The boy stood on the burning deck; whence all but he had fled;
Felicia Hemans 1739-1835
From the age of seven my two grandmothers lived upstairs. I could and frequently did pop in and spend time with them I liked visiting them and I also liked the chocolate or sweet they could always ‘find’ for me:)
They would tell me stories of when they were young, teach me tongue twisters and introduced me to poetry.
My grandmothers loved this poem, my father’s mother in particular.When I was very young I would thrill when either of them recited it, which they would frequently. I would cry as well, as they would, mourning the brave little fellow who would not leave his post until his father said he could.
‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
If yet my task is done!
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on,
I imagined the captain telling his young son to stay at his post, be a brave boy. Imagined the boy watching all the crew jumping overboard, manning the boats, or dying at his feet. Imagined the captain croaking on his last breathe to save his son. Ah it was beautiful:)
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart!
Then I grew a little older, joined the swinging sixties, and began to to see through the sentimental romanticism of it all. Why did none of the men fleeing scoop up the boy,save their captain’s beloved son? Why did the boy not run from the flames and save himself, surely he would guess his father didn’t want him to die.
No I was disenchanted with this poem for a long time. Discovered it wasn’t even about a British boy, a true story but one of the enemy! An event that happened in 1798 for goodness sake. I was living in the present. My grandmothers had died I no longer heard it recited with passion. Forgot it.
Then years later I read the poem again. Trying to figure out what had appealed so much to them. I was old enough by then to imagine another time, another mindset. Go back to 1800s – their time. Back to Empire, their days, to when brothers and cousins were sent to far off nations to bring glory to these islands. when they all hoped their menfolk would behave bravely against all odds. Back to a time of heroes and the English stiff upper lift. We haven’t always been known for stiff lips it is a comparatively new even in the British psyche.
The women left back home, while their menfolk wandered through endless dangers far from home, were fed a steady diet of hope and propaganda.
Heroes were not made at adulthood, heroes were trained from infancy. With the drip feeding of a code of honour, of an attitude, of the ‘stiff upper lip’. This poem is about the young hero, a boy full of duty, keeping promises, willing to die for honour. The grannies as many other women wept over the little fellow taken to heaven so soon, it didn’t matter what nationality he was, it was the bravery which mattered , the courage so admired.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm-
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, through childlike form.
This boy may have grown to be a Shackleton, a Scott or even a Titus Oates leaving his companions to go out into the blizzard and certain death to help give his friends a chance at life. He could have.
My grandmothers were patriots through and through and they had their heroes. Not film stars, not footballers, but the brave(if foolishly so sometimes), full of dare and do. I grew up on tales of these men and women.
Then the world changed after the mess and loss of two world wars, the loss of the empire people’s tastes turned away from those heroes of old, away from romanticism bravery and nationhood. Our stiff lips grew weaker and then dissolved into a different kind of romanticism. I imbibed the grandmothers version and haven’t embraced the new.
I like my heroes old fashioned. The heroes in my books have all the old fashioned attitudes I grew up with. I admire the qualities my grandmother admired. Honesty, honour, truthfulness, loyalty. Grit and endurance, never say die and get on with it attitude. That little boy I wept over in childhood probably promised his father he wouldn’t move until told to and though he was scared he kept his promise. He didn’t desert the ship he was his fathers son and went down with the ship as the son of a captain should.
The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
I have revisited this poem again now, older than my grannies were when I first heard it, because in my latest book a scenario with similarities has just been written, after I have finished the writing of the chapter I was reminded again of the boy. It had obviously lingered in my self conscious all these years. My boy (a girl) does get away from the flames, and feels guilt for having not obeyed her mother. The poem plus my common sense 60s attitude come together. Nothing heard or seen is ever wasted:)
This quote is part of Silver Threading’s Writer’s Quote series. Writer’s who have helped inspire my writing and my life. Pop over and follow other quotes there are many inspiring posts