LESS THE PRICE OF THE MEDAL


Felicia Hemans

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

In 1962, the year the Pope excommunicated Fidel Castro

and the USA and USSR went toe-to-toe,

I won the Felicia Hemans’ prize for lyric poetry,

open to students and alumni of the University of Liverpool.

 

Mrs Hemans, born in Liverpool, but living

most of her life in North Wales, a best selling poet,

a child prodigy, a prolific adult, whose work

was admired by Wordsworth and Landor, an influence

on Tennyson and Longfellow, a model even

for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote Casabianca

‘The boy stood on the burning deck…’ –

which was compulsory learning in, for example,

US elementary schools until the ‘50s.

 

 

THE PRIZE: 1962

 

I chortled when I learned what she had written.

As a boy, I knew two of the cod versions verbatim:

 

‘The boy stood on the burning deck

Selling peas at a penny a peck.

Did he wash his dirty neck?

Did he heck! Did he heck!’

 

or, again, and even better:

 

‘The boy stood on the burning deck

With half a sausage round his neck.

A squashed tomato in his eye,

That’s the way a boy should die!’

 

I guffawed when I learned of the prize –

twenty seven shillings and sixpence,

less the price of the medal.

 

 

THE PRIZE: 2013

 

Of course, I still have the medal. It is on the mantelpiece

next to an antique silver-framed photo of our daughter aged 4.

It has accompanied me from Liverpool to Birkenhead to Chester.

The medal is cast bronze, discus-shaped, the size of a

Wagon Wheel, the biscuit that is, and weighs nearly two pounds.

On one side, the handsome Mrs Hemans is proud,

framed by her name, her dates, a lyre and an olive branch.

She is in profile with her splendid ringlets.

On the other, an angel, an olive branch in both hands,

blesses the muse, Erato, who inclines, bare breasted and

languorous, over her lyre.  My name and the year are engraved

on the edge. The medal cost seven shillings and sixpence.

 

 

MRS HEMANS

 

Her mother is the daughter of the Liverpool consul

for Austria and Tuscany and her father a wine merchant

until the Napoleonic Wars – in which her brothers fight –

bankrupt him. The family moves to an isolated,

ancient mansion on the North Wales coast at Gwrcyh –

the rolling Irish sea to the north, a high outcrop

of jagged limestone to the south – the ideal place

for a precocious romantic poet. (She will wear,

throughout her adult life, a brooch enclosing a lock

of Byron’s hair, but will not tell how it came to be hers).

Schooled by her mother, she becomes fluent in French,

Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and knows some German

and a little Latin; she learns the harp and the piano;

plays folk music from Ireland and Wales.

 

At fourteen, she publishes her first book of poems – funded

by nearly a thousand subscribers. Shelley acquires a copy,

learns of her beauty through a mutual acquaintance

and begins a correspondence. Her mother ends it.

 

Her father emigrates to Canada to revive his fortune

but dies bankrupted in Quebec. Shortly after,

at sixteen, with her mother’s reluctant agreement,

she becomes betrothed to a Captain Alfred Hemans,

a regimental comrade of her brothers, some years

her senior. At 18, her mother consenting, she marries.

 

The militia regiment he commands is disbanded and,

lacking means, they move in with his mother-in-law.

Five sons later he leaves for Rome. The couple correspond,

mostly about the boys, but never meet again.

 

In effect, a single parent, frequently ill, inevitably depressed,

she pays for her sons’ education through her writing.

After her mother’s death, she moves to Dublin

to live with one of her brothers, now a general

i/c the Irish forces. She becomes bedridden

as a result of a stroke, has a number of heart attacks

and dies aged forty one.

 

 

CASABIANCA

 

The boy in the poem is Giocante de Casabianca,

the deck that of the French flagship, L’Orient,

which took Napoleon to Egypt. Giocante’s father

is the ship’s captain, the boy, a midshipman.

The incident, as recorded by the victorious British,

takes place in the Battle of the Nile. The lad, who might be

as young as 10, calls to his father to release him

from his duty on deck – but his father is dead below.

The rest of the crew, it seems, have already abandoned ship.

When the flames reach the magazine, all is smithereens.

 

The true Casabianca, by a sister of soldiers and a mother of boys

in a country continually, enthusiastically gung ho for war,

ends with horror – and with a subtle, honest judgement

that the monotonous, constricting ballad metre

almost successfully hides until the last two lines

with their inspired, brave change of rhythm:

 

‘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.’

 

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by John Chapman - February 26th, 2013 at 11:53

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    Picking his nose like mad
    He rolled them into little balls
    And flicked them at his dad.

    And so on.

    An interesting piece about a poet I previously knew nothing about. Thank you, David.

  2. #2 by David Selzer - February 26th, 2013 at 17:42

    Another one to add to the collection. Perhaps there will be more.

  3. #3 by Sarah Selzer - February 26th, 2013 at 20:52

    Fascinating! I had no idea of her background or frankly that she wasn’t a frumpy rich widow who gave money in her dotage for a prize in her name! I probably haven’t taken enough notice of the medal (which is the size of a large cookie!) so will give it another look next time we’re up. Would make a great screenplay Mr S!!!

  4. #4 by John Chapman - February 27th, 2013 at 09:44

    You asked if there are any more so here is one which is correct to the best of my recollection:

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    His hands were full of plunder
    But the loot he held was such a weight
    He drowned when she went under.

  5. #5 by Adrian Ackroyd - March 4th, 2013 at 17:51

    Never knew FDH lived in Wales – learn something new each day. Mr Evetts frowned when boys made them up in class at King’s!

    Eric Morecambe had the best known parody:

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    His lips were all a-quiver
    He gave a cough, his leg fell off
    And floated down the river.

    Spike Milliagan did a typically irreverent one of:

    the boy stood on the burning deck – whence all but he had fled – Twit!

  6. #6 by David Selzer - March 4th, 2013 at 19:22

    Excellent, Adrian, thank you. I think we have the makings of an anthology here.

    I remember ‘Tec’ Evetts fondly. He encouraged my creative writing in a slightly ambivalent way. He would give us, for weekend homeworks, essay titles from previous O level English papers. I would write short stories. He would provide supportive comments while giving me a low mark as a reminder that ‘essay’ does not mean ‘short story’!

  7. #7 by Adrian Ackroyd - March 5th, 2013 at 10:32

    I like this anonymous comment – particularly the truism in the last sentence!

    Casabianca is an epic poem about the Battle of the Nile and the French ship, Orient, (commanded by Louis de Casabianca) catching fire, and his young son, Giocante, refusing to desert his post without being ordered to do so by his father (who, unknown to Giocante, was already dead). The ship subsequently exploded in one of the largest fireballs of the pre-dynamite age. Famously parodied by Spike Milligan – his use of the word “twit” could describe Louis de Casabianca’s entire strategy in that battle.’

    A few more for the anthology:

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    And wished he’d not been born.
    His mother said he wouldn’t have been
    If the condom hadn’t torn.

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    His feet were covered in blisters
    He had no trousers of his own
    And so he wore his sister’s

    The boy stood on the burning deck
    His pockets full of crackers
    One slipped down his trouser-leg
    And blew off both his – .

  8. #8 by Lesley Johnson - March 16th, 2013 at 15:51

    Dad taught me that one. He had great reservations but was of the generation (born 1902) that were soaked in patriotic rhetoric. Besides, he hated the sea. Had had to sign up to the Merchant Navy in order to become a top engineer (he wound up maintenance supervisor for Shell Mex at Stanlow/also in Holland). He couldn’t afford to go to university (his father died when he was eight and he was raised in a cellar – all they could afford to rent – by his Mum). So he earned all his three tickets via correspondence course. In his final exams he was marked at 99%. He received a letter from the Board: “We award nobody 100%. We have deducted 1% for the ink blot.”

    Byron must’ve been bald as the proverbial coot! As for Shelley, Felicia did well to avoid that.

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