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Literature / Casabianca

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The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled —
Twit.
Spike Milligan, Casabazonka

No, not that very quotable film, "Casabianca" is a poem by British poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans and was first published in the Monthly Magazine for August 1826. The full text can be read (amongst many other places) at the "Celebration of Women Writers" site.

Like "The Charge of the Light Brigade", "Casabianca" is an epic poem about a historical event; in this case, the Battle of the Nile and the French ship Orient catching fire. Its commander was Louis Casabianca and his son Giocante ,aged between ten and thirteen, refused to desert his post without being ordered to do so by his father (who, unknown to the boy, was already dead). The ship subsequently exploded in one of the largest fireballs of the pre-dynamite age. It is famously parodied by Spike Milligan in the above quotation, although the word "twit" could describe Louis de Casabianca's entire strategy in that battle.

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Its being force-fed to generations of children in English classes has ensured its longevity as one of the best bad poems in English, along with The Charge of the Light Brigade and the entire work of William McGonagall.


"Casabianca" provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear: The commander's death means his young son is left dutybound on a fiery hellscape of a ship where pretty much everyone else is already dead.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: The Orient is on fire while engaged in naval combat, meaning its crew is having a battle amongst flames but not their enemy. It still is very dramatic and a key component of the scenario, which the poem repeats every other stanza.
  • Death of a Child: The poem is about the Battle of the Nile, a major naval battle fought between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic. More specifically, it's about the destruction of the French vessel Orient and the deaths of all on board. And the absolute spotlight is on the tragic and lonely death of Giocante Casabianca, the pre-teen son of the Orient's commander.
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  • Dying Alone: Giocante dies alone amidst the corpses of the crew, unaware his father lies dead too elsewhere on the ship.
  • Epic Ship-on-Ship Action: The ship catched fire during combat and it stays locked in combat until it explodes.
  • Honor Before Reason: Giocante refuses to dishonor his father by deserting his post despite the evident danger and the fact that everyone else is either dead or already has abandoned ship.
  • Plucky Middie: Giocante is Commander Casabianca's sonand has come along on the Orient to learn the ins-and-outs himself. He shows tremendous bravery when faced with the prospect of burning to death as he refuses to leave his post unless he is given permission. That permission never comes because his father is already dead, and so Giocante dies, though mercifully in an explosion rather than fire.
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  • Purple Prose: Not a lot happens in the ten stanzas that make up the poem and without all the purple prose about the ship being on fire it could easily be only half as long.
  • Rule of Three: Giocante calls out for his father thrice to relieve him of his duty and allow him to look for safety.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: The poem ends with the iconic explosionnote  of the Orient, which is what kills Giocante Casabianca.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The facts are that Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca was the commander of the Orient, that he had brought his son along for the expedition to Egypt, and that the Orient went up in flames and explosions during naval combat. Every detail more the poem offers about Giocante Casabianca's final moments is Hemans' embellishment.
  • Worthy Opponent: The poem is about a French boy bravely standing tall in combat with the English fleet, when the author herself and the people who spread the story she based the poem on are English. Many generations of romantic young Englishmen were then taught to admire the heroic young Casabianca and seek to emulate him.

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