The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck

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One of the most popular poems in the Victorian Age - for recitation and for private reading - was undoubtedly Casabianca or, as it is invariably known, "The boy stood on the burning deck." It is a poem that was learned by heart in hundreds of schools across the country and was taken to portray the ideals of English courage.

And that's strange because the boy in question was French and the woman who wrote it spent large parts of her life in Wales, calling herself "Welsh by adoption."

Felicia Dorothea Hemans was born Felicia Browne in Liverpool on 25 September 1793. Her paternal grandparents were Irish and the maternal ones from Lancashire but Felicia moved with her parents to Abergele while she was still young.

Felicia Hemans

A further move to St Asaph only convinced her that Wales was her natural home. She spent the whole of her childhood and adolescence surrounded by the Welsh mountains and hills. In later life her descriptions of those hills and countryside were regarded by many as the best work she ever produced.

Felicia's first poem was published in 1808 - a praise poem to the Prince of Wales - when she was just 14 years old. It so impressed the poet Shelley that he sent her a letter of congratulations and continued to correspond with her on a regular basis.

Marriage to Captain Alfred Hemans meant a move away from Wales and Felicia settled in Daventry until 1814. It was not a happy marriage although five children were born to the couple before they separated in 1819. During the years of her marriage she continued to write and publish, slowly establishing her name on the literary scene.

She produced several volumes of verse, some of them, like Records Of Women and Songs Of Affection, addressing women's issues - in an age long before Women's Lib or even the advent of suffragettes. Her book Welsh Melodies appeared in 1821 and was an instant success.

Hemans died of dropsy on 16 May 1835. She was buried in St Ann's Church on Dawson Street in Dublin, where she had lived since 1831.

She was held in such high regard that both Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor both wrote memorial verses in her honour.

These days Hemans's rather florid style has gone out of fashion but there can be few who have not heard at least some of the lines of her most famous poem:

"The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled."

It is the story of Louis de Casabianca at the Battle of the Nile, a boy sailor who remains at his post until finally explodes in a deluge of smoke and flame. He will not jump over the side because the captain of his ship Orient - who also happens to be his father - is already dead and cannot give him permission to save himself. It is 19th century sentimentality at its height - small wonder that the people and the critics loved the poem.

Casabianca has been parodied many times, usually involving copious amounts of food: 

"The boy stood in the waiting room
Whence all but he had fled.
His waistcoat was unbuttoned,
His mouth was gorged with bread."

Of course, the inevitable happens - the boy explodes leaving the maids to mop up the remains of "breadcrumbs and the tea."

Felicia Hemans was a poet of her time, a woman who wrote about issues others shunned or were afraid to address. Above all, she was a woman who was proud to be - in her words - adopted Welsh.

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