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Bad poetry or good verse? Felicia Hemans’ “Casabianca”
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J. M. W. Turner, A Disaster at Sea (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The British newspaper The Guardian features, for its current “poem of the week”, Felicia Hemans’ widely anthologised poem “Casabianca”. Its discussion, aimed at the general (educated, literate) reader, focuses on the merits of the poem as poetry, and whether it still deserves to be read. The critic, poet and creative writing professor Carol Rumens, wonders whether the poem might be only distinguished for its attraction to parodists, including most famously Elizabeth Bishop, as well for its status as “ideal recitation material” (something on which Bishop’s parody hinges). Rumens is sympathetic to the historical significance of the poem, which bases its subject matter on an incident of French tragedy and heroism in the Napoleonic Wars: “its heart is in the right place”. But she sharply judges the poem for its bad technique:

As a whole, I’m afraid “Casabianca” punches at the weight of melodrama rather than tragedy. And, too often, the technique fails the sentiment.

Particularly criticised is the last line of the first stanza, “Shone round him o’er the dead”, which is faulted as “overloaded” as a rhyme and “truly awful”. The boy’s dialogue is also criticised as stilted and “overly elegant”, “as if he’s enunciating a part in a rather bad play”.

But I wonder if this is the point about Hemans’ “Casabianca”, that the technique precisely matches the poem’s conception of sentiment and its celebration of emotion and affect? By putting the poem in its historical and literary context, specifically the late Romantic and early Victorian poetic conventions of feminised domestic affections, the boy’s heroism is seen in light of his paternal fidelity. For example, although Rumens criticises Hemans for the possessive in the line “‘My father! must I stay?'” — she wonders whether the boy would indeed have said that, rather than simply “Father” — the poem does not announce an indexical relation to reality. Rather, it inserts itself within the conventions of idealised affective relationships, seen as the province of the woman poet, but at the same time unsettles this by throwing the spotlight on male emotions, and on French heroism at a time of British hostilities with France (Tricia Lootens’ essay is excellent on the topic of troubled patriotism and the disturbing horror of the poem). Unfortunately, although tackling the poem’s formal devices and finding them lacking, the Guardian discussion doesn’t include thoughts about the poem’s recitation-friendly ballad form, with its rising iambic metre that puts heavy stress on the “overloaded” end rhyme, signalling multiple sequential closures, just as the boy’s death through filial obedience is seen to be inevitable in the poem (the father will never answer him, of course). (See Catherine Robson’s compelling essay on “Casabianca”, iambs, heart beats and recitation). Through the use of the ballad form, Hemans signals that this is a folk tale of heroism and duty, not purely historical realism. It’s easy to dismiss this as “melodrama”, as Rumens does, and to regret that it’s not the tragic mode Rumens would rather have had Hemans attempt. But, in a nineteenth century context, the poem is surely far more interesting and its techniques much more compelling than her reading accounts for.

It might be expected of a scholar of Victorian poetry to want to defend Hemans in the face of this negative judgement, and through historical context to boot. But I do think it’s important not to lose sight of the cultural work of the poem. To dismiss it as bad poetry, or mere verse, seems to me like a knee-jerk reaction which, although attracting some very funny and effective parodies (and there’s a link to some of the amusing and rude ones in her article), does not do the poem justice.

The Guardian “poem of the week” raises some interesting questions for me about the accessibility of the kind of nineteenth-century poetry that was immensely popular in its day. Sentimentality, melodrama, affect, make modern readers uncomfortable and reaching for a parodic antidote. How should we/can we/must we make Victorian poetry accessible to modern readers? The online comments to this Guardian poem of the week discussion, largely dismissive of Hemans, demonstrate that we have much to do in advocating for our subject, and in disseminating and explaining what we find most exciting about the nineteenth-century poetry that we read, study and teach. This is especially urgent as more nineteenth-century scholars (and their students) turn to popular poetry, especially periodical poetry (“Casabianca” was first published in the New Monthly Magazine for August 1826). Modern readers don’t have to like Hemans, but to foster an understanding and appreciation of poems like “Casabianca” is surely an important agenda. As I mentioned before, the boy’s father cannot answer the boy’s questions — “He knew not that the chieftain lay / Unconscious of his son” — and I wonder if, somehow, and despite Hemans’ contemporary popularity, the poem thematises a nineteenth-century anxiety about the readership for poetry? In any case, such anxieties were unfortunately prophetic.

I’d be very interested in hearing from other Victorian poetry specialists about these issues. And, I have to admit, I’ve not myself always been successful in explaining to a more general audience about the significance of the sentimentality of Victorian poetry. Once, when a graduate student, I was invited to lead a discussion of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s late poem “My Heart and I” to a reading group of mature non-university educated women from a deprived part of Glasgow. (This is an anecdote I’ve told many times, so apologies if you’ve heard it from me before). I began by setting up the poem as both an inscription and critique (as I saw it) of Victorian sensibility. But then, when the group took turns to read out the poem’s stanzas, each participant started to weep, seeing (as they told me) poignant echoes of their own difficult lives in the poem’s refrain “So tired, so tired, my heart and I”. The overwhelming emotion in the room made it difficult for me, especially as an inexperienced teacher, to discuss the poem as a critique of affect, when the women were precisely responding to the poem’s evocation of intense and disappointed feeling as authentic to their lives. If I’m ever in that situation again, I would hope to work more effectively at turning the discussion around to look at why the poem sets up emotions as uncomfortable even if felt as authentic, especially through the insistent repetitions of the refrain. But that incident demonstrated powerfully to me how big the gap is between academic readings and how the public approach poetry. Isn’t it time we explained ourselves better?

Felicia Hemans, “Casabianca”

1 The boy stood on the burning deck,

2    Whence all but he had fled;

3 The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,

4    Shone round him o’er the dead.

 

5 Yet beautiful and bright he stood,

6    As born to rule the storm;

7 A creature of heroic blood,

8    A proud, though child-like form.

 

9 The flames roll’d on–he would not go,

10    Without his Father’s word;

11 That father, faint in death below,

12    His voice no longer heard.

 

13 He call’d aloud–“Say, Father, say

14    If yet my task is done?”

15 He knew not that the chieftain lay

16    Unconscious of his son.

 

17 “Speak, Father!” once again he cried,

18    “If I may yet be gone!”

19 –And but the booming shots replied,

20    And fast the flames roll’d on.

 

21 Upon his brow he felt their breath,

22    And in his waving hair;

23 And look’d from that lone post of death,

24    In still, yet brave despair.

 

25 And shouted but once more aloud,

26    “My Father! must I stay?”

27 While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,

28    The wreathing fires made way.

 

29 They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,

30    They caught the flag on high,

31 And stream’d above the gallant child,

32    Like banners in the sky.

 

33 There came a burst of thunder sound–

34    The boy–oh! where was he?

35 –Ask of the winds that far around

36    With fragments strew’d the sea!

 

37 With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,

38    That well had borne their part–

39 But the noblest thing which perish’d there,

40    Was that young faithful heart.

(text from RPO)

Further reading

Tricia Lootens. “Hemans and Home: Romanticism, Victorianism, and the Domestication of National Identity.” PMLA 109 (March 1994), pp. 238-53

Catherine Robson. “Standing on the Burning Deck: Poetry, Performance, History.” PMLA, 120 (January 2005), pp. 148–162

“Felicia Hemans”. Victorian Web.

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Bad poetry or good verse? Felicia Hemans’ “Casabianca” by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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