Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

Hervé Riel

T HE poet Robert Browning discovered the story of a brave Breton sailor and wrote this poem concerning it. At first it was doubted whether the story was true, but a search of the records of the French navy proved that the facts described actually happened.

The events took place during the war between Louis XIV of France and William III of England in 1692. The French king was fighting the English in order to try to restore James II to his throne. Admiral Tourville, and the French fleet joined battle with the English off Cape La Hogue, and were defeated there May 31, 1692. The French ships were put to flight and headed for the old fortified seaport of St. Malo on the Brittany coast at the mouth of the river Rance.

The great fleet, sailing full in the wind, signaled to St. Malo to give them harbor or the English would take them. The pilots of St. Malo put out in their small boats and reached the fleet, but told the captains it would be impossible to steer such great vessels through the narrow channel and up the shallows of the Rance.

The French captains called a council, and were about to order their ships beached and set on fire rather than surrendered when a simple coasting-pilot, named Hervé Riel, a sailor from the Breton town of La Croisic, who had been pressed into service by Admiral Tourville, stepped out and told them he knew every turn of the channel and could take the fleet through. He asked them to let him steer the biggest ship, the Formidable, and he would save them all, or pay the price of failure with his head.

The captains gave the Breton pilot charge, and true to his word he steered the whole fleet up the Rance to safety. The English ships reached the harbor just in time to see the French escape them.

Captains and men cheered Hervé Riel, and Damfreville, in command, told him to name his own reward and, whatever it might be, he should have it. For his great service Hervé Riel simply asked for a day's holiday in order that he might go back to La Croisic to see his wife, whom he called "La Belle Aurore."

To complete his poem Browning says that there is no record of the brave sailor in his native town nor among the heroes of France who are painted in the Louvre at Paris, and offers the tribute of his verse to the daring man who saved the French fleet from the English and for reward asked to see his wife.

Browning wrote this poem at the time when Paris was besieged by the Germans in the winter of 1870—1871. He sent it to the Cornhill Magazine, saying they might have it for £100, which he would give to the fund to aid the starving people of Paris. The money was paid him, and given to help the French when the siege had ended.

Hervé Riel

by Robert Browning


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 Saint Malo on the Rance,

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, Damfreville;

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 harbour, 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 '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?

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, third?

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?" cries Hervé 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 swell,

'Twixt the offing here and Grève where the river disembogues?

Are you bought by English gold? Is it love the lying's for?

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, they know I speak the truth! Sirs, believe 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 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.


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.

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 that comes to grief!

The peril, see, is past,

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

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

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!

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.


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 Malo Roads to Croisic Point, what is it but a run?—

Since 'tis 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 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!

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!

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee  |  Next: The Leak in the Dike
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.