An Image of an Abandoned Boy on a Ship Deck in Hermann’s and Bishop’s Poetry
In, A Figure a Poem Makes, Robert Frost claims, “We do till we make the discovery that the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other…We need the help of context-meaning-subject matter.” This brings forth the question can two poems written about the same historical event and character significantly differ from each other? “Casabianca”by Felicia Dorothea Hemans and “Casabianca” by Elizabeth Bishop provide a medium to test Frost’s assertion as both poems deal with an abandoned boy on the deck of a burning ship during a naval battle.
The first of the two poems to be penned, by Hemans, deals with the context of the boy in ten quatrains with ABAB rhyme scheme which allow the poem more emotional development and movement as it progresses. The lines, “The flame that lit the battle’s wreck/Shone round him o’er the dead” occur in the initial stanza of the poem and establish a gruesome tone to the poem by establishing the setting of a young boy in the midst of a battlefield. As the poem moves forward however, the assigned heroic nature of the boy contradicts the previously established macabre tone, “Yet beautiful and bright he stood/As born to rule the storm;/A creature of heroic blood.”The new description of heroism prompts emotional movement and energy within the poem as it offsets the otherwise bleak image of a young boy amidst a burning ship. The introduction of a father-son relationship in the third stanza, “The flames roll’d on-he would not go/Without his father’s word” presents an opportunity to insert the notion of love into the poem as this relationship has traditionally been seen to involve such an emotion.The introduction of love or loyalty into the poem provides another instance of increased emotional depth. The boy’s hesitancy to abandon the obviously doomed vessel allows the speaker to explore the relationship with his father as, during this indecision, the boy calls out to his father three separate times, but, “That father, faint in death below,/his voice no longer heard.” Located in the crows nest and able to see everything below him, the boy likely suffers from shock since the signs of battle surround him, his crew is dead beneath him, and there is little hope for his own survival. His calls for his father not only amplify his shock and panic, but they also provide the poem momentum as the reader feels death is creeping upon the boy faster and faster. The fourth stanza has the boy calling to his father in a measured tone which is supported by the description, ”call’d aloud.” The line, “Speak, Father!” once again he cried” found in the following stanza escalates the situation which provides the aforementioned momentum to the poem. The exclamation point, as well as his repetitious calls to his father, provides the reader a sense of tragic desperation within the boy. The concept of bravery re-enters the poem in the sixth stanza, interjecting itself between the second and final plea from the boy, “In still, yet brave despair.” Furthermore, this stanza foreshadows the eminent death of the boy. Whereas previously in the poem the boy has discussed the dead crew in relation to the boy with words such as “faint” or “unconscious” which imply a large separation between the boy and death, the sixth stanza brings death closer to the boy, “He felt their breath,” and, “…”that lone post of death.”. The poem fails to directly specify who the “their” in the quote refers to, but seems to be that of the dead crew below him. The boy’s final call is the most desperate of all as he pleads, “…must I stay?” While the reader must be prepared for the death of the boy, Hemans makes it especially gruesome by having the boy blasted by cannon. The ninth stanza slows down the building momentum in the poem as closure for the boy in the form of his death has been presented. The poem concludes in the final stanza by reintroducing the concept of heroism to the boy“But the noblest thing which perish’d there was that young faithful heart!” By the conclusion of the poem, the reader has traveled a journey with the boy. A.R. Ammons describes this journey as the poem talking a walk and in this case the reader has been walked through the final moments of the boy’s life in which Hemans explores the emotional complexity of war by placing an innocent child in the midst of a battle.
In 1946, Elizabeth Bishop wrote another adaptation of, “Casabianca,” whose inspiration can be seen as Hemans original work. The first line of Bishop’s poem, “Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck” is nearly identical to the first line in Heman’s poem, “The boy stood on the burning deck.” Immediately, the question arises whether this will be a simple retelling of the same story, but the first line of Bishop’s poem includes the word “love” which suggests this will not be the case. Whereas Heman’s poem, explores the concept of love indirectly, if at all, through a father-son relationship, Bishop has provided evidence that the concept of love will be explored directly in her poem. At only two sestets in length, Bishop’s poem permits less opportunity for emotional movement, but it presents another difference between the two poems by allowing the reader to focus directly on a specific theme or aspect of the original story. Bishop utilizes the setting, context, and story established by Heman’s to explore the concept of love in a broader sense. In the first stanza, “Love’s the son/stood stammering elocution/while the poor ship in flames went down” The speaker describes the boy’s calls as acts of love or acts that a loved one will perform. By beginning the sentence with “Love’s” the speaker assigns the boy’s acts to love and establishes a metaphor which will continue throughout the poem. The second stanza begins by echoing this sentiment, “Love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,/ even the swimming sailors…” However, the speaker broadens the metaphor through the inclusion of the inanimate ship and the sailors. In Heman’s poem, the sailors, dead in the Hemans poem, are infused with the life by describing them as “swimming” which is an action doable only by the living. By giving life back to the sailors, the speaker empowers the metaphor and gives it more energy. Furthermore, the previous line states, “while the poor ship in flames went down.” By immediately following this line with a connection between love and the ship, the speaker opens the door for the introduction of fire into the metaphor of love. In line ten, “…And love’s the burning boy.” The speaker echoes the initial line of the poem. The subtle, but impactful difference between these lines involves the placement of, “burning” in front of the boy. By setting the boy on fire, the poem makes a connection between the boy and the ship as the metaphor for love in line six includes both the ship and the boy are on fire in the final lines of stanzas one and two respectively.Line ten ends the poem with a graphic image of a boy on fire, which contradicts the traditionally pleasant notion of love. Therefore, the concept of love and burning connect both the boy and the ship together. Ending the poem by restating themetaphor of love with respect to the boy supports the notion that Bishop utilizes this poem to explore an underdeveloped aspect of the Hemanspoem. While the end Heman’s poem had the reader asking questions such as, “Why didn’t the boy abandon the ship, why was the boy on the ship, and why did Heman’s have the boy be so brutally killed?” Bishop’s poem explores the notion of love in relation to the boy. Whereas Heman’s poem can be interpreted literally for the most part, the metaphor of love established in the initial line of the poem opens the door for the reader to draw conclusions about the concept of love in general.
If a poem is a walk as Ammons suggests, then both of these poems traveled on a path. It can be seen that Bishop travels along the same path as Heman’s, but, intrigued by the concept of love in the original poem, chose to fork off the path and create her own walk which birthed a new poem. Not addressed as directly in Hemans’ work,Bishop’s poem introduces and explores the idea of love as well as its possible implications. Hemans merely suggested the aspect of love by creating a relationship between father and son in which the son would not abandon the ship. Bishop expands upon this relationship and walks her own path for the poem which also enriches the first poem. Each poem, while dealing with the same subject and context, contains drastically different thematic approaches. Heman’s explores the final moments of a boy in a burning ship, bringing to the forefront the issue of innocents in war while Bishop utilizes implied love between a father and son to explore the concept of love as a whole. Ultimately, this confirms the world of opportunity for the modern day poet. A poem which comes as an inspiration from another poem can be its own work entirely and provide new perspectives as well as enrich the original poem.
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