Reading more poetry

Image: Pixabay

As someone who claims they love poetry, my range tends to stick to those I know, (or studied at A-level) such as Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and William Blake. During these years I enjoyed studying poetry but was consumed by having to memorise it for an exam.

I’ve decided that I want to read more poetry and have set myself the challenge of reading a new poem every day. Using the book, Poems for Life, I am picking at random a poem everyday to read.

Part of my appreciation for poetry comes from the process of ‘unpicking’. On the first read, sometimes things don’t stick out. On the second, comes the realisation that certain phrases, lines and images are of importance to the central message. I like the fact that the more you read a poem, the more you understand. Above all, what I like is that poetry can have so many different interpretations.

I won’t always be writing a post about each poem I read (as that might get a bit much!) but I thought I would share with you the first one.

Flicking through the pages, I stuck my thumb at a random spot and fell on the poem, “Casabianca” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Upon reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the poem (or even when it was written.)

The Poem

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.

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 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 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.

Reading “Casabianca” for the first time

Before researching , I believed this poem was about the departure of childhood, set against the natural rhythms of nature. The poem features a father and son on board a ship in the middle of the sea. Thus, the passing of nature could be related to the certainty of the end of childhood. Lines such as, “The boy stood on the burning deck, / Whence all but he had fled” and, “Yet beautiful and bright he stood, / As born to rule the storm” suggests the idea of departure with words like, “fled”. Additionally, the image of a boy ruling nature suggests an element of leaving childhood behind.

The poem also contains the repetition of a heroic like theme, words such as, “heroic,” “brave,” and “gallant” which suggests the idea of conquering. Whether that be over nature itself during the sea storm, or over the eventual eradication of one’s childhood. Thus, the conquering of childhood, as it were.

In sum, I read this poem to be about the gradual but relentlessness transition from childhood to adulthood, mirrored by the undulating rhythms of nature presented in the waves. The timeless image of a ship sailing away, relates to the human life cycle passing into the next phase of life, from childhood to adolescence. Like nature – life always has a next stage, or ending.

History and impact

Image: Felicia Dorothea Hemans National Portrait Gallery

Although this poem does contain a considerable element on childhood, it also documents an actual event.

Published in 1826, this poem details events that occurred on the Orient during the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was a French ship commanded by Louis de Casabianca. The poem features a scene between a 12 year old boy and his Father; whereby the boy refuses to abandon the ship during a series of attacks. It becomes clear during the course of the poem, that the young boy tragically dies, he only ever wanted to protect the ship and perform his expected duties.

Thus, the poem explores elements of death, as well as transitional life. It’s a tale of commitment, resilience and dedication from a young boy, but also the bond between father and son.

The poem became a classroom staple throughout the United Kingdom between the 1850s-1950s. It is therefore, a classic example of classroom poetry recital. It explores a sense of military prowess by featuring the 1798 Battle of the Nile, between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic. Hence, I suspect it was chosen for classroom recital due to its demonstration of patriotism and British victory.

Felicia Hemans was a known poet in her day, whose major collections included: The Forest Sanctuary (1825), Records of Woman and Songs of Affections (1830). She was known to be quite popular, especially among women. It is welcoming to note such a successful female poet during this period. Sadly, she died from dropsy in 1835. Despite the beauty of this poem (and probably the rest of her work) it was often used for school children – due to its discussion of morality and patriotism, and easy to remember rhyming rhythm. (see what I did there…)

Upon reading this poem and unpacking it, I was able to reflect on the many things I had learned just from reading these few lines. I had no idea to begin with that it was written so long ago, and about a true event I wasn’t even aware of. I nearly always learn something when I read a new poem, and this one didn’t disappoint!

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