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.
The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans,
New York: James C. Derby, 1854.
Felicia Hemans, who published nearly 400 poems during her lifetime, was a popular poet during the Romantic era. Her poetry included sonnets, lyrics, narratives, dramas, and polemics. Although some critics consider her style merely decorative, others recognize in her poems a critical study of politics and gender and trace her influence in the dramatic lyrics of the Brownings, Tennyson, Kipling, Sigourney, Longfellow, Whittier, and Harper. The ABL owns thirteen of Hemans’ books.
The first line of the poem above is instantly recognizable to many people, committed to memory in elementary school days. Susan Wolfson, editor of Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials (2010), agrees that the beginning lines from “Casabianca” are probably Hemans most familiar, but points out that the poem is “much edgier than its reputation as a sentimental favorite would have it.” Citing Heman’s own footnote describing the circumstances of the poem, Wolfson reminds us that Hemans, a loyal British subject, writes sympathetically about Nelson’s opponent in the Battle of the Nile, heroizing the French boy and lifting her female voice to descry the loss of a child martyr and his useless filial loyalty to a patriarchal agenda and command.