For many years I genuinely believed the poem began:
The boy stood on the burning deck
The ship was sinking fast.
And as he stood there sinking too
His captain floated past.
In fact it’s a little more Poetic than that. The poem – which, face it, just asks to be parodied – is “Casabianca” (not to be confused with the Bogart movie with a very similar but not quite identical name). The boy is the son of Captain Casabianca, captain of the French flagship Orient. The deck is burning because it’s the Battle of the Nile, and in a few short minutes the flames will reach Orient’s gunpowder stores and the ship will blow up quite spectacularly, killing the captain, the boy and most of the rest of the crew. True fact.
(The French fleet had moored bow-to-stern parallel to the shore, so that any enemy attack would have to be along one side only and they would have a reasonable chance of fighting off any aggressors. Nelson disgracefully worked out that there was space for some of his ships to sail between the line and the shore, so the French ships were attacked from both sides at once. Of such base, deceitful, unsporting treachery is one of the Royal Navy’s greatest victories made.)
The boy cries out during the poem to his father, asking to be relieved of his station, but his father is either already dead or at least unconscious. No order comes, the boy holds his station to the bitter end and *BOOM*. With a choke in its voice and a catch in its throat, the poem concludes:
There came a burst of thunder sound–
The boy–oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!–
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.
Hmm. Let us leave aside such unPoetic questions as: how does the poet, who wasn’t even there, know what the boy was doing? And, is that penultimate verse really meant to make you giggle?
Wikipedia tells me two useful things. One is Samuel Butler’s thoughts on the poem:
“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.”
The other is that, during the action, the boy’s leg was apparently blown off. All of a sudden another possible explanation for his immobility becomes apparent.
The boy lay on the burning deck
His other leg lay near …
I’m probably missing the point entirely.