The poem starts:
- 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.
It is written in ballad meter, rhyming abab.
The poem commemorates an actual incident that occurred in 1798 during the Battle of the Nile aboard the French ship Orient. The young son Giocante (his age is variously given as ten, twelve and thirteen) of commander Louis de Casabianca remained at his post and perished when the flames caused the magazine to explode.
In Hemans' and other tellings of the story, young Casabianca refuses to desert his post without orders from his father. (It is sometimes said, rather improbably, that he heroically set fire to the magazine to prevent the ship's capture by the British.) It's said that he was seen by British sailors on ships attacking from both sides but how any other details of the incident are known beyond the bare fact of the boy's death, is not clear. Hemans, not purporting to offer a history, but rather a poem inspired by the bare facts, writes:
- 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.
Hemans has him repeatedly, and heart-rendingly, calling to his father for instructions: "'Say, Father, say/If yet my task is done;'" "'Speak, father!' once again he cried/'If I may yet be gone!;'" and "shouted but once more aloud/'My father! must I stay?'" Alas, there is, of course, no response.
She concludes by commending the performances of both ship and boy:
- 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.
This poem was a staple of elementary school readers in the United Kingdom and the United States over a period of about a century spanning, roughly, the 1850s through the 1950s. It is today remembered mostly as a tag line and as a topic of parodies. Perhaps to justify its embedding in English-speaking culture, modern editors often claim French poets also celebrated the event - notably André Chenier and Ecouchard Lebrun - apparently without noticing that the former was executed four years before the Battle of the Nile, so could not have written about these events. These claims for literary pedigree appear spurious.
McGuffey's New Fourth Eclectic Reader (1866) takes this poem as the topic of Lesson LV. After urging the reader to "Utter distinctly each consonant: terrible, thunders, brave, distant, progress, trust, mangled, burning, bright," it introduces and presents the poem, following it with a set of questions: "What is this story about? Who was Casabianca? By whose side did he stand in the midst of battle? What happened to his father? What took fire? What did the sailors begin to do? What did the little boy do? Why did he stand there amid so much danger? What became of him?"
In the 1961 British sci-fi/ black comedy "The Day the Earth Caught Fire", Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) recites the famous opening line as he reports to work on what could well turn out to be doomsday.
- Then he thought of Casabianca. He had been examined in that poem by his father not long before. 'When only would he leave his position? To whom did he call? Did he get an answer? Why? How many times did he call upon his father? What happened to him? What was the noblest life that perished there? Do you think so? Why do you think so?' And all the rest of it. Of course he thought Casabianca's was the noblest life that perished there; there could be no two opinions about that; it never occurred to him that the moral of the poem was that young people cannot begin too soon to exercise discretion in the obedience they pay to their papa and mamma.
In History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984), Kamau Brathwaite alludes to the poem as an example of imperial education and hopes those who have had to recite its lines will be able to express themselves in 'nation language' (Caribbean patois) instead of 'imposed' language and poetry.
The first line of the poem serves as the title and the inspiration for the short story "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" by C. S. Forester. In this version the hero, Ed Jones, remains at his station aboard the fictitious USS Boon during the Battle of Midway. A fire started in the bilge beneath his station in the engine room, but Jones remained at his station slowly roasting while the battle rages. At the conclusion of the battle he is relieved by a damage control party. Burned, he nonetheless survives the war.
The story is referenced in Bram Stoker's Dracula. In chapter VII, in a newspaper account of the great storm, the dead pilot of the ship Demeter is compared to "the young Casabianca." (Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897).
The poem is referenced in Ian Fleming's Moonraker. When Commander James Bond intends to set the moonraker on fire in a suicide action, he tells his accomplice, Gala, with a cynical tone, "The boy stood on the burning deck. I've wanted to copy him since I was five."
The poem is recited in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by character Peter Guillam, after the "safe-house" used by the mole is discovered and inspected. Guillam seems to do this in order for others to test the planted microphone, although this isn't explicitly stated.
The opening line is quoted by the character Sergeant Major Jonas Blane, as he prepares his team member for a difficult task ahead of them, "The boy stood on the burning deck...that'ld be us!" in the TV drama The Unit (Season 4, Episode 16, "Hill 60").
Generations of disrespectful schoolchildren, perhaps in accord with Butler's way of thinking, created parodies. One, recalled by Martin Gardner, editor of Best Remembered Poems, went:
- The boy stood on the burning deck,
- The flames 'round him did roar;
- He found a bar of Ivory Soap
- And washed himself ashore.
- The boy stood on the burning deck
- Whence all but he had fled -
- The boy stood on the burning deck
- His lips were all a-quiver
- He gave a cough, his leg fell off
- And floated down the river.
Prominent Indian poet Ayyappa Paniker wrote a poem with the same title, "Casabianca", which also talks about the son's obedience. In Paniker's poem, the boy does not die and returns home. This surprises everyone including his father and the media who believed he had died.
- ....'Oh no, comrades, my son was that type;
- he'd never have gone to where pictures are taken.
- He did look more or less like me; so, sirs,
- if you please, you can take a picture of mine'.
- ' I'am here, very much here, oh Papa!'
- "Why We Should Memorize". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-12-02.
- ""Victorian Literature: an Anthology" (ed. Shea & Whitla)". Retrieved 2015-11-04.
- ""Victorian Parlour Poetry" Michael Turner". Retrieved 2015-11-04.
- "Elizabeth Bishop | "Casabianca" | poetry archive". plagiarist.com. 2002-03-02. Retrieved 2012-02-08.
- C. S. Forester, "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck", from The Man in the Yellow Raft. Short Stories (1969), reprinted in The Oxford Book of Sea Stories, ed. Tony Tanner (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- "Simply Spike — Michael Palin remembers Spike Milligan". The Guardian (London). 2002-02-28. Retrieved 2008-02-23.
- Full text of the poem at UPenn's Celebration of Women Writers