Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. VII. Descriptive: Narrative
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume VII. Descriptive: Narrative.  1904.
 
Narrative Poems: VII. France
Hervé Riel
Robert Browning (1812–1889)
 
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 through 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.
 
’T was the squadron that escaped, with the victor in full chase;
  First and foremost of the drove, in his great ship, Damfreville;
    Close on him fled, great and small,
    Twenty-two good ships in all;        10
And they signalled 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 leaped on board;        15
  “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,        20
    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!”        25
 
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.)
“Not a minute more to wait!
  Let the captains all and each
  Shove ashore, then blow up, burn the vessels on the beach!        35
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, third?        40
    No such man of mark, and meet
    With his betters to compete!
    But a simple Breton sailor, pressed by Tourville for the fleet,
A poor coasting-pilot, he,—Hervé Riel, the Croisickese.
 
And “What mockery or malice have we here?” cried 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 offering here and Grève, where the river disembogues?
Are you bought for English gold? Is it love the lying ’s for?        50
    Morn and eve, night and day,
    Have I piloted your bay,
Entered free and anchored fast at the foot of Solidor.
  Burn the fleet, and ruin France? That were worse than fifty Hogues!
    Sirs, then 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,        60
  Right to Solidor past Grève,
    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.        65
 
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 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 that comes to grief!
  The peril, see, is past!        80
  All are harbored to the last!
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        85
  On the heights o’erlooking Grève;
Hearts that bled are stanched with balm.
  “Just our rupture 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 her 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;        100
        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,        105
        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!        110
      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,        115
        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 Malo Roads to Croisic Point, what is it but a run?—        120
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.        125
 
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        130
In memory of the man but for whom had gone to wrack
  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;        135
  You shall look long enough ere you come to Hervé Riel.
So, for better and for worse,
Hervé Riel, accept my verse!
In my verse, Hervé Riel, do thou once more
Save the squadron, honor France, love thy wife the Belle Aurore!        140
 
 
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