecting. This is from his use of plain diction to convey powerful ideas to his commitment to traditional styles such as the quatrain and a fixed rhyme scheme. The result is a poignant poem about all the emotions that can surround a journey.
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One of the poem's themes can be understood as an expression of the speaker's dreams of traveling. Whether you read the poem allegorically or literally, there is still this underlying sense of the freedom such departures can bring. There is a dream of adventure regardless of the perils that might await when exploring unknown waters in search of distant shores.
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The poem comments, however, briefly on failure a number of times. While the first ship has nothing but smooth sailing, the second and third do not enjoy the same luck. In the narration of both, the speaker emphasizes a need for perseverance, as the second ship eventually returns home while the third continues on persistently.
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The central theme of Larkin's poem is the idea of a journey. All three ships embark on their own very different journeys, and the point the poem appears to be making is that variance is essential as well as inescapable. Some have it easier than others; some suffer and flounder despite what they do in defiance, while others still persist.
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Fear plays a small part in the poem, inspired by the description of the journeys of the second and third ships. Larkin's choice of the sea as an indifferent but powerful antagonist in the poem is immensely impactful. It renders human desire and willpower irrelevant and serves as a perfect symbol for the way life can seem to thrash us about.
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Larkin's poem does contain moments of optimism despite some of its bleakness. The first ship's journey goes rather perfectly after all, which appears to happen out of pure luck but still offers some hope. Then there is the story of the third ship, which despite all the obstacles it encounters, continues sailing far and wide, offering some positivity in regard to the poem's view of life's journeys.
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There is also an expression of resilience, especially in the face of such overpowering forces like the sea. The third ship is the focus of the poem, and that is no coincidence. Especially given the fact that this ship, by the end of the poem, is the only one that has not returned. Instead, it has continued to sail, a powerful image of resilience in the face of life's turbulence.
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Exploration is defining topic of Larkin's poem. Although it is ambiguous about the purpose of each vessel (it is strongly implied it is mostly commerce), the image of a ship embarking on a journey invokes sentiments tied to exploration. The poem taps into a restlessness of the spirit that is inherent to life, as we rarely stay so stagnant.
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Sailing is another obvious topic within the poem. The speaker takes a rather romantic view in presenting images of the journeying across the sea, honing in on the way the waters and wind are indifferent to humans. Larkin uses the image of sailing to convey the way we all travel through life and yearn to embark on our own journeys.
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The imagery and figurative language that Larkin uses to describe the sea are also somewhat romantic in nature. They emphasize both our minuteness and powerlessness when compared to such a vast force of nature, making the act of sailing itself also an act of dangerous defiance. It is for this reason that the poem might also be read allegorically, with the sea representing life.
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The wind also plays a prominent role in Larkin's poetry. It is a force of grace blowing ships swiftly to their destination or battering them into submission and far off course. The way the wind is characterized throughout the poem also supports the interpretation that both the sea and wind are forces that shape our respective journeys.
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Larkin's poem closely resembles a ballad, as it is organized into quatrains and has a relevant alternating rhyme scheme. On top of that, the poem's romantic and allegorical imagery of boats sailing across an erratic sea also makes the subject matter rather appropriate as well. The result is a poem that beautifully gets at the heart of why people desire to journey anywhere at all despite the perils.
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Larkin's poem might not be strictly allegorical, but it does lend itself greatly to that interpretation. From the poet's choice of images and diction, it can be argued that the boats and sea make compelling symbols for our own journeys through life. It would not be the first time such a subject was used to impart such sentiments.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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