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The Revenge : A Ballad of the Fleet -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Guest poem sent in by Ashwin Menon
(Poem #1320) The Revenge : A Ballad of the Fleet
 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 English men.
 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 short summer night was gone,
 With a grisly wound to be dressed 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 flagship 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 honour 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.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Here's another narrative poem. I was a bit surprised that the minstrels have
not run this one before. I came across this poem when I listened to a song
called "Lord Grenville" by Al Stewart, and I was curious whether Grenville was
a historical character. A great song, by the way. For those interested in
comparing the song to the poem, I've added the song lyrics below.

The song:

Lord Grenville (by Al Stewart)

Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn
It's time to haul the anchor up and leave the land astern
We'll be gone before the dawn returns
Like voices on the wind.

Go and tell Lord Grenville that our dreams have run aground
There's nothing here to keep us in this shanty town
None of us are caring where we're bound
Like voices on the wind

And come the day you'll hear them saying
They're throwing it all away
Nothing more to say
Just throwing it all away

Go and fetch the captain's log and tear the pages out
We're on our way to nowhere now, can't bring the helm about
None of us are left in any doubt
We won't be back again

Send a message to the fleet, they'll search for us in vain
We won't be there among the reaches of the Spanish Main
Tell the ones we left home not to wait
We won't be back again.

Our time is just a point along a line
That runs forever with no end
I never thought that we would come to find
Ourselves upon these rocks again

Here's what has to say on the
incident described in the poem:

Sir Richard Grenville (1542-1591)

English Naval commander. He was sent with a fleet of
13 ships to intercept a Spanish treasure ship in the
Azores. On August 31 they received news that 53
Spanish ships were headed out to meet the treasure
ship. Other ships in the fleet weighed anchor and
headed out to sea. Grenville's ship, the Revenge, was
delayed and cut off. The ship was becalmed in the lee
of a large galleon. After a hand to hand battle
lasting 15 hours, involving 15 ships and 5000 men, the
Revenge was captured. Grenville was carried aboard the
Spanish flagship, where he died a few days later. The
exploit is commemorated in a poem by Tennyson titled
"the Revenge"

- Ashwin

38 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Ian Baillieu said...

In my opinion this ranks among the finest ballads ever
written. Tennyson had an unrivalled poetic ‘ear’. Here
he takes an extraordinarily heroic (and largely true) story,
starring one of those insanely brave and dashing sea-dogs
who helped ensure that Britannia would rule the waves (“I
never turned my back upon Don or devil yet”), and tells it
with absolute mastery of language. Throughout this long
poem, he varies remarkably the pace and the metre and the
rhyme patterns, evoking the ever-shifting, irregular
patterns of waves and wind at sea, and reflecting the
transition from episode to episode in the story. The
result is never less than just right. His imagery is
unforgettably vivid. He maintains the excitement and
interest to the very end.

One apparent technical blemish I mention as a curiosity, not
a serious criticism. He rhymes the word ‘again’ both with
‘Spain’ (in the second stanza) and with ‘men’ (in the fourth
stanza). I am happy to accept this small oscillation in
pronunciation (which also seems evident in the eleventh
stanza) as just another sea-change-style variation woven
into the poem.

Tennyson was not the only poet who wrote about the last
battle of ‘The Revenge’. Somewhere in a nineteenth century
anthology that I cannot now find I have a long ballad on the
same subject by the English poet and mystic philosopher,
Gerald Massey (1828-1907). Massey’s effort, which I
believe is the earlier, is feeble and tedious by comparison,
but if I do find it I may post some extracts as a matter of
interest, because he does use a few unusual and memorable
phrases strikingly similar to those used by Tennyson. So
much so that it looks as if Tennyson may have uplifted the
nuggets he found in the dull gravel of Massey’s work in
order to allow them to shine to more advantage in his own
masterpiece. A scholarly friend of mine has however put it
to me that both Massey and Tennyson must have been driven to
some extent by common reading of the available, more or less
contemporary accounts of the sea battle, especially those of
Sir Walter Ralegh and a Dutchman, Linschoten.

Those accounts, and the circumstances of the battle, are
extensively referred to by the late A.L Rowse (died 1997
aged 93) in a historical monograph entitled ‘Sir Richard
Grenville of the ‘Revenge’’, published by Jonathan Cape in
1937, and still occasionally available in second-hand

Eviebonzo said...

Hi, I trust I have the right Email address re 'The Revenge' I was pleased to
read this poem. I will explain why. I have compiled a book entitled
'Memories' included is a copy of part of a progamme my late father did for Radio
Stoke 'In Living Memory' My father was born in 1893 he says in the programme;
after a good meal there was a convivial atmosphere, singing, jokes etc. They
insisted I recite 'The Revenge' I always had to recite 'The Revege' wherever I
went. How lovely those bygone days when people took time to read Tennyson and
Longfellow. Reading about my dad's old school I noticed often the school
prizes were copies of such books.Sincerely Mrs Eveline Shore

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