Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, HERVE RIEL, by ROBERT BROWNING

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HERVE RIEL, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: On the sea and at the hogue, sixteen hundred ninety-two
Last Line: The belle aurore!
Subject(s): France; Heroism; Hogue, La, Battle Of; Sea; Heroes; Heroines; Ocean

ON the sea and at the Hogue, sixteen hundred
Did the English fight the French -- woe to France!
And the thirty-first of May, helter-skelter through
the blue,
Like a crowd of frightened porpoises a shoal of
sharks pursue,
Came crowding ship on ship to St. Malo on the
With the English fleet in view.
'T was the squadron that escaped, with the victor
in full chase;
First and foremost of the drove, in his great ship,
Close on him fled, great and small,
Twenty-two good ships in all;
And they signalled to the place,
"Help the winner's of a race!
Get us guidance, give us harbor, take us quick;
or, quicker still,
Here's the English can and will!"
Then the pilots of the place put out brisk, and
leaped on board;
"Why, what hope or chance have ships like
these to pass?" laughed they
Rocks to starboard, rocks to port, all the passage
scarred and scored,
Shall the 'Formidable,' here with her twelve-and-
eighty guns,
Think to make the river-mouth by the single
narrow way,
Trust to enter where 't is ticklish for a craft of
twenty tons,
And with flow at full beside?
Now 't is slackest ebb of tide.
Reach the mooring? Rather say,
While rock stands, or water runs,
Not a ship will leave the bay!"
Then was called a council straight:
Brief and bitter the debate.
"Here's the English at our heels: would you have
them take in tow
All that's left us of the fleet, linked together stern
and bow;
For a prize to Plymouth Sound?
Better run the ships aground!"
(Ended Damfreville his speech.)
"Not a minute more to wait!
Let the captains all and each
Shove ashore, then blow up, burn the vessels on
the beach!
France must undergo her fate!"
"Give the word!" But no such word
Was ever spoke or heard:
For up stood, for out stepped, for in struck, amid
all these,
A captain? a lieutenant? a mate, -- first, second,
No such man of mark, and meet
With his betters to compete!
But a simple Breton sailor, pressed by Tour-
ville for the fleet,
A poor coasting-pilot, he, -- Herve Riel, the Croi-
And "What mockery or malice have we here?"
cried Herve Riel.
"Are you mad, you Malouins? Are you cowards,
fools, or rogues?
Talk to me of rocks and shoals? -- me, who took the
soundings, tell
On my fingers every bank, every shallow, every
'Twixt the offering here and Greve, where the
river disembogues?
Are you bought for English gold? Is it love the
lying's for?
Morn and eye, night and day,
Have I piloted your bay,
Entered free and anchored fast at the foot of Soli-
Burn the fleet, and ruin France? That were
worse than fifty Hogues!
Sirs, then know I speak the truth! Sirs, be-
lieve me, there's a way!
Only let me lead the line,
Have the biggest ship to steer,
Get this 'Formidable' clear,
Make the others follow mine,
And I lead them, most and least, by a passage I
know well,
Right to Solidor past Grave,
And there lay them safe and sound;
And if one ship misbehave,
-- Keel so much as grate the ground,
Why, I've nothing but my live; here's my head!"
cries Herve Riel.
Not a minute more to wait.
"Steer us in, then, small and great!
Take the helm, lead the line, save the squad-
ron!" cried its chief.
Captains, give the sailor place!
He is admiral, in brief.
Still the north wind, by God's grace.
See the noble fellow's face,
As the big ship, with a bound,
Clears the entry like a hound,
Keeps the passage, as its inch of way were the wide
sea's profound!
See, safe through shoal and rock,
How they follow in a flock;
Not a ship that misbehaves, not a keel that grates
the ground,
Not a spar time comes to grief!
The peril, see, is past!
All are harbored to the last!
And, just as Herve Riel hollas "Anchor!" sure as
Up the English come, -- too late!
So the storm subsides to calm;
They see the green trees wave
On the heights o'erlooking Greve;
Hearts that bled are stanched with balm.
"Just our rupture to enhance,
Let the English rake the bay,
Gnash their teeth, and glare askance
As they cannonade away!
'Neath rampired Solidor pleasant riding on her
How hope succeeds despair on each captain's coun-
Out burst all with one accord,
"This is paradise for hell!
Let France, let France's king,
Thank the man that did the thing!"
What a shout, and all one word,
"Herve Riel!"
As he stepped in front once more;
Not a symptom of surprise
In the frank blue Breton eyes, --
Just the same man as before.
Then said Damfreville, "My friend,
I must speak out at the end,
Though I find the speaking hard;
Praise is deeper than the lips:
You have saved the king his ships;
You must name your own reward.
Faith, our sun was near eclipse!
Demand whate'er you will,
France remains your debtor still.
Ask to heart's content, and have! or my
name's not Damfreville."
Then a beam of fun outbroke
On the bearded mouth that spoke,
As the honest heart laughed through
Those frank eyes of Breton blue:
"Since I needs must say my say,
Since on board the duty's done,
And from Marlo Roads to Croisic Point, what is it
but a run? --
Since 't is ask and have, I may;
Since the others go ashore, --
Come! A good whole holiday!
Leave to go and see my wife, whom I call the
Belle Aurore!"
That he asked, and that he got, -- nothing more.
Name and deed alike are lost;
Not a pillar nor a post
In his Croisic keeps alive the feat as it befell;
Not a head in white and black
On a single fishing-smack
In memory of the man but for whom had gone to
All that France saved from the fight whence
England bore the bell.
Go to Paris; rank on rank
Search the heroes flung pell-mell
On the Louvre, face and flank;
You shall look long enough ere you come to
Herve Riel.
So, for better and for worse,
Herve Riel, accept my verse!
In my verse, Herve Riel, do thou once more
Save the squadron, honor France, love thy wife,
the Belle Aurore!

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