The poem commemorates an actual incident that occurred in 1798 during the Battle of the Nile aboard the French ship Orient. The young son Giocante (his age is variously given as ten, twelve and thirteen) of commander Louis de Casabianca remained at his post and perished when the flames caused the magazine to explode.
In Hemans' and other tellings of the story, young Casabianca refuses to desert his post without orders from his father. (It is sometimes said, rather improbably, that he heroically set fire to the magazine to prevent the ship's capture by the British.) It's said that he was seen by British sailors on ships attacking from both sides but how any other details of the incident are known beyond the bare fact of the boy's death, is not clear. Hemans, not purporting to offer a history, but rather a poem inspired by the bare facts, writes:
Hemans has him repeatedly, and heart-rendingly, calling to his father for instructions: "'Say, Father, say/If yet my task is done;'" "'Speak, father!' once again he cried/'If I may yet be gone!;'" and "shouted but once more aloud/'My father! must I stay?'" Alas, there is, of course, no response.
She concludes by commending the performances of both ship and boy:
This poem was a staple of elementary school readers in the United Kingdom and the United States over a period of about a century spanning, roughly, the 1850s through the 1950s. It is today remembered mostly as a tag line and as a topic of parodies. Perhaps to justify its embedding in English-speaking culture, modern editors often claim French poets also celebrated the event - notably André Chenier and Ecouchard Lebrun - apparently without noticing that the former was executed four years before the Battle of the Nile, so could not have written about these events. These claims for literary pedigree appear spurious.
McGuffey's New Fourth Eclectic Reader (1866) takes this poem as the topic of Lesson LV. After urging the reader to "Utter distinctly each consonant: terrible, thunders, brave, distant, progress, trust, mangled, burning, bright," it introduces and presents the poem, following it with a set of questions: "What is this story about? Who was Casabianca? By whose side did he stand in the midst of battle? What happened to his father? What took fire? What did the sailors begin to do? What did the little boy do? Why did he stand there amid so much danger? What became of him?"
In the 1961 British sci-fi/ black comedy "The Day the Earth Caught Fire", Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) recites the famous opening line as he reports to work on what could well turn out to be doomsday.
A character in Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh draws an unorthodox moral from the poem:
Then he thought of Casabianca. He had been examined in that poem by his father not long before. 'When only would he leave his position? To whom did he call? Did he get an answer? Why? How many times did he call upon his father? What happened to him? What was the noblest life that perished there? Do you think so? Why do you think so?' And all the rest of it. Of course he thought Casabianca's was the noblest life that perished there; there could be no two opinions about that; it never occurred to him that 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.
A version of the poem by American poet Elizabeth Bishop refers to elements of Hemans's original work as an allegory for love.
In History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984), Kamau Brathwaite alludes to the poem as an example of imperial education and hopes those who have had to recite its lines will be able to express themselves in 'nation language' (Caribbean patois) instead of 'imposed' language and poetry.
The first line of the poem serves as the title and the inspiration for the short story "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" by C. S. Forester. In this version the hero, Ed Jones, remains at his station aboard the fictitious USS Boon during the Battle of Midway. A fire started in the bilge beneath his station in the engine room, but Jones remained at his station slowly roasting while the battle rages. At the conclusion of the battle he is relieved by a damage control party. Burned, he nonetheless survives the war.
The story is referenced in Bram Stoker's Dracula. In chapter VII, in a newspaper account of the great storm, the dead pilot of the ship Demeter is compared to "the young Casabianca." (Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897).
The poem is referenced in Ian Fleming's Moonraker. When Commander James Bond intends to set the moonraker on fire in a suicide action, he tells his accomplice, Gala, with a cynical tone, "The boy stood on the burning deck. I've wanted to copy him since I was five."
The poem is recited in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by character Peter Guillam, after the "safe-house" used by the mole is discovered and inspected. Guillam seems to do this in order for others to test the planted microphone, although this isn't explicitly stated.
The opening line is quoted by the character Sergeant Major Jonas Blane, as he prepares his team member for a difficult task ahead of them, "The boy stood on the burning deck...that'd be us!" in the TV drama The Unit (Season 4, Episode 16, "Hill 60").
In the sitcom Gilligan's Island Season 2, Episode 15, "Erika Tiffany Smith to the Rescue," as the Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.) prepares to express his affection for Erika Tiffany Smith (Zsa Zsa Gabor) with poetry, he parodies the opening line, "The boy stood on the burning deck, his feet were filled with blisters!"
In the BBC Radio 4 sitcom Cabin Pressure Series 1, Episode 6, "Fitton," Douglas (Roger Allam) makes fun of Martin (Benedict Cumberbatch) by parodying the opening line of the poem, "The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled!", which is immediately followed up by "His heart was in his mouth but, lo! His cap was on his head!" from Carolyn (Stephanie Cole).
Generations of disrespectful schoolchildren, perhaps in accord with Butler's way of thinking, have created parodies. One, recalled by Martin Gardner, editor of Best Remembered Poems, went:
Spike Milligan also parodied the opening of the poem:
Eric Morecambe created another parody:
The boy stood on the burning deck