Main Street and Other Poems

Author: Joyce Kilmer

The White Ships and the Red

(For Alden March)

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 that 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.

[End of Main Street and Other Poems.]

The following biographical information is from the Occasional Notes to `A Treasury of War Poetry’, 1919, edited by George Herbert Clarke.

Kilmer, Joyce. He was born in New Brunswick, N.J., December 6, 1886.
He had first joined the Officers’ Reserve Corps, but soon resigned.
Within seventeen days after the entrance of the United States into the war he left his journalistic career to enlist as a Private in the Seventh Regiment, National Guard, New York.
Shortly before the Seventh left New York for Spartanburg, S.C.,
he was transferred at his own request to the 165th U.S. Infantry,
formerly the 69th National Guard Regiment of New York.
He accompanied the regiment as a Private to Camp Mills, Long Island.
He was transferred from Company H to Headquarters Company,
and became Senior Regimental Statistician. The regiment sailed for France in October, 1917, and there he was placed in the Adjutant’s Office and made Sergeant. Thereafter he was attached to the Regimental
Intelligence Staff as an observer, and showed great fidelity and courage in the tasks to which he was assigned. He was killed in action on July 30, 1918, while trying to locate hostile machine-guns in the Wood of the Burned Bridge, on the Ourcq. His war writings may be found in `Main Street, and other Poems’, and `Joyce Kilmer,
Poems, Essays and Letters’.


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Chicago: Joyce Kilmer, "The White Ships and the Red," Main Street and Other Poems in Main Street and Other Poems (New York: George E. Wood, 1850), Original Sources, accessed March 31, 2023,

MLA: Kilmer, Joyce. "The White Ships and the Red." Main Street and Other Poems, in Main Street and Other Poems, New York, George E. Wood, 1850, Original Sources. 31 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Kilmer, J, 'The White Ships and the Red' in Main Street and Other Poems. cited in 1850, Main Street and Other Poems, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 31 March 2023, from