Friday, April 23, 2010

The boy stood on the burning deck

For many years I genuinely believed the poem began:
The boy stood on the burning deck
The ship was sinking fast.
And as he stood there sinking too
His captain floated past.
In fact it's a little more Poetic than that. The poem - which, face it, just asks to be parodied - is "Casabianca" (not to be confused with the Bogart movie with a very similar but not quite identical name). The boy is the son of Captain Casabianca, captain of the French flagship Orient. The deck is burning because it's the Battle of the Nile, and in a few short minutes the flames will reach Orient's gunpowder stores and the ship will blow up quite spectacularly, killing the captain, the boy and most of the rest of the crew. True fact.

(The French fleet had moored bow-to-stern parallel to the shore, so that any enemy attack would have to be along one side only and they would have a reasonable chance of fighting off any aggressors. Nelson disgracefully worked out that there was space for some of his ships to sail between the line and the shore, so the French ships were attacked from both sides at once. Of such base, deceitful, unsporting treachery is one of the Royal Navy's greatest victories made.)

The boy cries out during the poem to his father, asking to be relieved of his station, but his father is either already dead or at least unconscious. No order comes, the boy holds his station to the bitter end and *BOOM*. With a choke in its voice and a catch in its throat, the poem concludes:

There came a burst of thunder sound
The boyoh! 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.

Hmm. Let us leave aside such unPoetic questions as: how does the poet, who wasn't even there, know what the boy was doing? And, is that penultimate verse really meant to make you giggle?

Wikipedia tells me two useful things. One is Samuel Butler's thoughts on the poem:

"the moral of the poem was that young people cannot begin too soon to exercise discretion in the obedience they pay to their papa and mamma."

The other is that, during the action, the boy's leg was apparently blown off. All of a sudden another possible explanation for his immobility becomes apparent.

The boy lay on the burning deck
His other leg lay near ...

I'm probably missing the point entirely.


  1. The boy stood on the burning deck
    A braver lad than most
    He said, "It's rather warm for feet
    But great for making toast!"


  2. Please say you're here all week.

  3. Ah, you love it. Search your feelings - you know it to be true.

    Have you heard the Adric version? It was (re)printed in a big DW fanzine anthology edited by Paul Cornell. Can you resist asking for more details?

  4. Not only can I not resist, I hadn't realised until now how empty my life is.

  5. That's the spirit.

    Just putting you on hold while I retrieve the book:

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    Frightened out of his wits
    And when the ship blew up, he did
    The most amazing splits.

    Now then. This item was written by Val Douglas, originally printed in Frontier Worlds #17 and reprinted in Licence Denied (ed Cornell). I reproduce it here on the basis that both the above are OOP and unavailable, although if you should ever see a copy of Licence Denied, I urge you to pick it up, and swiftly. Here goes:

    The boy stood on the freighter deck
    Whence all but he had gone;
    Upon a lone, dead Cyberman
    Control bank lighting shone.

    Yet muttering to himself he stood,
    A proud and noble sight,
    Though clad in working garments rude
    Of sunshine yellow bright.

    The planet loomed - he would not flee
    Until the codes he'd cracked;
    He'd done two - now for number three.
    (He was a stubborn brat.)

    The ship blew in Earth's atmosphere -
    Young Adric - where was he?
    Ask of the man who sweeps the sets
    Down at the BBC.

  6. *Sobs* That's just beautiful.

  7. I have more that I wish to share with you. I may or may not then go away. Please just remember which one of us started this :)

    The boy stood on the burning deck,
    A would-be unsung hero;
    The legend says they found his hat
    In Rio de Janeiro.

    And I'm sure you've already heard (or can complete for yourself):

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    Next to a box of crackers...

  8. I wouldn't say go away to a friend. I might however start posting positively massive Dr Who spoilers, or even anonymously emailing them to you disguised as Nigerian spam. Shall we call it quits?

  9. ...the boy shuffled truculently off the burning deck...

  10. you should read elizabeth bishop's continuation of the casabianca legend:

    Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
    trying to recite `The boy stood on
    the burning deck.' Love's the son
    stood stammering elocution
    while the poor ship in flames went down.

    Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
    even the swimming sailors, who
    would like a schoolroom platform, too,
    or an excuse to stay
    on deck. And love's the burning boy.

    I think that you're looking at the poem too literally. Hemans was a poet who was forced to rush writing her poetry because she needed the money. She was a single mother who produced several volumes of poetry in a short period of time to maximise profit. She really couldn't spend too long editing/ getting to the core of the poem. At its basis, it's a poem about a boy whose faith in love leads to his death. It's about the beauty of destruction.

    Well. Take from it what you will.


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