[In the battle of the Nile, thirteen-year-old Casabianca,
son of the Admiral of the Orient, remained at his post
after the ship had taken fire and all the guns had been
abandoned. He perished when the vessel exploded.]
- THE boy stood on the burning deck,
- Whence all but he had fled;
- The flame that lit the battle's wreck,
- Shone round him o'er the dead.
- Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
- As born to rule the storm;
- A creature of heroic blood,
- A proud though childlike form.
- The flames rolled on; he would not go
- Without his father's word;
- That father, faint in death below,
- His voice no longer heard.
- He called aloud, ``Say, Father, say,
- If yet my task is done!''
- He knew not that the chieftain lay
- Unconscious of his son.
- ``Speak, Father!'' once again he cried,
- ``If I may yet be gone!''
- --And but the booming shots replied,
- And fast the flames rolled on.
- Upon his brow he felt their breath,
- And in his waving hair;
- And looked from that lone post of death
- In still yet brave despair;
- And shouted but once more aloud,
- ``My Father! must I stay?''
- While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud,
- The wreathing fires made way.
- They wrapt the ship in splendor wild,
- They caught the flag on high,
- And streamed above the gallant child,
- Like banners in the sky.
- There came a burst of thunder sound;
- The boy--Oh! where was he?
- --Ask of the winds, that far around
- With fragments strewed the sea;--
- With shroud, and mast, and pennon fair,
- That well had borne their part,--
- But the noblest thing that perished there
- Was that young, faithful heart.
Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835)
There were many deep water disasters in the 19th century, and since many ship captains, both commercial and naval, brought their sons or other youthful family members along when they went to sea, a lot of children died in these tragedies. Back then there was a tendency to romanticize the deaths, wrap them in the mantle of noble fatherly love; even making the children into poetic heroes. One example of this genre is Longfellow’s Wreck of The Hesperus. And so, too, is Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ Victorian Casabianca (1826).
"The French flagship l’Orient had been mercilessly attacked, and by 9 o’clock flames were seen to be emanating from her. Poorly disciplined sailors had left buckets of tar and paint lying on deck, and now these blazed fiercely. Soon it was obvious that her vast stores of gunpowder would soon detonate, and later investigations would tell the tale of panicked ships that cut anchor and struggled to escape the vicinity before the explosion.
When the l’Orient blew, the sound was heard at Rosetta 32 kilometres away, and the glow was seen in Alexandria. It was an explosion rarely seen in the days before weapons of mass destruction were invented. For some twenty minutes, the stunned ships desisted from fighting, horrified at the carnage that had just taken place. The British sent a ship to rescue what French sailors they could, and some 70 were saved."
(The Battle of the Nile)
Also known as The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck Hemans' poem relates the tragedy about Commodore Louis Casabianca who commanded the 120-gun, 2,000 ton l'Orient. This was Napoleon’s flagship and one of the largest fighting vessels of its time. Struck by a cannon ball, the Commodore was blown nearly in half at about the same time the ship caught fire. The ship was on fire and all hands had abandoned their posts. Louis's 10-year old son, Giacomo, refused to leave the body of his father and perished when the fire reached the gunpowder on board and exploded. The verse about the French boy's futile call to his dead father for release from his post is no "simple, chivalrous" poetry, but a grim meditation on patriotic and patriarchal obligations.
The Battle of the Nile itself was one of Horatio Nelson's great victories. British access to Africa and Asia Minor was stopped and it kept the Mediterranean from becoming French. One web site makes note that "Nelson's coffin was crafted from the wreckage of the Orient, the ship on whose burning deck Jiacomo (sic) Casabianca stood."
Felicia Hemans was born September 25, 1793 and lived most of her life with her family in Wales. After her husband, Captain Alfred Hemans abandoned her and their five children in 1818 she became one of the first women to try her hand at making a living writing poems. Her poetry was diffuse and romantic and she was popular enough in England, but by the time her work had reached America she had generated a big following. Published in August 1826 Casabianca, was by far her best-known and most parodied poem, as well as, one of the most frequently memorized poems near the end of the 1800's. Elizabeth Bishop penned a notable reprise in her 1945 poem of the same name. Her stanza is burned into the bricks of the Davis Square T in Boston, Massachusetts and is visible when they are wet. This is only the first verse since it's still under copyright:
Love’s the burning boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite the boy stood on
the burning deck Love’s the son
stood stammering elocution
while poorer ship in flames went down
A voracious reader Hemans rarely traveled so many of the details and descriptions in her poetry are inspired by stories of Greece, Spain, and the New World. Considered a Romantic Poet she used stereotypical images from her dependence on others and her work shows a limited experience. Even so it captures much of the ethos of her day in her poetry. Today her best-known poems are probably this one and The Homes of England.
Casabianca – Elizabeth Bishop - Mason West:
Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:
The search for Napoleon's Lost Fleet: