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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918)

Poems of the Great War: The White Ships and the Red

WITH drooping sail and pennant

That never a wind may reach,

They float in sunless waters

Beside a sunless beach.

Their mighty masts and funnels

Are white as driven snow,

And with a pallid radiance

Their ghostly bulwarks glow.

Here is a Spanish galleon

That once with gold was gay,

Here is a Roman trireme

Whose hues outshone the day.

But Tyrian dyes have faded

And prows that once were bright

With rainbow stains wear only

Death’s livid, dreadful white.

White as the ice that clove her

That unforgotten day,

Among her pallid sisters

The grim Titanic lay.

And through the leagues above her

She looked, aghast, and said:

“What is this living ship that comes

Where every ship is dead?”

The ghostly vessels trembled

From ruined stern to prow;

What was this thing of terror

That broke their vigil now?

Down through the startled ocean

A mighty vessel came,

Not white, as all dead ships must be,

But red, like living flame!

The pale green waves about her

Were swiftly, strangely dyed,

By the great scarlet stream that flowed

From out her wounded side.

And all her decks were scarlet

And all her shattered crew.

She sank among the white ghost ships

And stained them through and through.

The grim Titanic greeted her,

“And who art thou?” she said;

“Why dost thou join our ghostly fleet

Arrayed in living red?

We are the ships of sorrow

Who spend the weary night,

Until the dawn of Judgment Day,

Obscure and still and white.”

“Nay,” said the scarlet visitor,

“Though I sink through the sea

A ruined thing that was a ship

I sink not as did ye.

For ye met with your destiny

By storm or rock or fight,

So through the lagging centuries

Ye wear your robes of white.

“But never crashing iceberg

Nor honest shot of foe,

Nor hidden reef has sent me

The way that I must go.

My wound that stains the waters,

My blood that is like flame,

Bear witness to a loathly deed,

A deed without a name.

“I went not forth to battle,

I carried friendly men,

The children played about my decks,

The women sang—and then—

And then—the sun blushed scarlet

And Heaven hid its face,

The world that God created

Became a shameful place!

“My wrong cries out for vengeance,

The blow that sent me here

Was aimed in Hell. My dying scream

Has reached Jehovah’s ear.

Not all the seven oceans

Shall wash away the stain;

Upon a brow that wears a crown

I am the brand of Cain.”

When God’s great voice assembles

The fleet on Judgment Day,

The ghosts of ruined ships will rise

In sea and strait and bay.

Though they have lain for ages

Beneath the changeless flood,

They shall be white as silver.

But one—shall be like blood.