Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Revenge - A ballad of the fleet by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 Long narrative poems appeal to me for some strange reason. Noyes' The Highwayman, Kipling's Ballad of East and West, Macauley's Horatius at the Bridge, Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum, Service's Cremation of Sam McGee, and on and on. I usually manage to memorize a few lines of each and sometimes in the night reach for lines I cannot recall so I wake up and re read the poem. And so it was with The Revenge. 

Spanish Galleon
In the 16th century, the galleon was the standard ocean going battleship of the western European nations. The Spanish Galleons, as well as being armed with cannon, had high fore and aft castles which suited their battle tactic of boarding. The English Race-built Galleons had low fore and aft castles and depended on superior speed and maneuverability as well as superior gunnery to keep the Spanish at a distance. The most famous of these was The Revenge (of which some 13 ships were to carry the name eventually). 

The Revenge
The revenge was Sir Francis Drake's flagship in 1588 when the British defeated the Spanish Armada with help from the weather. In 1590, The Revenge, under Captain Martin Frobisher plied the Spanish Main to intercept bullion laden treasure vessels bound for Spain. In 1591, the British fleet, under Lord Thomas Howard was charged with patrolling the Spanish coastal area to blockage Spanish ships and prevent Spain from rearming as Phillip II did not give up easily. The Revenge was part of Howards patrol and captained by Sir Richard Grenville.

The Spanish set out with 53 ships to put an end to Howard's blockade when his small flotilla was harboured in the Azores with many sick and the ships in need of resupply. Tennyson says The Revenge had only a hundred seamen, while other sources say 250. Two hundred fifty was the standard crew size so I will go with Tennyson. So our story begins. 

The Revenge, a ballad of the fleet by Alfred Lord Tennyson

At Flores, in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay,

And a pinnace, like a flutter’d 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 past 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 thumb-screw 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 turn’d my back upon Don or devil yet.”


Sir Richard spoke and he laugh’d, and we roar’d 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 thro’ the long sea-lane between.


Thousands of their soldiers look’d down from their decks and laugh’d,

Thousands of their seamen made mock at the mad little craft

Running on and on, till delay’d

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 stay’d.


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 shatter’d 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!”

Tho’ 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 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 fear’d that we still could sting,

So they watch’d 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 maim’d 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 honor down into the deep.

And they mann’d the Revenge with a swarthier alien crew,

And away she sail’d with her loss and long’d for her own;

When a wind from the lands they had ruin’d 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-shatter’d navy of Spain,

And the little Revenge herself went down by the island crags

To be lost evermore in the main.

And away she sail’d with her loss and long’d for her own;...
...To be lost evermore in the main.


  1. I went through a period when I was interested in all things seafaring. Have you ever read the Horatio Hornblower series of British derring-do on the high seas?

    1. I quite enjoyed the Russel Crowe movie but have not read any of the books. I likely should. Those were ships of the line which replaced the galleons in the 17th century and by the time of the wars against Napoleon and America were essentially floating gun platforms.
      I have read Moby Dick and Farley Mowat's Grey Seas Under. Does that count?

  2. Swashbucking magnificence as only Tennyson could muster. I read this and enjoyed it. I was forced to read "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in school and hated it. What a difference 50 years makes.

    1. Theirs was not to reason why; Theirs was but to do or die.
      Cannons to right of them, cannons to left of them, Cannons in front of them, volleyed and thundered.
      Into the Valley of Death rode the Six Hundred.
      Tanya and I drove past the valley of death. Totally unspectacular, a flat plain with a rise of hills on both sides. If it were not marked we would have missed it. Cannons with good range would and did wreak havoc with massed cavalry in that open area

    2. Yes, 50 years makes a big difference. Except for Heart of Darkness. Still think it is a stupid book.

  3. Not a poem I have ever come across. Thank you. I wonder whether school children are still taught poetry (and required to memorise it). I hope so. I really hope so.

    1. Many poems I found in old readers. Horatius at the Bridge was in my Grade 9 Reader but expurgated. I found the original in my dad's old reader. sister Marie LeClaire was not impressed when I told her about the good gory stuff they left out.
      I've no idea what kids learn in the way of poetry these days in school or even what my kids learned. The bits and pieces of poetry I remember from the days of memory work have stood me in good stead over the years.

  4. I recall one of my grade school teacher reading "Cremation of Sam McGee.
    Coffee is on and stay safe

  5. only poem I liked was Lord Fauntleroy. Well, those by Poe.

  6. I haven't read the other poems you mention, but snippets from The Cremation of Sam McGee have stuck with me for years. I just looked up and read the whole thing again; and it made me chuckle as always.

    1. Don't you love the rollicking rhyme system Service uses in that poem? He once wrote he didn't consider himself a poet, more of a Rhymster. Read the Highwayman and Ballad of East and West. The other two are LONG and hard to read unless you are dedicated.

    2. We studied The Highwayman in high school, and I memorized a good chunk of it then. I can't remember where I read the Ballad of East and West; but it's familiar, too. Funny how these things come back from decades ago, but I can't remember what I did yesterday...

    3. Isn't that the truth. No idea when I first read them may be in highschool too.


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