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Casabianca by Felicia Hemans

“Casabianca” is an 1826 poem written by the English poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans. This piece is best known for its first line “The boy stood on the burning deck”. It is a story about a boy named Casabianca who for his sheer obedience to his father lost his life. Interestingly, this poem alludes to an actual incident that happened during the Battle of Nile between the British and French navy. Felicia’s note on the poem is about a young boy named Casabianca, the son of the Admiral of the French L’Orient, who remained at his post even after the ship caught fire.

Casabianca by Felicia Dorothea Hemans


Summary

The boyish character of Casabianca became famous with Felicia Hemans’ verse. Through this poem, Hemans alludes to French commander Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca and his young son Giocante. Both of them stayed on a burning ship for the sake of their nation. This piece is an artistic representation of the story with slight modification. Here, Casabianca is the young boy who remains at his post for obeying his father’s order. His father told him not to leave the ship till he returned. Out of his sheer obedience to his father, the boy remained at his position even after the ship caught fire and burnt him.

Meaning

This poem centers on the idea of obedience and common sense. The boy named Casabianca was true to his father or his nation but he was not realistic. He cried aloud several times to hear back from his father. Even after not getting any message from him, the boy remained at his post. He might have thought that he was still alive. If the boy had common sense or a little bit realistic about the events happening around him, he would have saved his life. However, for not being realistic, he had to lose the precious thing, life.

Structure & Form

This poem is written in quatrain form. There are a total of ten quatrains or stanzas having four lines each. The lines rhyme alternatively with the rhyme scheme ABAB. It continues throughout the poem. For example, in the first stanza, there are two sets of rhyming words: “deck” and “wreck”, and “fled” and “dead”. This closed rhyming pattern makes the idea of a particular stanza complete. Regarding the meter, it is composed of iambic tetrameter and trimeter alternatively. The first and third lines of each stanza are in iambic tetrameter and the rest of the lines are in iambic trimeter. This scheme is also called the ballad meter. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza:

The boy/ stood on/ the burn/-ing deck,

Whence all/ but he/ had fled;

The flame/ that lit/ the bat/-tle’s wreck,

Shone round/ him o’er/ the dead.


Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Hemans uses the following literary devices in her poem “Casabianca”:

Simile

It occurs in:

  • “As born to rule the storm”
  • “A proud, though childlike form”

Though he was proud as a mature soldier or heroic as a king, he was only a 13-year-old boy.

It also occurs in:

  • “Like banners in the sky.”

Here, Hemans compares the fire streaming above the child to floating banners.

Metaphor

There is a metaphor in the line:

  • “A creature of heroic blood”.

Here, Casabianca is compared to a creature having heroic blood.

Hemans compares the place where the boy was standing to the “lone post of death”. Casabianca was all alone there, unconscious of his approaching death.

Allusion

This poem is an allusion to an incident that occurred during the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798. Hemans alludes to the son of the admiral of the Orient ship.

Personification

The poet personifies the bombs thrown by the English side in this line:

  • “And but the booming shots replied”.

She compares the flames to the human breath in:

  • “Upon his brow he felt their breath”.

Afterward, she invests it with the idea of wrapping the ship.

Alliteration

In these examples, similar sounds are repeated in succession:

  • him had”
  • beautiful and bright”
  • father, faint”
  • but the booming”
  • fast the flames”
  • sail and shroud”, etc.

Anaphora

It occurs in the following lines that are meant for connecting the ideas.

  • A creature of heroic blood, / A proud, though childlike form.”
  • And but the booming shots replies,/ And fast the flames rolled on.”
  • And in his waving hair,/ And looked from that lone post of death”
  • They wrapt the ship splendor wild,/ They caught the flag on high”

Onomatopoeia

It occurs in this line “There came a burst of thunder sound—”. Here, the sound of the explosion on the ship is conveyed through the word “thunder”.

Metonymy

In this line “With mast, and helm, and pennon fair”, Hemans refers to all those who were there on the ship before it caught fire. For example, she refers to the helmsman by the word “helm”. Therefore, “helm” is a metonym for the person who controls it.

Rhetorical Question

It occurs in the line “The boy — oh! where was he?” In this rhetorical question, the speaker hints at the fact that the boy had already died.

Rhetorical Exclamation

This rhetorical question is followed by a rhetorical exclamation: “With fragments strewed the sea!” Through this line, the poet expresses her grief for the boy’s death.

Polysyndeton

It occurs in “With mast, and helm, and pennon fair”. In this line, the conjunction “and” is repeated twice for the sake of emphasis.

Oxymoron

In this poetic device, apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction. It can be found in the following examples:

  • “brave despair”
  • “splendor wild”


Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Stanza One

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.

The poem “Casabianca” presents the titular character at the very beginning. Hemans paints the plot where the character was stuck. He was standing on the deck of the ship that already caught fire. Everyone escaped except the boy. What was he doing there all by himself? Hemans provides the answer in the following stanzas, not here. It is just the beginning where the poet talks about only the main character and makes readers familiar with the impending danger.

The flame lit the rest of the battleship L’Orient. Casabianca could see that the ship was on fire. Those who had already died during the Battle of the Nile, their bodies were also on fire. In such a situation, anyone would have fled the scene for the sake of rescuing their lives. But, the boy did not.

In the introductory note, Hemans writes that “Young Casabianca”, the son of the Admiral of the Orient battleship, was a 13-year-old boy. During the battle, he remained at his post after the ship had taken fire. All the arms and ammunition exploded when the flames reached the magazine.

Stanza Two

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,

As born to rule the storm;

A creature of heroic blood,

A proud, though childlike form.

In the second stanza, Hemans talks about the gallantry of the boy. He stood there like a marble statue of some heroic figure. In the blazing flames, he looked beautiful and his face was brightened. It seemed to the third-person narrator of the poem (the poet) that the boy was “born to rule the storm”. His fearlessness in the face of the storm made the narrator remark so.

Furthermore, she describes him as a creature or man of heroic blood. It is a reference to his noble pedigree. In the end, she remarks that these attributes aptly apply to a man of war, hardened with age. However, Casabianca’s boyish visage reflected the same courage and valor.

Stanza Three

The flames rolled on – he would not go,

Without his father’s word;

That father, faint in death below,

His voice no longer heard.

In the third stanza, Hemans talks about why the boy remained at his post. He was just obeying his father’s order to stay there until he returned. For this reason, he did not leave the ship with others. The flames kept rolling down the lower portion of the deck. He could see that. But, he was unafraid.

He did not know that his father had died already and his lifeless body was lying somehow down there, in the unknown depths of the sea. The narrator sadly remarks that none could hear his voice anymore, including that innocent child.

Stanza Four

He called aloud – ‘Say, father, say

If yet my task is done?’

He knew not that the chieftain lay

Unconscious of his son.

As the fire progressed further to his post, Casabianca became a little bit nervous. He called aloud for his father and asked whether his task was done yet. From the boy’s voice, it is clear that fear had started to crawl into his mind. He could sense it. But his sheer obedience to his father made him stand there without being threatened.

In the following lines, the narrator remarks that the boy was unaware of the fact that the chieftain (his father), was lying unconscious of his calls. The poet uses insinuation in the last line to dilute the tension of the tragic incident.

Stanza Five

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,

‘If I may yet be gone!

And’— but the booming shots replied,

And fast the flames rolled on.

Not knowing what to do, Casbaianca spoke again. He cried whether he could go or not. As readers can see, both his statements are exclamations. It highlights the fact that he had become more afraid than before. Somehow, his brain told him to leave, but his mind devoted to his father’s words did not allow him to do so. In this dubious situation, he did not know what to do.

In this stanza, the third line is frequently given incorrectly as “– And but the booming shots replied”. Therefore, the word “And” is spoken by the boy, not the narrator. It means when the boy could say further, the sudden explosion made his voice inaudible.

Hemans personifies the explosion and remarks that instead of his father, the sound of the explosion replied. The explosion happened as the fire caught the magazine. After the blast, the fire became furious and it quickly approached to engulf the remaining ship.

In the fourth line, the usage of alliteration (“fast the flames”) quickens the pace and portrays the speed of the flames.

Stanza Six

Upon his brow he felt their breath

And in his waving hair;

And look’d from that lone post of death,

In still yet brave despair.

Casabianca could feel the heat upon his brow and in his hair. In the first line, of this stanza, Hemans uses synecdoche in “his brow” and personification in “their breath”. The “brow” represents the face of the boy. Whereas “their breath” contains a reference to the heat produced by the flames.

He looked around from his post. In the third line, the “lone post of death” contains an anticipation of the child’s approaching death. The boy was aware of his inability to escape the ship then. But, he was still under the impression that his father would return and they both would escape. To describe his state of mind, Hemans uses an oxymoron, “brave despair”.

Stanza Seven

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.

This time the boy shouted as loud as he could and said, “My father! must I stay?” As one can see, he uttered fewer words than before. It hints at the fact that he had already lost hope of escaping the fire. So, his tone became stiff and harder. All he knew was that death was nearby and he was going to die anyhow. In such a state, when a person is so close to death, his tone hardens just like the boy in this poem.

Whatsoever, the twisting flames of fire quickly made way through the sail and shroud. At last, the fire engulfed the boy into its ferocious flames. In the last line, Hemans uses a pathetic fallacy in the phrase “wreathing fires” to praise the gallantry of the boy. The term “wreath” means a garland.

Stanza Eight

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,

They caught the flag on high,

And streamed above the gallant child,

Like banners in the sky.

In the first line, Hemans uses an oxymoron in “splendor wild”. When the ship caught fire, the scene appeared to the narrator as both wild and magnificent. It was a magnificent scene as a child died heroically just out of his sheer obedience to his father.

Quickly, the fire caught the French flag waving at the top of the ship. It streamed above the “gallant child”. Here, the poet uses the metaphor of sea waves to describe the movement of the flames. She uses another imagery in “Like banners in the sky” to depict how the wave-like flames caught the boy.

Stanza Nine

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!

Casabianca died. The final sound of the blow was the end of the show. Here, Hemans uses onomatopoeia in “burst of thunder sound”. The explosion sounded like thunder.

In the following line, the narrator asks a rhetorical question to imply that the boy was no more. She tells readers that the winds strewed the ashes of the boy over the sea. Only the wind knew where the boy was. In the last line, there is a rhetorical exclamation that implies the narrator’s grief over the boy’s demise.

Stanza Ten

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.

In the last stanza, the narrator remarks that everyone played their part, including the soldiers and crew members. She infuses life into mast, helm, and pennon to imply that even the inanimate objects witnessed what happened with the boy. They also were part of the boy’s last battle against ferocious fire.

In the last two lines, Hemans uses three epithets to describe the boy: “noblest thing”, “young” and “faithful heart”. According to the speaker, those who escaped had saved their lives. But the boy could not. His faithful heart did not submit to death until the finale.

Themes

Hemans’ poem “Casabianca” taps on the themes of heroism, common sense vs obedience, and bravery. The main theme of this piece is heroism and bravery. Casabianca was merely a boy of thirteen. Still, he showed exceptional courage in the face of death. It is true that he was only there just for keeping his promise to his father. But, there is something more regarding the boy’s personality that readers have to understand from the description of the poet. He was at first afraid. As the flames drew closer, he did not flee from that place even though nobody was looking at him. He could have saved his life. But, one thing was clear in his mind that he had to remain strong like a soldier, fighting selflessly for his country, no matter what happened.

Tone

From the beginning of the poem, the tone is emotive, laudatory, and heroic. Hemans’ description of Casabianca and his bravery is filled with heroism. The expressions such as “beautiful and bright he stood”, “born to rule the storm”, “A creature of heroic blood”, and “streamed above the gallant child” describes how courageous Casabianca was. Hemans’ narrator applauds his bravery in the face of danger. Besides, her use of language also arouses pity and sympathy for him.

Historical Context

Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ classic poem “Casabianca” was first published in The Monthly Magazine, in August 1826. It is an artistic representation of an incident that occurred during the Battle of the Nile (1798) between British and French fleets on 1 August. Captain Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca and his son, Giocante both perished aboard the French ship L’Orient. This poem alludes to the Admiral’s son as “Young Casabianca”. His age is variously given as ten, twelve, and thirteen. According to Hemans, his age was thirteen years. He remained at his post and died when at 10 p.m. the fire reached the magazine, culminating in a massive explosion. This poem remained popular in the 1850s through the 1950s and taught in the UK and US elementary schools.

Questions & Answers

What is the message of the poem “Casabianca”?

The message of the poem is that no matter what happens to a person, he should not turn away from the promises he has made. If we look at the poem from a different angle, it is also true that the poet is trying to convey the consequences of over-simplicity and blind obedience. The boy lost his life due to his innocence and lack of common sense. From this point of view, this poem may appear melodramatic.

Is “Casabianca” a true story?

Indeed, it is a true story. Through this poem, Hemans alludes to an incident that occurred during the Battle of the Nile (1798) between British and French fleets on 1 August. Captain Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca and his son, Giocante both perished aboard the French ship L’Orient. This Giocante is none other than our “Young Casabianca”.

How would you describe Casabianca?

Casabianca is an innocent heart who dies out of his sheer obedience to his father. From a subjective perspective, the boy appears to be brave, gallant, and heroic. However, there are several flaws in this character. He is romantic, not realistic. Besides, he fails to differentiate the value of a promise and life.

How is Casabianca described at the beginning of the poem “Casabianca”?

At the beginning of the poem, Casabianca is described as standing on the burning deck. Everyone left the ship except him as he was promised by his father not to leave the deck until he returned.

What lesson do you learn from the poem “Casabianca”?

There are two moral lessons present in this poem. One is to be faithful and obedient to one’s words. Another is being realistic. Casabianca lost his life, not for his obedience to his father but for his lack of common sense.

What is the mood of the poem “Casabianca”?

In the first few sections of the poem, the mood is uplifting and filled with courage and heroism. While, in the following section, it turns sad and depressing as the boy dies.

What happened to Casabianca at the end?

In the end, Casabianca died as the explosion enraged the intensity of the flames and it burnt him to ashes.

Why was Casabianca standing on the deck?

He was standing on the deck because his father had told him to remain at his post until he returned.

Why did Casabianca not leave the burning deck?

For his obedience to his father, he did not leave the burning deck.

Why does the poet call Casabianca a “gallant child”?

Casabianca showed exceptional courage in the face of danger. Even after seeing the ship on fire, he did not leave his post. For this reason, the poet calls him a “gallant child”.

Why did Casabianca keep on calling?

Casabianca thought that his father was still alive and would return. As the fire became more intense, he felt afraid. That’s why he kept on calling his father, partly out of fear and partly to confirm whether his father had returned or not.

What is the meaning of “burning deck”?

The term “deck” means a structure of planks that horizontally extends across a ship at various levels. The one at the highest level and open to the weather is also called the deck. In this poem, “burning deck” implies that the ship was on fire.

Who was the father of Casabianca?

The commander of French L’Orient, Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca was the father of “Young Casabianca”.

Who was the boy in “Casabianca”?

The boy was the son of the commander Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca. His name was Giocante Casabianca.

What parts of the ships are mentioned in the poem “Casabianca”?

The parts of the ships mentioned in the poem include “deck”, “sail”, “shroud”, “banners”, “mast”, “helm”, and “pennon”.

What is the “noblest thing” in the poem “Casabianca”?

Casabianca was the “noblest thing” in this poem. As he showed acts of high moral principles and ideals, Hemans calls him so.

Where was Casabianca standing?

Casabianca was standing on the burning deck of the ship.

What does the “lone post of death” mean?

The “lone post of death” anticipates the approaching death of Casabianca. It means he was all by himself waiting for the fire that was going to end his life.


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