Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

the burning deck on which the boy stood.

Those of us still on the burning deck of good usage believe that unique -- the paradigm of absolute solitude -- can never be modified with an insipid very, quite, rather, almost or practically. -- William Safire, "On Language," 6/24/2007, New York Times
I showed Sunday's "On Language" column to my beloved spouse because modifying the adjective "unique" bugs her -- and not wrongly so. The line quoted above made her laugh, but she didn't recognize the allusion to a ghastly 19th century poem, "Casabianca" by Felicia Hemans.

The poem commemorates an actual event from history. A man named Casabianca captained a ship in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. As his ship burned down, his 13-year-old son held his post.

Hemans's poem applauds the boy's faithful heart.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood, 5
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames roll'd on­-he would not go
Without his father's word; 10
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He call'd aloud-­"Say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?"
He knew not that the chieftain lay 15
Unconscious of his son.

"Speak, Father!" once again he cried,
"If I may yet be gone!"
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames roll'd on. 20

Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And look'd from that lone post of death
In still, yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud, 25
"My Father! must I stay?"
While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high, 30
And stream'd above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound­-
The boy­-oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around 35
With fragments strewed the sea!­-

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perish'd there
Was that young faithful heart! 40

Safire knows he's losing the usage war. His allusion to the poem -- which, I'm guessing, he may have learned in elementary school, back when people learned poems in school -- implies that the Father of Good Usage is always already dead, and his faithful sons (and daughters) can only cry for His guidance helplessly as they await their doom in the fiery battle.

This essay connects Alan Turing and his Turing test to the poem.

-- George Arnald (1763 - 1841), The Explosion Of L’Orient During The Battle Of The Nile

Yuk. I wish I'd never known. That's some f*&^ed up filial piety.
Just ghastly. The dark undersides of Victorian sentimentality -- or one of the dark undersides.

Safire's line *is* funny and good-humored, but only if you don't think about the allusion. And I would be surprised if he didn't have the poem in the back of his mind. But then, I don't think Safire really would go down with the ship in an argument over who is "most unique."
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