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Robert Browning (1812–1889). A Blot in the ’Scutcheon.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Act I Scene VI

Brother, she ridicules you to your face;

And I, though I don’t want to make you angry,

Must tell you candidly that she’s quite right.

Was such infatuation ever heard of?

And can a man to-day have charms to make you

Forget all else, relieve his poverty,

Give him a home, and then…?

Stop there, good brother,

You do not know the man you’re speaking of.

Since you will have it so, I do not know him;

But after all, to tell what sort of man

He is…

Dear brother, you’d be charmed to know him;

Your raptures over him would have no end.

He is a man … who … ah! … in fact … a man

Whoever does his will, knows perfect peace,

And counts the whole world else, as so much dung.

His converse has transformed me quite; he weans

My heart from every friendship, teaches me

To have no love for anything on earth;

And I could see my brother, children, mother,

And wife, all die, and never care—a snap.

Your feelings are humane, I must say, brother!

Ah! If you’d seen him, as I saw him first,

You would have loved him just as much as I

He came to church each day, with contrite mien,

Kneeled, on both knees, right opposite my place,

And drew the eyes of all the congregation,

To watch the fervour of his prayers to heaven;

With deep-drawn sighs and great ejaculations,

He humbly kissed the earth at every moment;

And when I left the church, he ran before me

To give me holy water at the door.

I learned his poverty, and who he was,

By questioning his servant, who is like him,

And gave him gifts; but in his modesty

He always wanted to return a part.

“It is too much,” he’d say, “too much by half;

I am not worthy of your pity.” Then,

When I refused to take it back, he’d go,

Before my eyes, and give it to the poor.

At length heaven bade me take him to my home,

And since that day, all seems to prosper here.

He censures everything, and for my sake

He even takes great interest in my wife;

He lets me know who ogles her, and seems

Six times as jealous as I am myself.

You’d not believe how far his zeal can go:

He calls himself a sinner just for trifles;

The merest nothing is enough to shock him;

So much so, that the other day I heard him

Accuse himself for having, while at prayer,

In too much anger caught and killed a flea.

Zounds, brother, you are mad, I think! Or else

You’re making sport of me, with such a speech.

What are you driving at with all this nonsense…?

Brother, your language smacks of atheism;

And I suspect your soul’s a little tainted

Therewith. I’ve preached to you a score of times

That you’ll draw down some judgment on your head.

That is the usual strain of all your kind;

They must have every one as blind as they.

They call you atheist if you have good eyes;

And if you don’t adore their vain grimaces,

You’ve neither faith nor care for sacred things.

No, no; such talk can’t frighten me; I know

What I am saying; heaven sees my heart.

We’re not the dupes of all your canting mummers;

There are false heroes—and false devotees;

And as true heroes never are the ones

Who make much noise about their deeds of honour,

Just so true devotees, whom we should follow,

Are not the ones who make so much vain show.

What! Will you find no difference between

Hypocrisy and genuine devoutness?

And will you treat them both alike, and pay

The self-same honour both to masks and faces

Set artifice beside sincerity,

Confuse the semblance with reality,

Esteem a phantom like a living person,

And counterfeit as good as honest coin?

Men, for the most part, are strange creatures, truly!

You never find them keep the golden mean;

The limits of good sense, too narrow for them,

Must always be passed by, in each direction;

They often spoil the noblest things, because

They go too far, and push them to extremes.

I merely say this by the way, good brother.

You are the sole expounder of the doctrine;

Wisdom shall die with you, no doubt, good brother,

You are the only wise, the sole enlightened,

The oracle, the Cato, of our age.

All men, compared to you, are downright fools.

I’m not the sole expounder of the doctrine,

And wisdom shall not die with me, good brother.

But this I know, though it be all my knowledge,

That there’s a difference ’twixt false and true.

And as I find no kind of hero more

To be admired than men of true religion,

Nothing more noble or more beautiful

Than is the holy zeal of true devoutness;

Just so I think there’s naught more odious

Than whited sepulchres of outward unction,

Those barefaced charlatans, those hireling zealots,

Whose sacrilegious, treacherous pretence

Deceives at will, and with impunity

Makes mockery of all that men hold sacred;

Men who, enslaved to selfish interests,

Make trade and merchandise of godliness,

And try to purchase influence and office

With false eye-rollings and affected raptures;

Those men, I say, who with uncommon zeal

Seek their own fortunes on the road to heaven;

Who, skilled in prayer, have always much to ask,

And live at court to preach retirement;

Who reconcile religion with their vices,

Are quick to anger, vengeful, faithless, tricky,

And, to destroy a man, will have the boldness

To call their private grudge the cause of heaven;

All the more dangerous, since in their anger

They use against us weapons men revere,

And since they make the world applaud their passion,

And seek to stab us with a sacred sword.

There are too many of this canting kind.

Still, the sincere are easy to distinguish;

And many splendid patterns may be found,

In our own time, before our very eyes

Look at Ariston, Périandre, Oronte,

Alcidamas, Clitandre, and Polydore;

No one denies their claim to true religion;

Yet they’re no braggadocios of virtue,

They do not make insufferable display,

And their religion’s human, tractable;

They are not always judging all our actions,

They’d think such judgment savoured of presumption;

And, leaving pride of words to other men,

’Tis by their deeds alone they censure ours.

Evil appearances find little credit

With them; they even incline to think the best

Of others. No caballers, no intriguers,

They mind the business of their own right living.

They don’t attack a sinner tooth and nail,

For sin’s the only object of their hatred;

Nor are they over-zealous to attempt

Far more in heaven’s behalf than heaven would have ’em.

That is my kind of man, that is true living,

That is the pattern we should set ourselves.

Your fellow was not fashioned on this model;

You’re quite sincere in boasting of his zeal;

But you’re deceived, I think, by false pretences.

My dear good brother-in-law, have you quite done?


I’m your humble servant.

(Starts to go.) Cléante
Just a word.

We’ll drop that other subject. But you know

Valere has had the promise of your daughter.


You had named the happy day.

’Tis true.

Then why put off the celebration of it?

I can’t say.

Can you have some other plan

In mind?


You mean to break your word?

I don’t say that.

I hope no obstacle

Can keep you from performing what you’ve promised.

Well, that depends.

Why must you beat about?

Valere has sent me here to settle matters.

Heaven be praised!

What answer shall I take him?

Why, anything you please.

But we must know

Your plans. What are they?

I shall do the will

Of Heaven.

Come, be serious. You’ve given

Your promise to Valère. Now will you keep it?


His love, methinks, has much to fear;

I must go let him know what’s happening here.