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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

When Robert Clive was first in India


When

the two have had their wish, and been hanged "out of hand," the bystanders are edified to tears. But the loyalty of the Chief Justice forbids any imputing of the act of grace to the influence of John Bunyan. Its cause lies rather, he asserts, in the twelve years' pious reign of the restored Charles.

The second series of the "Dramatic Idyls" was published in 1880, and contains:--

"Echetlos." "Clive." "Muleykeh." "Pietro of Abano." "Doctor ----" "Pan and Luna."

It has also a little prologue and epilogue: the former satirizing the pretension to understand the Soul, which we cannot see, while we are baffled by the workings of the bodily organs, which we can see; the latter directed against the popular idea that the more impressible and more quickly responsive natures are the soil of which "song" is born. The true poet, it declares, is as the pine tree which has grown out of a rock.

"ECHETLOS" (holder of the ploughshare) is another legend of the battle of Marathon. It tells, in Mr. Browning's words, how one with the goat-skin garment, and the broad bare limbs of a "clown," was seen on the battle-field ploughing down the enemy's ranks: the ploughshare flashing now here, now there, wherever the Grecian lines needed strengthening; how he vanished when the battle was won; and how the oracle, of which his name was asked,

bade the inquirers not care for it:

"Say but just this: We praise one helpful whom we call The Holder of the Ploughshare. The great deed ne'er grows small." (vol. xv. p. 87.)

Miltiades and Themistocles had shown that a great name could do so.[105]

The anecdote which forms the basis of "CLIVE," was told to Mr. Browning in 1846 by Mrs. Jameson, who had shortly before heard it at Lansdowne House, from Macaulay. It is cursorily mentioned in Macaulay's "Essays."

When Robert Clive was first in India, a boy of fifteen, clerk in a merchant's office at St. David's, he accused an officer with whom he was playing, of cheating at cards, and was challenged by him in consequence. Clive fired, as it seems, prematurely, and missed his aim. The officer, at whose mercy he had thus placed himself, advanced to within arm's length, held the muzzle of his pistol to the youth's forehead, and summoned him to repeat his accusation. Clive did repeat it, and with such defiant courage that his adversary was unnerved. He threw down the weapon, confessed that he had cheated, and rushed out of the room. A chorus of indignation then broke forth among those who had witnessed the scene. They declared that the "wronged civilian" should be righted; and that he who had thus disgraced Her Majesty's Service should be drummed--if needs be, kicked--out of the regiment. But here Clive interposed. Not one, he said, of the eleven, whom he addressed by name and title, had raised a finger to save his life. He would clear scores with any or all among them who breathed a word against the man who had spared it. Nor, as the narrative continues, and as the event proved, was such a word ever spoken.

Clive is supposed to relate this experience, a week before his self-inflicted death, to a friend who is dining with him; and who, struck by his depressed mental state, strives to arouse him from it by the question: which of his past achievements constitutes, in his own judgment, the greatest proof of courage. He gives the moment in which the pistol was levelled at his head, as that in which he felt, not most courage, but most fear. But, as he explains to his astonished listener, it was not the almost certainty of death, which, for one awful minute, made a coward of him; it was the bare possibility of a reprieve, which would have left no appeal from its dishonour. His opponent refused to fire. He might have done so with words like these:


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