The White Ships and the Red

         (For Alden March)

With dropping 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 Judgement 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 of Judgement 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.


This poem is in the public domain.