Famously, this poem is said to have been based on a true story from the late 1700s of a young boy who would not leave a sailing ship in the middle of a battle. Casabianca waits for approval from his father, the commander, who is dying. The boy has no idea what’s going on and continues to ask his father if his job is done and if he’s allowed to leave. He remains on the ship until it’s too late, ending the poem sorrowfully.
Casabianca Felicia HemansThe 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 childlike 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, sayIf yet my task is done?’He knew not that the chieftain layUnconscious 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 breathAnd in his waving hair;And look’d 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 wrapped 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 aroundWith 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.
‘Casabianca’ by Felicia Hemans is a moving poem about a young boy’s loyalty to his captain and father.
This historic poem describes a young boy’s loyalty in the face of certain death. While his ship is sinking, the captain’s son refuses to abandon the ship, waiting instead for orders from his deceased (or soon-to-be deceased) father. He doesn’t realize his father is dead and asks him, over and over, if it’s okay for him to leave the ship.
Structure and Form
‘Casabianca’ by Felicia Hemans is a ten-stanza poem divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple, alternate rhyme scheme of ABAB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. For example, the first stanza uses the rhyming words “deck” and “wreck” as well as “fled” and “dead.”
In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. These include:
- Rhetorical Question: a question the poet or speaker asks to which they do not expect to receive an answer. For example, “The boy – oh! where was he?”
- Personification: the use of human-specific descriptions to depict something non-human. For example, “Upon his brow, he felt their breath. / And in his waving hair.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example: “boy” and “burning” in line one.
Stanzas One and Two
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 childlike form.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing a boy, Casabianca, the namesake of the poem, standing on the deck of a burning ship. It’s unclear what’s happened, besides that, it seems like a battle has taken place (seen through words like “heroic” and “battle’s wreck.”
He stands there bravely, surrounded by the dead and the growing flames threatening to entirely consume the vessel. He’s the only one left alive there. Everyone else working on the ship has long since abandoned the ship, presumably into the water or a few lifeboats.
The fire shines on the boy and the dead bodies around him. It illuminates the truth and horror of his situation while focusing the reader on his plight alone.
Despite the terror of the scene, the speaker describes the boy as “beautiful and bright.” He has strength and bravery, likely due to his youth, which isn’t seen anywhere else. This is a very intentional example of juxtaposition meant to endear the boy to readers who are sure to find his attitude admirable (if somewhat naive).
He stood on the ship as if he was born to be there and rule the storm. But that wasn’t the case. He’s just a child, something that’s emphasized through the description of his “childlike form.” The speaker wants to make sure readers know that this is a young boy, someone who probably shouldn’t even be on the ship, much less involved in a battle.
Stanzas Three and Four
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.
The ship is on fire; the poet reminds readers something that’s posing an immediate threat to the boy. Yet, he remains. There is one thing he’s looking for in order to give him confirmation that it’s okay for him to leave the ship— his father’s word. His father is the captain, and he refuses to disobey his commander’s orders by leaving before he’s approved to do so. He’s incredibly loyal, certainly loyal to a fault, as the next lines prove.
His father, the poem reveals, is dead or near death. He’s been injured and can no longer hear his son’s words. So, his pleading for permission to leave the ship is useless. Unfortunately, the boy doesn’t understand what’s going on. He doesn’t realize his father can’t hear him, and he continues to ask for permission to abandon the ship. He wants to ensure his “task” or work is done and that there’s nothing else his likely deceased father wants him to do.
Stanzas Five and Six
‘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 look’d from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair.
The speaker continues to describe the young boy yelling at his father, trying to get a response and perhaps permission to leave the ship. The flames are growing around them, fast and rolling. The boy’s short escape window is closing, and he isn’t any closer to receiving the permission to leave that he’s looking for.
He could feel the breath of the flames, an example of personification, on his face and in his hair. They breathed with life that his father did not, the poet implies. The boy despairs his situation but shows a bravery that is unmatched. He still refuses to leave the ship.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
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 wrapped the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.
In the next lines, the speaker describes how the boy continues to shout at his father, asking him “must I stay?” As the ship is falling apart around him. The fire grows, consuming the sail and wrapping around the ship in a “wild” “splendor.”
This is an example of a literary technique known as the sublime. It occurs when a writer describes something that is both terrifying and beautiful, allowing a reader to observe it safely from a distance. The boy is in peril, but the poet continues to describe, in beautiful language, the way the disaster is unfolding. The poet’s depiction of the flames in stanza eight is perhaps the best example of this.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
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.
In the final stanza, things change significantly. Suddenly, the speaker, who was throughout the rest of the poem an observer, becomes more emotionally invested in what’s going on. They exclaim over the boy’s absence, nothing that suddenly, after a burst of thunder, he was gone.
The rhetorical question, “oh! Where was he?” is partially answered in the next lines with the poet writing, “Ask of the winds that far around / With fragments strewed the sea!” The poet tells readers that if they want to know what happened to the boy, ask the winds that are tearing the ship apart, along with the fire, and that have strewn the ship’s pieces around the ocean. The boy’s boy, presumably, lies in the sea along with the remainder of the ship.
The final stanza describes how in the sea, one could find all the parts of the ship. Each had done their duty, including the mast and helm. But, among these was the boy’s body, the “noblest thing” to have perished in the sea that day was his “young faithful heart.” Till the end, he had faith that his father was going to tell him what to do and that everything would work out.
The theme of this poem is loyalty, particularly remaining loyal to those in command even in the worst situation. The boy, whose age is never described, has more honor than the rest of the crew, the poet implies. He waits until the end of his life to get an order from his father.
The tone is sorrowful but also admiring. The speaker clearly feels impressed by the way the boy behaved. They admire his actions and his loyalty.
‘Casabianca’ is an elegy written in memory of a young boy who died in the late 1700s while remaining loyal to his father, the captain of a destroyed sea vessel.
Casabianca is the name of the main character of this poem. He is a young boy who has accompanied his father, the captain of a ship, to sea. His age and role on the ship are unknown, but he loses his life while waiting for his captain’s orders.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Ship Starting’ by Walt Whitman – is an image-rich poem that depicts a ship starting out to sea in dangerous waters.
- ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – describes the experiences of a speaker trapped on board a ship at sea.
- ‘Youth and Age’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – explains how different these two stages of our lives are. Where one is like a budding flower, the other is like the dawn.