In Defense of Casabianca

I’m sorry to be posting retrospectively about a poem we’ve already discussed, but I absolutely loved “Casabianca,” and while I understand some of the issues raised with it, I still do. I will concede that my overly specific love for Napoleonic-era naval combat may have something to do with it, but I also wanted to look over the poem itself with a focus on its ambiguities.

The main one that we discussed in class was the issue of the “fragments” at the end of the penultimate stanza. When I first read it, I admit that I interpreted it morbidly, as fragments of the child; but the following line changed my mind, and I don’t think it fundamentally matters. The boy and the ship are placed in direct dialogue with one another throughout the poem, even from the first two lines, where Hemans draws a direct connection between them: “Whence all but he had fled” refers most obviously to the French sailors who have abandoned ship, but also to the ships all around that, foretelling the explosion, ceased combat, closed their gunports, evacuated the immediate area, and had their sailors and soldiers put down their weapons and man the pumps instead. The fighting paused for about fifteen minutes around the explosion, and in the context of that brief interlude of stillness and isolation, the boy and the fire are the only two animate things in the poem. Even the “booming shots” in line 19 likely refer to L’Orient’s own great guns and small-arms going off as the heat reached them. The stanza beginning on line 29, too, draws a direct parallel between them; the child has spoken his last and is only one stanza from death, and that final defeat is symbolized by the flames reaching “the flag on high,” the ship’s pennant, the loss of which universally signals surrender. I think we are meant to read “fragments” as referring to the “mast, and helm, and pennon fair,” but I also think we are meant to read those as roughly analogous to Casabianca’s own courage (the backbone holding up the flag), intelligence (that which guides the ship, and, if we read the poem the way some modern scholars do, that which was abandoned), and “young faithful heart” (which never yielded until the flames obliterated it), respectively.

The other question that occurred to me was that of rank. I assumed that young Giocante Casabianca, as the captain’s son* and a gentleman by birth, would have been a midshipman, an officer-in-training in charge of a small division of foremast sailors. However, I cannot find any references to either support or refute that; pretty much every source that mentions him by name is primarily focused upon the poem, which, of course, never specifies. I am personally inclined to continue to believe it, both because it makes sense culturally and because it would explain the disparity in ages (his father may have kept false muster and lied about his age, an incredibly common crime that allowed midshipmen to advance to lieutenant earlier than was technically permitted). The poem, though, never makes mention of any responsibilities that Giocante may have held. Hemans’s goal is clearly to elicit sympathy for the child, and in my opinion, having him feel guilty for being unable to prevent his division of sailors from deserting, feeling that he failed his father, would be a fairly direct route to that goal, and I don’t see why Hemans would have neglected to use his rank as a device. I intend to do some more research and see if I can find a digitized version of L’Orient’s muster-book (an earlier iteration that wasn’t blown to smithereens) and find out whether he was a midshipman or just an unusually wealthy and well-connected powder-monkey.

Sorry this turned out so long, I just really loved this poem and this class and wanted to go all-out on my last post!

* I know the footnote identifies the father as an admiral, but I think that’s just an error. Luce Julien Joseph Casabianca was the commander of L’Orient, the fleet’s flagship, and the actual admiral, François-Paul de Brueys, was aboard. Of course, de Brueys died some minutes earlier, so Casabianca may have briefly served as acting-Admiral, but he certainly never attained the rank by promotion.

Mary Robinson’s Arguments (or lack thereof)

I have reread “January, 1795” three times in the past half hour, and “London’s Summer Morning” twice, and I still think I’m missing something. Mary Robinson is very clearly making a forceful point about social stratification, and an interesting one, given her upper-class background; but for the life of me, I can’t find the skeleton of an argument in either of those poems. The former in particular is just a list of images; striking, emotionally evocative images, but just images. There were a couple of lines that seemed to contain some ambiguity — are the “Courtiers cringing and voracious” more victims or victimizers? I was briefly interested in them and their position, but Robinson never followed up on them, and I’ll admit that my eyes glazed over a couple of times. The repetitive structure struggled to stick in my brain, and the lack of participles only highlighted the utter lack of a statement.

I was convinced that I was missing something there, but after reading “London’s Summer Morning,” I rather gave up on “January, 1795.” Again, it’s social commentary rooted almost exclusively in imagery, and although some amount of perspective is introduced in the last two lines, I found it difficult to connect with the piece because the majority of it is presented so impersonally. I gave that one a couple of tries too, but “The Poor Singing Dame” made me cut my losses and move on — it’s still social commentary, and while there’s at least personality and characters worth paying attention to in this one, I thought Robinson fumbled at the end when the Lord died of remorse. Frankly, if I hadn’t read those two other poems first, I probably would have been more willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but as is, it seems like she’s sacrificing the moral of the poem for the character, the exact opposite of the first two. A more interesting read, but I get the impression that Robinson can’t fit both into the same work. The Lord’s monument overshadowing the Dame’s grave claws back some of the symbolic meaning, but not all of it.

In short, I don’t think I like Mary Robinson, but if I am missing some nugget of poetic genius, I’d be happy to hear it and change my mind.

Barbauld, Byron, and the Fourth Wall

“[. . .] Here I must stop,

Or is there aught beyond? What hand unseen

Impels me onward through the glowing orbs

Of habitable nature, far remote,

To the dread confines of eternal night,

To solitudes of vast unpeopled space [. . .]?” (lines 89-94)


By the time in today’s reading that I reached “A Summer Evening’s Meditation,” although it was only the third poem of Barbauld’s we read, there was a pretty clear pattern established: she begins with a fairly banal topic — a mouse, a map, an evening — and then systematically expands it into a whole philosophical treatise. I was surprised, therefore, when, around line 80, “A Summer Evening’s Meditation” was still a meditation on a summer evening, albeit a particularly creative and dramatic one.

The lines I quoted above jumped out at me as indicating a level of self-awareness of this trend; whether Barbauld saw her pattern as a mold to write inviting yet meaningful poetry or a habit worth breaking, she definitely seems compelled in some way to follow that structure, and even, in those lines, blames it on an outside force, a “hand unseen.” It reminded me, in a way, of Byron writing a handful of pointedly eroticized stanzas and then interrupting himself with “And then—God knows what next—I can’t go on; / I’m almost sorry that I e’er begun” before taking a massive step back to discuss Plato (canto 1, stanzas 115-6). While Byron’s take evokes humor, though, I’m not really sure about the intention behind Barbauld’s digression. It doesn’t have the same air of irony as it does in “Don Juan,” and it certainly doesn’t explain her future behavior — the poem after that point is far more abstract than before.

Donna Julia and inbreeding

“. . . They bred in and in, as might be shown,

Marrying their cousins—nay, their aunts, and nieces,

Which always spoils the breed, if it increases.


This heathenish cross restored the breed again,

Ruin’d its blood, but much improved its flesh;

For from a root the ugliest in Old Spain

Sprung up a branch as beautiful as fresh;

The sons no more were short, the daughters plain” (lines 454-461)


The first canto of Don Juan, from which I have taken these lines, was published in 1819, well before Charles Darwin began his research on trait heritability. Popular knowledge is that Darwin (who married and had ten children with his first cousin; of them, three died as children and three more were infertile) was the first to posit that close familial relationships between parents might have a negative impact on their children’s health. (Ironically, he figured that out by examining some tomato plants, not his own family.)

That said, ancient cultures frequently had taboos against incest; I know the Code of Hammurabi forbids it, and I think the Bible does as well. Certain members of the Habsburg family were so affected by their consanguineous ancestry that physicians marveled that they continued to draw breath, but I cannot find any texts from the era that conclusively show that the cause was known. I wonder, then, what exactly was new in Darwin’s research. Lord Byron, writing when Darwin was all of ten years old, seems to have a fairly solid grasp of the pattern, if not the mechanics, of inbreeding, though it is interesting that he only notes cosmetic flaws in the inbred family, not health ones. This isn’t even remotely the point of the poem, but that passage jumped out at me from a history-of-science perspective, and I’d love to hear if anyone else knows more than I do.

Lamia’s Betrayals

I found the whole of “Lamia” really interesting, largely because of the sort of betrayal in the story. Every version of Lamia’s story that I’ve read has involved some form of betrayal, and it’s almost always Lamia herself betraying her mortal lover. I kept expecting that in Keats’s version, but it never quite came; instead, we got four sort of peripheral betrayals, none of which were necessarily malicious in intent.

The last and most obvious was philosophy’s betrayal of the beauty of belief; Lamia here was a victim, as was Lycius, though he was also somewhat responsible, as he allowed Apollonius into the wedding. He more directly betrays Lamia by suddenly insisting that they marry, though it could be argued that that simply nullified Lamia’s own betrayal of keeping him in a love-ridden stupor, apparently unable to think for himself. The poem presents that stupor as a good thing, though, and the dissipation of the spell brings misery, so I’m not sure that Keats intended for two wrongs to make a right.

The betrayal that interested me the most, though, was the very first one, before we even meet Lycius. Hermes approaches Lamia, stuck in snake form, to ask her to point him to a nymph with whom he is infatuated; Lamia tells him that she helped the nymph magically hide herself in order to hide from the attentions of suitors exactly like Hermes, but promises to reveal her if he will allow her to regain human form in order to be with Lycius. I expected, early on, that Lamia was the nymph in question, that she had hidden herself in a serpent’s body as her form of camouflage, and that she was tricking Hermes with no intention of accepting his advances.

I was wrong: Lamia did, in fact, simply give up the nymph’s location and allow Hermes to find her in order to pursue her own love object. The situation is basically equivalent to Apollo bribing Peneus to turn the laurel tree back into Daphne. Though the nymph is initially terrified, as well she might be, the poem gives their ‘courtship’ only four lines before she is ‘won over.’ The issue is never addressed again; it is treated as pure exposition. The anthology’s headnote suggests that Keats may want readers to sympathize with Lamia, so I am left to wonder if he simply did not see that betrayal as a big deal.

Characters in “The Eve of St. Agnes”

Many of John Keats’s poems, thus far in the course and in general, seem more “meta” than many of his contemporaries’ works. If this was already addressed in class while I was out sick, I apologize, and feel free to skip ahead; but time and again he addresses in praise other writers and even translators, as well as the concept of writing itself. His poem “The Eve of St. Agnes,” though beautifully written and intensely compelling in its imagery, seems less focused on the precise feelings and nuanced perceptions of its characters, and more focused on examining an archetype of a story.

The characters are little more than archetypes themselves; Porphyro is the valiant knight who will overcome any obstacle to be with his love, while Madeline is the demure, untainted object of affection. It is understandable why anyone identifying with Porphyro would want a Madeline, and vice versa*, and neither character is given any individuality that might distract from their perfection. That is not a criticism: both characters perfectly match the roles ascribed to them and allow Keats to direct his readers’ attention instead to the story framework at play.

An early editor’s note draws attention to the similarities between this work and Romeo and Juliet, and I noticed a similar choice in the play: Shakespeare never tells us why the Montagues and the Capulets are fighting or what the original slight was. The result is that readers cannot pick sides, censure either Romeo or Juliet for failing to immediately disown his or her family, and decide that one does not deserve the other’s love. The circumstances keeping the characters apart are carefully constructed to have absolutely no impact on readers’ perception of those characters themselves. Similarly, there is no room in either Madeline or Porphyro’s characters for either one of them to fail the other, which means, in turn, that readers cannot brush off the bleak final stanza as just because they weren’t right for each other.


*Unless you are, for some reason, averse to strange men hiding in your closet and watching you sleep.

Mixed ironies in “The Mask of Anarchy”

I thought I was following “The Mask of Anarchy” fairly well until the stanza beginning on line 30. Prior to that point, Shelley was drawing straightforward equivalences between the supposedly noble peers and the corruptions that they and the institutions they represent embody. I thought he did it very strongly, too; the lines

His big tears, for he wept well,

Turned to mill-stones as they fell.


And the little children, who

Round his feet played to and fro,

Thinking every tear a gem,

Had their brains knocked out by them.

in my opinion perfectly convey the sense of increasing disillusionment that comes with growing up after being raised in country far too proud of itself.

I was surprised, therefore, when, at line 30, Shelley introduces Anarchy as not only bad, but the overarching evil that allows all of the other corruptions to fester. According to the anthology’s headnote, the aristocracy accused liberal revolutionaries of promoting anarchy, and while I agree with the headnote that Shelley’s use of personified anarchy belongs in an “upside-down world of role reversals,” I don’t understand why he chose to treat it that way.

Many left-leaning members of our own generation tend to speak positively of communism, not, I think, because they genuinely believe that unfettered communism works, but in order to highlight that unfettered capitalism is also deeply flawed. I would have expected something similar from Shelley: I would have expected him to embrace those accusations and discuss Anarchy as the herald of Freedom and Hope. Toward the end, he even encourages his countrymen to abide by laws “Good or ill,” and repeatedly suggests that the corruption of the ruling class exists outside of the law.

I am left wondering whether there is truth to the details of his accusations; I am personally used to corruption existing legally in loopholes carved deliberately by politician. who will benefit from them. Were the corrupt members of parliament actually breaking laws, or is this whole poem just a long, elaborate argument that ultimately boils down to “no, you”?

Shelley’s rejection of simplicity

The two poems by Percy Shelley that we read today stood out against the works of the previous “generation” of poets in its sheer multitude of footnotes. The editors of the anthology clearly had no very high opinion of the clarity of Shelley’s language, and in many cases, I agree with them. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” line five reads, “Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,” and the footnote specifies that “shower” is the verb in play. Even with that critical note, I had to read the line a couple of times, initially to figure out what was going on, and then to figure out why it was so confusing. I eventually landed on “behind” as the culprit; it removes the status of “some piny mountain” as the object of the clause, instead inserting an implied object in whatever stretch of ground lies behind that mountain. I have only ever seen “shower” as a transitive verb, and while it technically is here as well, the need to supply the object in a syntactically odd location made the whole line come across as convoluted, and without the editors’ note, I likely would have simply given up on trying to understand the finer details of the simile. That is far from the only place that Shelley is unclear in his language, and the footnotes seem to have forgone their usual additions of context in favor of simple, much-needed translation.

Others of Shelley’s works are remarkably simple. “To Wordsworth” is a prime example, and when I think of a poem that is borderline didactic in the obviousness of its meaning, I think immediately of “Ozymandias.” I wonder, then, what inspired this wild variation. Both of today’s poems play with form a lot, and I read them as almost experimental; perhaps Shelley was deliberately rejecting the lingually simple, everyday, accessible language that Wordsworth and his contemporaries championed. Or, perhaps, as Coleridge would despise, he was simply willing to distort his language however he needed to in order to make the rhyme work.

The Ancientness of the Mariner

I have read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a few times now, and each time, although he implicitly denies it at the beginning of part four, I am left with the lingering sense that the Mariner is preternaturally old, perhaps immortal. I could never quite put my finger on what left me with that impression, and it is entirely possible that I’m the only one to read it that way; if that’s the case, please tell me so. Regardless, I now have some theories on where I got the idea.

Firstly, we as readers never get a sense of the purpose of the ship’s voyage. It doesn’t appear to be a warship, so we cannot pin it to any war; it does not appear to be a whaling ship, which would have marked the voyage as relatively recent. There is no destination given, so if it’s a trade ship, we cannot use knowledge of trade patterns to place it in time. The technology is also very vague — the ship could belong to any number of centuries, and is entirely consistent with those of 1797. The use of the crossbow, though, rather than a musket, seems to indicate that it takes place no later than the sixteenth century.

Looking that far back, other aspects of the poem start to stand out: the language is somewhat archaic, even for the late eighteenth century, with Shakespearean-sounding “loveth”s and “thou”s and nautical terminology that was already far outdated by Coleridge’s time. More telling, though, is the marginalia: the brief summaries in the margins were a common feature of early printed books, circa the turn of the sixteenth century. As books became easier, faster, and cheaper to produce, more and more people were able to buy them, resulting in increased literacy rates. Those margin summaries were effectively waymarkers for new, slow readers: if they had to stop and lost track of where they were, it was faster to work through those summaries and then move back into the main text than to start from the beginning.

So, linguistically, technologically, and structurally, I would place the voyage sometime in the late 1500s. For 200 years, the Mariner has been wandering the world, stuck under the dominion of Life-in-Death. I’m sure actual researchers who actually know what they’re talking about have done a better job with this question, but I’m at least satisfied to have a basis for my longstanding gut feeling.

Poems of spontaneity and poems of necessity

In the thirteenth book of his 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth describes a hiking trip that he and a friend took up Mount Snowdon in Wales. The imagery that Wordsworth employs while describing the hike is just as vivid as in any other poem, but it seems different to me in tone: so many of Wordsworth’s poems present flawless, impeccable images of the natural world, all soaring vistas and soul-piercing mountains. In the 1805 Prelude, we see more examples of disappointing landscapes, perhaps most famously Mont Blanc: Wordsworth’s description of Mont Blanc is limited, though, and he promptly moves on.

When he details his hike up Mount Snowdon, though, the scene he paints is almost oppressively real: it took place on “a close warm night, / Wan, dull, and glaring,” humid, and with a storm brewing. The images are so tactile that, for the first time reading one of these poems about the natural landscape, I could truly identify with the hikers. The sensory input described is so close to the skin that it could be anywhere, and I’m fairly confident that every reader knows the feeling of walking through a muggy night.

Of course, the scene gets more sublime once the hikers break out of the mist, and Wordsworth then goes on to describe “The perfect image” — but I cannot help but wonder if the body of this poem was born of the some spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion that gave rise to so much of his other work, or whether it was written out of necessity, to lay the groundwork for his musings on that “perfect image.” I know that when I write, I am usually interested by only a handful of scenes, usually some towards the beginning and some towards the end, and filling in the language in between can feel like a laborious slog. I may be projecting (in fact, I probably am), but in this poem, I detect some of the same desire to simply get to point B, be it the top of the mountain or the discussion of the sublime.