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A BLOT IN THE SCUTCHEON
Robert Browning (1812–1889), of a cultivated but unassuming family, was not a university man, and gained his remarkably wide knowledge, as Shakespeare did, by himself. His early work he wrote especially under the influence of Shelley. He published his first poem, Pauline, in 1833, and The Ring and the Book, his longest and greatest, in 1868-9, and maintained his literary fertility till his death. His most original and characteristic poems are his dramatic lyrics, ead the terse revelation of a soul. In 1846 he married Elizabeth Barrett, the poetess, and thereafter lived most of the time in Florence and Venice.
A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, the most actable of Browning's nine or so of dramas, was written in 1843 with marvelous speed -- in four or five days — at the request of the actor and theater-manager Macready. Owing to financial straits, when it came to the point the latter was unwilling to put it on, but instead of candidly telling Browning his difficulties, behaved in an indirect and churlish manner which was intended to give him a hint to withdraw the play, but which Browning did not understand. To foil Macready's attempts to alter the play excessively, Browning had it printed in a few hours, and published it as No. V of Bells and Pomegranates. As a play it was only moderately successful, owing partly to Macready's negligence. His ill conduct in the matter led to a breach in his long friendship with Browning, and this removed one of the poet's inducements to the writing of drama. A Blot in the 'Scutcheon has been revived numerous times down to the present, as in 1848, 1885 and 1888.
Browning had in high degree certain of the qualifications of the dramatist, and lacked others. Of the latter the chief is in the construction of plots, which he usually, as in the present case, invented. In A Blot in the 'Scutcheon he admitted extraordinary improbabilities. Certain of the lovers' tragic errors are accounted for by their extreme and thoughtless youth; but it is too much that after Mildred had exclaimed (11. i) that her lover was lost if he returned that night, she should herself signal for him and just as she was expecting him admit her brother. Strange too that the keenwitted Guendolen should not avert the lover's coming; and that titled families with adjoining estates should barely know each other. The song in act II, one of the very finest of Browning's love-lyries, becomes almost
ludicrous when we realize that it is sung at a window-sill a great height above the ground. Elsewhere too the structure leaves something to be desired. That admirable bit of insight on Guendolen's part (one of the keenly modern touches), her guessing that the lover is Mertoun, leads to no result whatever, There are also many long speeches and comparatively little action; Browning's like Shelley's interest in a story was usually in its psychology. The poet is not to be censured, though at first it shock's us, for making Mildred only fourteen years old, obviously in order to increase our tolerance and sympathy for her; under former social conditions people matured earlier than today; in the Middle Ages canon law recognized girls as marriageable at twelve.
That we notice some of these defects is almost a tribute to Browning's genius; they stand out the more sharply against the trenchant reality of the play. And at other points it shows a wary foresight notable in a work so rapidly written. There is a thrill of dramatic irony in act II, scene i, where the light-hearted Guendolen twice chasss her cousin in his hidden anguish about finding an imaginary blot in Mertoun's 'scutcheon; and another in act I. iii., when Guendolen is about to say that the women of their race are all chaste, and Mildred pitifully interrupts. Mildred's sudden death is made intelligible by her heart-seizures earlier (I, iii, II). In the first scene of all, the irascible indifference to the approaching marriage shown by old Gerard, the favorite of Mildred, who used to care about the least thing " that touched the House's honor," warns the seeing eye that all is not sound. We are thus allowed the pleasure, no small one, of pointed surmise. But such subtleties in structure are not what Browning chiefly cared for; in his dramas as in his other work, and as Wordsworth said of his own poetry, it is the feeling which gives importance to the incident, and not the incident to the feeling Emotion and personality, these are the two things which made the world so inexhaustibly interesting to Browning; that they are the life and soul of drama, of which plot is only the body, is what drew him now and again to its stimulating domain. Whatever his people do or leave undone, we certainly feel their reality. Guendolen is the embodiment of energetic sensitive life — with her merry heart, her tart, chaffing tongue, her intuition,
her loyalty, almost a sister to Shakespeare's Mertoun's, unthinking youth and impetuous Beatrice; alas that she had not Beatrice's love. Brother and sister have traits in comfortune! Thorold is the spring of the mon; the tragedy is a family tragedy. It is action, with his nobility and love, his stiffness the more intense because all the characters and egoism, partly due to family pride, partly have our sympathy, and all rise to the highest adopted to hold in his nervous impulsive na- dignity at their ending. We admire Mertoun ture, tense at times with the strain between for passing from submission to severity in his his agitation and his self-control. He de- last words to Thorold, and Mildred for passceives himself; he is far less moved by ing from severity to submission. But the brotherly love than by his notion of dignity. intensity is most of all due to the sense of His worship of family honor is not intelli- the needlessness of the ruin. As in the tragic gently and reasonably woven into his whole story of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini in view of the world, it is a superstitious re
the fifth canto of Dante's Inferno, a wayligion which must not be adapted or dis
ward twist has defeated what should have cussed. He had half-meant to expose his sis- been beauty and happiness. ter to Austin and Guendolen even before he In style the play shows Browning at his learned the supposed culmination of her simplest. Aware that he must be instantly shame, her apparent resolve to marry yet to understood, he obviously strove to avoid the keep her lover. His reckless impulsiveness close-packed intricacy and subtlety of much in calling in the two to face her makes in- of his poetry. There is a little of it, as even telligible his suddenness in killing Mertoun. the actors have felt. Mr. Charles Fry, who Mildred and Mertoun are far less individu- was concerned in one of the last revivals duralized, and justly so. They are high-bred ing Browning's life, told the present editor in emotional youth, and nothing else, the em- 1911 a characteristic anecdote. At a bodiment of an ever-recurring human tragedy: hearsal Mr. Fry said to the poet, “ Mr.
Browning, I fear you will think me very Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!
stupid, but I don't understand the meaning Over and over again their youth wins our of this line I have to speak.” Browning took compassion where they would excite only im- the book and looked at it, and said, “ Dear me, patience if they were adult. Their hateful I don't know what it means.' Browning false position requires of them the very thing never liked to give the impression of taking their lack of which got them into it — cool his own work over-seriously; still, the rewariness, worldly wisdom. They cannot nerve mark may console some of those whom he has themselves to the brief sharp necessities of puzzled. There is but little, however, of such their situation. Mertoun at his first appear- trouble in this play. It abounds in passages ance half-betrays himself to Austin, who sees of significant brevity and simple distinction. through his unskilful feigning. His boyish Few poets have oftener rivaled Shakespeare hero-worship for Thorold, of which he tells in the dramatic nerve of his style. him as he is dying, makes the cool hypocrisy There could hardly be a greater contrast required of him at their first meeting doubly than between this play and The Lady of impossible to him. The lovers' childish wil- Lyons, even aside from their difference in exfulness and impatience in planning another cellence; yet both well illustrate the drama secret meeting brings their death; Mildred's of the nineteenth century. The interest of the childish timorous procrastination of her in- latter play is dispersed, is in the plot and terview with her brother brings their death. external showy incident; the characters are Her moment of caution when she tries to call little studied, the morals popular and superMertoun back is defeated by his being out of ficial, the style and the general type of play hearing of her low voice. The play is wholly unoriginal and traditional. The interest in a tragedy of human individualities, not of so- Browning's play is condensed, intense, and incial conditions or of any particular age. It ternal; is in the expression and clash of is vaguely in the not very remote past, an personalities. As we see in The Lady of age of coaches and periwigs, long cloaks, Lyons certain of the literary currents and swords and even cross-bows; in the eighteenth tastes of the century, we see here its freedom century, Browning says. But externals from the literary orthodoxies and compulsion are unimportant; there is nothing arbitrary. which have so largely controlled the earlier The strength of the play as a tragedy is that drama, and withheld so many men from fully the ruin is not due to chance, but follows re- expressing their larger selves. We may see morselessly from the personalities involved, here the modern love of concrete th rather from the clash of Thorold's unthinking and than of preconceived ideals. impetuous sense of honor with Mildred's, and
A BLOT IN THE 'SCUTCHEON
HENRY, Earl Mertoun.
To lay his heart and house and broad
lands too SCENE 1. The interior of a lodge in At Lady Mildred's feet: and while we Lord Tresham's park. Many Retainers
squeeze crowded at the window, supposed to com
Ourselves into a mousehole lest we miss mand a view of the entrance to his man- One congee? of the least page in his sion. Gerard, the warrener, his back to a train, table on which are flagons, etc.
You sit o' one side "there's the Earl," 1st Retainer. Ay, do! push, friends, and “What then ?" say you ! then you 'll push down me!
I'll wager he has let - What for? Does any hear a runner's Both swans he tamed for Lady Mildred foot
swim Or a steed's trample or a coach-wheel's Over the falls and gain the river! cry?
Ralph, Is the Earl come or his least poursuivant ? Is not to-morrow my inspecting-day But there's no breeding in a man of you For you and for your hawks? Save Gerard yonder: here's a half-place 4th Ret.
Let Gerard be! yet,
He's coarse-grained, like his carved black Old Gerard!
cross-bow stock. Gerard. Save your courtesies, my friend. Ha, look now, while we squabble with Here is my place.
him, look! 2nd Ret.
Now, Gerard, out with it! Well done, now-is not this beginning, What makes you sullen, this of all the
To purpose ? [ the year? To-day that young rich 1st Ret.
Our retainers look as fine bountiful
That's comfort. Lord, how Richard Handsome Earl Mertoun, whom alone
holds himself they match
With his white staff! Will not a knare With our Lord Tresham through the
Prick him upright? Is coming here in utmost bravery 1
He's only bowing, fool! To ask our master's sister's hand ?
The Earl's man bent us lower by this Ger.
much. 2nd Ret. What then? Why, you, she
1st Ret. That's comfort. Here's a very speaks to, if she meets
cavalcade! Your worship, smiles on
as you hold 3rd Ret. I don't see wherefore Richard. apart
and his troop The boughs to let her through her forest Of silk and silver varlets there, should walks,
find You, always favorite for your no-deserts, Their perfumed selves so indispensable You've heard, these three days, how Earl On high days, holidays! Would it so Mertoun sues
disgrace 1 splendor.
2 salutation, obeisance.
Our family, if I, for instance, stood-
- With Hugh The logman for supporter, in his right The bill-hook, in his left the brushwood
shears! 3rd Ret. Out on you, crab! What next,
what next? The Earl! 1st Ret. Oh Walter, groom, our horses,
do they match The Earl's? Alas, that first pair of the
sixThey paw the ground-Ah Walter! and
that brute Just on his haunches by the wheel ! 6th Ret.
Ay-ay! You, Philip, are a special hand, I hear, At soups and sauces: what's a horse to
you? D'ye mark that beast they've slid into
the midst So cunningly?-then, Philip, mark this
further; No leg has he to stand on! 1st Ret.
No? That's comfort. 2nd Ret. Peace, Cook! The Earl de
scends. Well, Gerard, see The Earl at least! Come, there's a
proper man, I hope! Why, Ralph, no falcon, Pole or
Swede, Has got a starrier eye. 3rd Ret.
His eyes are blue: But leave my hawks alone! 4th Ret.
So young, and yet So tall and shapely! 5th Ret. Here's Lord Tresham's self! There now—there's what a nobleman
should be! He's older, graver, loftier, he's more like
A House's head. 2nd Ret.
But you 'd not have a boy -And what's the Earl beside ?-possess
too soon That stateliness? 1st Ret. Our master takes his handRichard and his white staff are on the
moveBack fall our people—(tsh !—there's
friend's; And the whole beautiful bright company Close round them in they go!
(Jumping down from the window-bench, and making for the table and its jugs.)
Good health, long life, Great joy to our Lord Tresham and his
House! 6th Ret. My father drove his father first
to court, After his marriage day-ay, did he ! 2nd Ret.
God bless Lord Tresham, Lady Mildred, and the
Drink, my boys! Don't mind me-all's not right about me
-drink! 2nd Ret. (Aside.) He's vexed, now, that
he let the show escape! (To Gerard.) Remember that the Earl
returns this way. Ger. That way? 2nd Ret.
Just so. Ger.
Then my way's here.
(Goes.) 2nd Ret.
Old Gerard Will die soon-mind, I said it! He was
used To care about the pitifullest thing That touched the House's honor, not an
eye But his could see wherein: and on
cause Of scarce a quarter this importance,
Gerard Fairly had fretted flesh and bone away In cares that this was right, nor that was
wrong, Such point decorous, and such square by
ruleHe knew such niceties, no herald more: And now-you see his humor: die he
will! [1st] Ret. God help him! Who's for the
great servants’-hall To hear what's going on inside? They'd
follow Lord Tresham into the saloon. 3rd Ret.
I! 4th Ret.
I!Leave Frank alone for catching, at the
door, Some hint of how the parley goes inside! Prosperity to the great House once more!
Here's the last drop! 1st Ret. Have at you! Boys, hurrah!
SCENE 2. A Saloon in the Mansion. (Enter Lord Tresham, Lord Mertoun, Aus
tin, and Guendolen.)
Tresham. I welcome you, Lord Mertoun,
yet once more, To this ancestral roof of mine. Your
-Noble among the noblest in itself,
wear, Transmitted from a hundred knightly
breasts, Fresh chased and set and fixed by its last
lord, Seems to re-kindle at the core)—your
Would win you welcome !Mertoun.
-But add to that, The worthiness and grace and dignity Of your proposal for uniting both Our Houses even closer than respect Unites them now-add these, and you
must grant One favor more, nor that the least,--to
think The welcome I should give;,'t is given!
My lord, My only brother, Austin : he's the king's. Our cousin, Lady Guendolen-betrothed
To Austin: all are yours. Mert.
I thank you-less For the expressed commendings which
your seal, And only that, authenticates—forbids My putting from me ... to my heart I
take Your praise ... but praise less claims
my gratitude, Than the indulgent insight it implies Of what must needs be uppermost with Who comes, like me, with the bare leave
to ask, In weighed and measured unimpassioned
words, A gift, which, if as calmly 't is denied, He must withdraw, content upon his
cheek, Despair within his soul. That I dare ask Firmly, near boldly, near with confidence That gift, I have to thank you. Yes,
Lord Tresham, I love your sister-as you'd have one
love That lady ... oh more, more I love her!
Wealth, Rank, all the world thinks me, they're
yours, you know, To hold or part with, at your choice
My true self, me without a rood of land,
is loving, Austin! Austin.
He's so young! Guen. Young? Old enough, I think, to
half surmise He never had obtained an entrance here,
Were all this fear and trembling needed. Aust.
Mark him, Austin; that's
We'll sit, my lord.
1 out faults, Is somewhat. Mildred's hand is hers to 1
But you, you grant my suit!
My best of words
Have you seen Lady Mildred, by the way! Mert. 1...1... our two demesnes, re
member, touch; I have been used to wander carelessly After my stricken game: the heron
And-and then ... I have seen her.
Of faltering out that, when a lady passed,
foot; Observed a red, where red should not
have been, Outside her elbow; but was pleased
enough Upon the whole." Let such irreverent
talk Be lessoned for the future! Tres,
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