Herve Riel *


On the sea and at the Hogue, sixteen hundred ninety-two,

Did the English fight the French,-woe to France! And, the thirty-first of May, helter-skelter thro’ the blue, Like a crowd of frightened porpoises a shoal of sharks

pursue, Came crowding ship on ship to St. Malo on the Rance, 5 With the English fleet in view.


'Twas the squadron that escaped, with the victor in full

chase; First and foremost of the drove, in his great ship, Dam

freville; sity,—then nature rises from her sweet ways of use and wont, and shows herself the Priestess, the Pythoness, the Divinity which she is. Or rather, through nature, the spirit of God addresses itself to the spirit of man."-Dowden.

*It is noticeable that of Browning's two grand ballads-Hervé Riel and How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Air-neither has an English inspiration. Hervé Riel records the heroism of a Breton sailor who guided the French squadron retreating from La Hogue, through the shallows of the river Rance, to a safe harb Browning follows history, except in one point which he overlooked-that Hervé Riel claimed holiday for life, instead of for one day.

The battle of La Hogue was fought May 19, 1692, in the war begun by Louis XIV. of France to secure his succession to the Palatinate. Other powers formed a “Grand Alliance" against him, and at La Hogue, between the peninsula of La Manche and the Isle of Wight, the French fleet was defeated by the English and Dutch feet, commanded by Admiral Russell. This victory transferred naval supremacy from France to England and Holland. Some of the French ships which retreated to Cherbourg were taken ; how others escaped, Browning here tells us.

This poem was first printed in the Cornhill Magazine, March, 1871. The hundred pounds which Browning received for it was given to a fund for the relief of Paris, then suffering from the Franco-German war.

5. St. Malo, on the river Rance, and La Hogue are on the north coast of Normandy.

8. Damfreville was the commander of the largest French ship.


Close on him fled, great and small,

Twenty-two good ships in all; And they signaled to the place Help the winners 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 leapt on board; “Why, what hope or chance have ships like these to pass?" laughed they:

16 “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 'tis ticklish for a craft of twenty tons,

And with flow at full beside?

Now 'tis 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?

30 Better run the ships aground!”

(Ended Damfreville his speech.)

18. Twelve and Eighty. A literal translation of he French quatre-vingtdouze.

30. Plymouth. One of the chief British naval stations.

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 undergoe her fate.


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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, third ? No such man of mark, and meet

41 With his betters to compete! But a simple Breton sailor pressed by Tourville for the


A poor coasting-pilot he, Hervé Riel the Croisickese.


And, “What mockery or malice have we here?” cries Hervé Riel:

45 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 swell 'Twixt the offing here and Grève where the river dis

embogues? Are you bought by English gold? Is it love the lying's for? Morn and eve, night and day,

51 Have I piloted your bay.

43. Tourville. The French admiral.

44. Croisickese. An inhabitant of Le Croisic. Le Croisic, the home of Hervé Riel, is a small fishing village on the south coast of Brittany.

46. Malouins. People of St. Malo.

49. Grève. The sands around Mont St. Michel. Disembogues (Sp. disemboca). Empties.

Entered free and anchored fast at the foot of Solidor.
Burn the fleet and ruin France? That were worse than

fifty Hogues!
Sirs, they know I speak the truth! Sirs, believe me
there's a way!

55 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 Grève,

61 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 life,-here's my head!” cries Hervé Riel.



Not a minute more to wait. “ Steer us in, then, small and great! Take the helm, lead the line, save the squadron!” cried its

chief. Captains, give the sailor place! He is Admiral, in brief.

70 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!

75 See, safe thro’ shoal and rock,

How they follow in a flock, Not a ship that misbehaves, not a keel that grates the ground,

Not a spar that comes to grief! The peril, see, is past,

80 All are harbored to the last,

53. Solidor. A fortified place on the French mainland.

And just as Hervé Riel hollas“ Anchor!”-sure as fate Up the English come, too late!



So, the storm subsides to calm:

They see the green trees wave

On the heights o'erlooking Grève. Hearts that bled are stanched with balm. “Just our rapture to enhance,

Let the English rake the bay, Gnash their teeth and glare askance

90 As they cannonade away! ’Neath rampired Solidor pleasant riding on the Rance!” How hope succeeds despair on each Captain's countenance! Out burst all with one accord, “ This is Paradise for Hell!

95 Let France, let France's King

Thank the man that did the thing!” What a shout, and all one word,

“ Hervé 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.

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Then said Damfreville, “ My friend,
I must speak out at the end,

Tho' 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!


89. The bay. Of St. Michel.
92. Rampired. An archaic form of “ramparted"; fortified.

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