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.

One thought on “In Defense of Casabianca”

  1. Any poem that inspires research questions and a keen desire to interpret it is a worthy poem! This poem is famous in part because it is it was so misread–as an example of a faithfulness that could be (mis)understood as a form of patriotism, much like Frost’s “The Road not Taken” is misread all the time as a poem about individuality.

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