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Casabianca -- Elizabeth Bishop

Guest poem submitted by Ben Morrison,
whose birthday it is today. Happy Birthday, Ben!
(Poem #999) Casabianca
 Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
 trying to recite "The boy stood on
 the burning deck". Love's the son
        stood stammering elocution
        while the poor ship in flames went down.

 Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
 even the swimming sailors, who
 would like a schoolroom platform, too
        or an excuse to stay
        on deck. And love's the burning boy.
-- Elizabeth Bishop
This Bishop poem isn't one that typically makes it in the anthologies, but
it is perhaps my favorite, and since it is love poetry week, it's entirely

It's so simple: four sentences all with the same noun/verb
contraction--"love's".  The image of "burning" love is a cliché, but the
build from the poor boy trying to talk to the ship and all the other sailors
and then back to the burning boy is what makes this poem work. The lens
widens from the poor boy to everything else and then, finally, back to the
boy. This is the enviable boy who gets to stay on deck and burn.

It's not pretty. It's sacrificial. It's about being powerless, not being
able to say ("trying to recite") what you are and where you are. It's not
pastoral. If you actually imagine someone burning, it's downright
horrifying, but I guess that's the point. Even when reading it, the reader
envies the boy and wishes that he/she too was on the deck and burning.


[Minstrels Links]

Elizabeth Bishop:
Poem #639, One Art
Poem #734, In the Waiting Room

Love poetry, the week so far:
Poem #997, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love -- Christopher Marlowe
Poem #998, A Blade of Grass -- Brian Patten
Poem #999, Casabianca -- Elizabeth Bishop

50 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mansell Erin said...

I'm sorry but this poem makes little sense to me at all. The boat is the
Casabianca and love is a/the boy on the burning deck of the boat? After
that it becomes even more opaque. Love is a son reciting badly that the
ship is burning while the ship is burning? Really? And the whole scene is
love? Replace love with evil and the poem makes more sense which is finally
enlightening me to the meaning of this poem that the boy with his love set
the ship on fire...Maybe? Well, in any case I'm glad she isn't in many
anthologies if this is the nonsense she writes. I'll leave you with this
poem. As I've mentioned before please do not publish my email address.

Cause and Effect
the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away

Bill O'Brien said...

Elizabeth Bishop's poem Casabianca is burnt into bricks in the Davis
square t station in Somerville, MA. Commuters unknowingly walk over the
hidden words. A
Mexican immigrant mop washed the bricks with dirty water. The words
filled with water and became visible.

lpaganin said...

This poem is indeed, as a reader above opines, one of Bishop's most opaque.
It's also atypical among her work: It appears in her debut book along with a
minority of similarly abstruse poems. The rest of the poems in that
book--and the overwhelming majority of work in the later books--exhibit the
piercingly clear, minutely detailed descriptions of objects and trains of
thought that would increasingly characterize her verse. She observed every
cogent detail and exactingly described it, increasingly avoiding subjective,
expressionistic forays as her writing developed. (A phrase often used in
commentary on the poet is "Bishop's eye.") Insight and meaning arrive subtly
out of accumulated details--Bishop never thrusts her meaning in your face.
That she could fit these crystalline observations into complex, challenging
forms of poetry--some forms classical (i.e., sestinas), some forms her own
inventions--while maintaining the voice of an everyday speaker, is a
remarkable feat. She deserves her place as (according to many critics) one
of the five most important American poets of the latter half of the 20th
century. [As for Bukowski: I like his intense compression and very short
lines; and his direct, accessible descriptions of moments of despair. But
Bishop found those things as her poetry progressed (if not as prolifically
as Bukowski's), and she found them while playing with an expansive diversity
of forms both simple and complex. Bukowski developed a few types, or forms,
and stuck with them, over and over.] ...I'll try to leave a Bishop
poem--"Song for the Rainy Season"--on this site (if that's possible, and if
it's not already on the site). It's a great poem, the effects of which sneak
up on you in the course of a single reading and after more readings. Also,
the loose rhyme scheme--a device she would develop more and more--creeps
into your awareness as the poem goes on, and during later readings. A good
poem to read out loud. One of my favorites.

music said...

This is an obvious comment--but Bishop's poem didn't make logical sense to me until I became aware of Hemans' Casabianca, which you can find on this site as well. Read the comments for Hemans' poem and you'll discover it is a poem grade-school children once learned by heart--hence Bishop's paradox of the boy reciting a poem about his own death.

In the original poem, the boy is waiting to hear from his father before he leaves the ship, not realizing his father is dead below deck. Bishop's poem turns the boy's death into a choice, and for me, this choice is what Bishop equates with "love" throughout the poem.

Joseph Shuffield

eric swain said...

I believe 'the boy' is a metaphor throughout for 'love.' His experiences are all feelings that surround love. Whether that be good or bad!

'Obstinate' meaning that love is stubborn; it will not move or go away even if it may be almost forced to. The sailors are envious of this and want 'an excuse' to remain or even experience being on deck, specifically, to be feel or atleast be near Love, i.e. 'the boy.'

At first the sailors didn't not even realise the boy (i.e. Love) was there until he was gone, an additional experience of those who have experienced this feeling of being in love!!!!!


amy xx

Robert Frump said...

First saw this on the subway in New York City and could not get its rhythyms
and images out of my head. I think it less than opaque in one sense. The
boy on the burning deck was a popular 19th century poem, as I recall, where
the poor kid is told to stay on the deck by his father who perishes and the
boy even though faced by death by fire does not dive into the water. Out of
love, duty, honor, he follows his father's literal orders though it means
certain death. Here, we see the boy reciting the old poem, aware of the
plight, concious of what will happen to him and even then his love for his
father keeps him becomes a more existential, conscious act...or
so I think.

Beyond that though...of course...yes, it is opaque and beautifully so....

Bob Frump

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