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Literature / Casabianca

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The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but him had fled;
—The (in)famous opening lines, "Casabianca"

"Casabianca", also known as "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck", is a British narrative poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans that was first published in the Monthly Magazine issue for August of 1826. It concerns itself with the final moments of Giocante Casabianca, the young son of Captain Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca, aboard the Orient during the Battle of the Nile. Because the poem has been militantly pushed to generations of children in English classes and because its composition is nothing short of melodramatic, "Casabianca" is well-known but regarded with derision. As such, there are countless parodies and some of those, notably "Casabazonka" by Spike Milligan, are better known than the poem itself.

The Battle of the Nile is a historical confrontation between the French Navy, led by François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers, and the British Navy, led by Horatio Nelson, that took place from the 1st to the 3rd of August 1798 at Aboukir Bay in Egypt. In short, NapolĂ©on Bonaparte sent out ships to get a foothold in Egypt. The British got wind of that and sent their own ships to be a bother. The British managed to miss the French, thereby giving the latter time to instigate the Battle of Embabeh and to come up with a counter strategy. While Aboukir Bay was not ideal for naval combat, as it left the French with minimal manoeuvrability, the plan was to form an impenetrable line in order to ensure protection to the troops on land. However, not only was there enough space at the end of the line for a British ship to sneak past, measures to prevent the British from passing between the French ships were not carried out. Because the French had only prepared the starboard sides for combat, they were sitting ducks when attacked on the other side. Add to that food shortage and Bedouin hostility on shore, and things weren't looking good for the French.

The Orient was the flagship of the fleet and under command of Brueys and Casabianca. Mere hours into the battle, the Orient caught fire. British gunfire prevented the crew from extinguishing the flames until, eventually, it reached the ammunition supplies and the Orient exploded, probably twice. The crew had counted more than a thousand men, but fewer than a hundred survived the gunfire, the fire, the explosion, and the waves. Brueys, Casabianca, and Giocante, aged between ten and thirteen, weren't among the survivors. For one reason or another, several rumors emerged among the British shipmen pertaining the exact circumstances of Giocante's death and they ascribed a heroic element to the boy's final moments, such as that he was last seen trying to save his father.

These rumors formed the inspiration for Hemans's poem, but "Casabianca" doesn't match any of them and is Hemans's own invention. After all, the second line assures the reader that Giocante is alone and if he was, who would've relayed the poem's story? "Casabianca", despite being ten stanzas long, is uneventful and owes its length to the tragedy whipped up around the end of a young and admirable life. The first three stanzas establish Giocante's grandeur and impending doom, the next four describe Giocante's futile attempts to contact his father, and then the final three focus on the ship's destruction to communicate the boy's death.

"Casabianca" is an accessible poem and its themes of heroism and life at sea are meant to appeal to youngsters. That's one part of why it became part of the English curriculum. The other part is that it has use as a Propaganda Piece. It links heroism to obedience and it challenges its British audience not to be outdone by the enemy in terms of discipline.

No relation to Casablanca.

"Casabianca" provides examples of the following tropes:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Parody: The poem of the same name by Elizabeth Bishop is a brief and clever homage to the original, equating the boy's loyalty and sacrifice with love.
  • Plucky Middie: Giocante is Commander Casabianca's son and 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.
  • 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.