Most readers will have been introduced to this poem through parodies, of which there are many. My favourite is Spike Milligan, who transposed the first two lines and finished off the poem with a single word in the third line…”Twit”.
What fewer people know is that the poem is based on a real life event and a real person.
The event was the 1798 Battle of the Nile, which cemented the fame of Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, who later became Admiral Lord Nelson. As with many battles it has two names. It is also called the Battle of Aboukir Bay. The latter is a more accurate name for the battle, as it occurred in Alexandria, which is some distance from the Nile. But the British public knew nothing of Aboukir Bay, but recognised the Nile. So for propaganda purposes it became the Battle of the Nile.
The battle exhibited the brilliance of Nelson and the shortcomings of Napoleon when it came to matters at sea. Napoleon invaded Egypt as a prelude to carving out a route to India with the intention of depriving Great Britain of that jewel. On land he was invincible. But he had no sense of naval tactics. He insisted that the French fleet station itself nearby in case he required an exit from Egypt.
This was far from ideal. Aboukir bay is open and exposed, impossible to defend. A stronger admiral would have refused Napoleon and taken his fleet to a secure bay in Crete or Cyprus. From the islands a fleet could command approach routes, and sweep down on a weaker enemy at will. More importantly it could defend itself from a stronger foe in a secure harbour.
Instead François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers was compromised into anchoring his fleet off Alexandria. In Aboukir bay he took his ships inshore as close as he dared and chained them in a defensive line. He reasoned that the British, if they found him, would be forced to keep to the open side of his line, and he could fight them on even terms. Chaining the ships together prevented the enemy from getting amongst them.
Nelson arrived, assessed the situation and made a quick decision. He sent his shallow draught ships into the channel between the land and the French. A brave and risky manoevre, and entirely unexpected. His heavier ships sailed in parallel on the open side of the French fleet. The British then unleashed a double broadside on the French. It is certain that the inland guns of the French were unprepared for the engagement.
The result was a devastating blow, taking the French apart. Of 13 ships of the line the French had 2 sunk and 9 captured.
The poem is a celebration of the eponymous young French boy who stood his station as his ship erupted in flame.
Casabianca by Felecia Dorothea Hemans
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.