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

The Revenge

T HIS ballad of the Revenge tells a true story of the war that was fought between Queen Elizabeth of England and Philip II of Spain. A fleet of six English ships was overtaken at the Azore Islands in August, 1591, by fifty-three Spanish men-of-war, many of them of very large size and carrying big guns. The English ships were in need of repairs, and many of their sailors were ill on shore. The Admiral, Lord Thomas Howard, seeing how great were the odds against him, gave orders to fly at once. But Sir Richard Grenville, commander of the small ship Revenge, said that more than ninety of his crew were ill on shore, and that he could not leave them there to fall into the hands of the Spaniards, who would treat them as heretics and ill-use them.

The Admiral left with his five ships, and Sir Richard carried all his sick sailors, men from Bideford in Devonshire, on board the Revenge, while they blessed him for not surrendering them to the cruel Spaniards. Then he sailed from the Azores, with a crew of only a hundred men.

The Spanish fleet, built so high at bow and stern that they looked like castles on the water, caught up with the Revenge. Sir Richard sent his little craft straight through the enemy's men-of-war, and fought them all that afternoon and all that night. At dawn they were still fighting, and then Sir Richard wanted to sink his ship rather than let her fall into the hands of Spain. But his men protested, saying they could get honorable terms of surrender from their foes.

Sir Richard was wounded and dying when his men yielded. The Spaniards carried him like a hero to their flag-ship, where he died. Then they manned the little Revenge with their own crew, and the whole fleet set sail. But that night a great gale rose and shattered the Spanish fleet, and together with the other ships the Revenge sank at sea.

Tennyson follows the account of the actual sea-fight closely. The words of Sir Richard as he fell on the deck of the Spanish man-of-war are said to have been: "Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind; for I have ended my life as a good soldier ought to do, who has fought for his country and his queen, for his honor and religion."

The Revenge

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
(A Ballad of the Fleet)
(August, 1591)

At Flores in the Azores, Sir Richard Grenville lay,

And a pinnace, like a fluttered bird, came flying from far away:

"Spanish ships-of-war at sea! we have sighted fifty-three!"

Then sware Lord Thomas Howard: " 'Fore God I am no coward;

But I cannot meet them here, for my ships are out of gear,

And the half my men are sick. I must fly but follow quick.

We are six ships of the line; can we fight with fifty-three?"

Then spake Sir Richard Grenville: "I know you are no coward;

You fly them for a moment to fight with them again.

But I've ninety men and more that are lying sick ashore.

I should count myself the coward if I left them, my Lord Howard,

To these Inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain."

So Lord Howard passed away with five ships-of-war that day,

Till he melted like a cloud in the silent summer heaven;

But Sir Richard bore in hand all his sick men from the land

Very carefully and slow,

Men of Bideford in Devon,

And we laid them on the ballast down below;

For we brought them all aboard,

And they blest him in their pain, that they were not left to Spain,

To the thumbscrew and the stake, for the glory of the Lord.

He had only a hundred seamen to work the ship and to fight,

And he sailed away from Flores till the Spaniard came in sight,

With his huge sea-castles heaving upon the weather-bow.

"Shall we fight or shall we fly?

Good Sir Richard, tell us now,

For to fight is but to die!

There'll be little of us left by the time this sun be set."

And Sir Richard said again: "We be all good Englishmen.

Let us bang these dogs of Seville, the children of the devil,

For I never turned my back upon don or devil yet."

Sir Richard spoke and he laughed, and we roared a hurrah, and so

The little Revenge ran on sheer into the heart of the foe,

With her hundred fighters on deck, and her ninety sick below;

For half of their fleet to the right and half to the left were seen,

And the little Revenge ran on through the long sea-lane between.

Thousands of their soldiers looked down from their decks and laughed,

Thousands of their seamen made mock at the mad little craft

Running on and on, till delayed

By their mountain-like San Philip that, of fifteen hundred tons,

And up-shadowing high above us with her yawning tiers of guns,

Took the breath from our sails, and we stayed.

And while now the great San Philip hung above us like a cloud,

Whence the thunderbolt will fall

Long and loud,

Four galleons drew away

From the Spanish fleet that day,

And two upon the larboard and two upon the starboard lay,

And the battle-thunder broke from them all.

But anon the great San Philip, she bethought herself and went,

Having that within her womb that had left her ill-content;

And the rest they came aboard us, and they fought us hand to hand,

For a dozen times they came with their pikes and musqueteers,

And a dozen times we shook 'em off as a dog that shakes his ears,

When he leaps from the water to the land.

And the sun went down, and the stars came out far over the summer sea,

But never a moment ceased the fight of the one and the fifty-three.

Ship after ship, the whole night long, their high-built galleons came,

Ship after ship, the whole night long, with her battle-thunder and flame;

Ship after ship, the whole night long, drew back with her dead and her shame.

For some were sunk and many were shattered, and so could fight us no more—

God of battles, was ever a battle like this in the world before?

For he said, "Fight on! fight on!"

Though his vessel was all but a wreck;

And it chanced that, when half of the summer night was gone,

With a grisly wound to be drest, he had left the deck,

But a bullet struck him that was dressing it suddenly dead,

And himself, he was wounded again in the side and the head.

And he said, "Fight on! fight on!"

And the night went down, and the sun smiled out far over the summer sea,

And the Spanish fleet with broken sides lay round us all in a ring;

But they dared not touch us again, for they feared that we still could sting,

So they watched what the end would be.

And we had not fought them in vain,

But in perilous plight were we,

Seeing forty of our poor hundred were slain,

And half of the rest of us maimed for life

In the crash of the cannonades and the desperate strife;

And the sick men down in the hold were most of them stark and cold,

And the pikes were all broken or bent, and the powder was all of it spent;

And the masts and the rigging were lying over the side;

But Sir Richard cried in his English pride,

"We have fought such a fight, for a day and a night,

As may never be fought again!

We have won great glory, my men!

And a day less or more

At sea or ashore,

We die—does it matter when?

Sink me the ship, Master Gunner—sink her, split her in twain!

Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!"

And the gunner said "Ay, ay," but the seamen made reply:

"We have children, we have wives,

And the Lord hath spared our lives.

We will make the Spaniard promise, if we yield, to let us go;

We shall live to fight again and to strike another blow."

And the lion there lay dying, and they yielded to the foe.

And the stately Spanish men to their flag-ship bore him then,

Where they laid him by the mast, old Sir Richard caught at last,

And they praised him to his face with their courtly foreign grace;

But he rose upon their decks, and he cried:

"I have fought for Queen and Faith like a valiant man and true;

I have only done my duty as a man is bound to do:

With a joyful spirit I, Sir Richard Grenville, die!"

And he fell upon their decks, and he died.

And they stared at the dead that had been so valiant and true,

And had holden the power and glory of Spain so cheap

That he dared her with one little ship and his English few;

Was he devil or man? He was devil for aught they knew,

But they sank his body with honor down into the deep,

And they manned the Revenge with a swarthier, alien crew,

And away she sailed with her loss and longed for her own;

When a wind from the lands they had ruined awoke from sleep,

And the water began to heave and the weather to moan,

And or ever that evening ended, a great gale blew,

And a wave like the wave that is raised by an earthquake grew,

Till it smote on their hulls and their sails and their masts and their flags,

And the whole sea plunged and fell on the shot-shattered navy of Spain,

And the little Revenge herself went down by the island crags,

To be lost evermore in the main.

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