A Forgotten War Poet: Sgt. Joyce Kilmer,
165th Infantry, 42nd "Rainbow Division," AEF
By David Beer
|Kilmer Before the War
When Kilmer met his death at the age of 32 he was already an established writer and poet, with some 42 poems to his credit. Perhaps “Trees” was his best-known work, and it was certainly popular among ladies who liked to sing it at gatherings in their parlors, but to judge Kilmer by this rather lightweight and sentimental lyric of six couplets is to underrate a poet who also composed longer works such as “The White Ships and the Red” and “Rouge Bouquet.” The former is a long, haunting reflection on what just a week earlier had shocked the nation and helped point us toward war with Germany: the sinking of the Lusitania. For Kilmer, as for much of the nation at the time, this was an act of shocking barbarity, so shocking that the countless ships that over the centuries have sunk to the bottom—Spanish galleons, Roman triremes, and even “the grim Titanic”—look up from their resting places startled:
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!
|Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, KIA
Soon the Lusitania gives her lengthy answer, reinforcing the color imagery of the white ships that met their ends in expected ways and the red ship now joining them, stained by a bloody and shameful act:
"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!
We now know that the Lusitania also carried less innocent cargo besides “friendly men” and playing children serenaded by their mothers. This was not known in May of 1915, however, and the poem effectively conveys the sense of shock and injustice the sinking caused the American people, all intensified by the aura of grief and tragedy that emanates from the ghost ships.