July 9th, 2005

poetry

Poet's Corner: Casabianca

Casabianca

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 child-like 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 splendour 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 mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
   That well had borne their part—
But the noblest thing which perished there
   Was that young faithful heart.

Felicia Dorothea Hemans    1793–1835)

Earlier this evening, when my brother told me that his next-door-neighbor's deck had burnt down, I asked, "was there a boy standing on it?" He didn't get it.

This venerable piece of Romantic schlock is based on a real incident that occurred during the Battle of the Nile in 1798, when French commander Louis de Casabianca ordered his ship, L'Orient, scuttled to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British fleet. Casabianca went down with the ship, as did his son, who supposedly stayed at his post while everyone else fled the ship. This of course raises the question of who exactly saw the dramatic events recounted in the poem. No doubt it was the same person who heard Charles Foster Kane's last word.