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The boy stood on the burning deck

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile, when Admiral Nelson confronted Napoleon's fleet. Nelson allowed his captains to use their own initiative, which they did with brilliant effect. The result was an overwhelming victory. Napoleon, displaying his odious egomania, abandoned his troops and scurried back to France.

During the battle, the French flagship L'Orient caught on fire and subsequently blew up. The poem "Casabianca" by English poet Felicia Hemans describes the agonizing dilemma of the young son of the French admiral, who refuses to leave his post as the fire rages all around him. The poem begins with the famous line "The boy stood on the burning deck".

It is moving that an Englishwoman was so affected by the tragic disaster that she wrote a poem that conveys the French boy's fear and courage. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop considered the poem an allegory of love.

Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) was five years old when the Battle took place. Her poem commemorates an actual incident.

Casabianca

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.

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