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English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall


 

 

JONSON—"THE SAD SHEPHERD"

[314] ALTHOUGH Ben Jonson's days ended sadly, although his later plays showed failing powers, he left behind him unfinished a Masque called The Sad Shepherd  which is perhaps more beautiful and more full of music than anything he ever wrote. For Ben's charm did not lie in the music of his words but in the strength of his drawing of character. As another poet has said of him, "Ben as a rule—a rule which is proved by the exception—was one of the singers who could not sing; though, like Dryden, he could intone most admirably."

The Sad Shepherd  is a tale of Robin Hood. Here once more we find an old story being used again, for we have already heard of Robin Hood in the ballads. Robin Hood makes a great fest to all the shepherds and shepherdesses round about. All are glad to come, save one Aeglamon, the Sad Shepherd, whose love, Earine, has, he believes, been drowned. But later in the play we learn that Earine is not dead, but that a wicked witch, Mother Maudlin, has enchanted her, and shut her up in a tree. She had done this in order to force Earine to give up Aeglamon, her true lover, and marry her own wretched son Lorel.

When the play begins, Aeglamon passes over the stage mourning for his lost love.

[315]

"Here she was wont to go! and here! and here!

Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow,

The world may find the spring by following her,

For other print her airy steps ne'er left.

Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,

Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk!

But like the soft west wind she shot along,

And where she went the flowers took thickest root—

As she had sowed them with her odorous foot."

Robin Hood has left Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Little John, and all his merry men to hunt the deer and make ready the feast. And Tuck says:

"And I, the chaplain, here am left to be

Steward to-day, and charge you all in fee,

To don your liveries, see the bower dressed,

And fit the fine devices for the feast."

So some make ready the bower, the tables and the seats, while Maid Marian, Little John and others set out to hunt. Presently they return successful, having killed a fine stag. Robin, too, comes home, and after loving greetings, listens to the tale of the hunt. Then Marian tells how, when the huntsmen cut up the stag, they threw the bone called the raven's bone to one that sat and croaked for it.

"Now o'er head sat a raven,

On a sere bough, a grown great bird, and hoarse!

Who, all the while the deer was breaking up

So croaked and cried for it, as all the huntsmen,

Especially old Scathlock, thought it ominous;

Swore it was Mother Maudlin, whom he met

At the day-dawn, just as he roused the deer

Out of his lair."

Mother Maudlin was a retched old witch, and Scathlock says he is yet more sure that the raven was she, because in her own form he has just seen her broiling the raven's bone by the fire, sitting "In the chimley-nuik [316] within." While the talk went on Maid Marian had gone away. Now she returns and begins to quarrel with Robin Hood. Venison is much too good for such folk as he and his men, she says; "A starved mutton carcase would better fit their palates," and she orders Scathlock to take the venison to Mother Maudlin. Those around can scarce believe their ears, for

"Robin and his Marian are the sum and talk

Of all that breathe here in the green-wood walk."

Such is their love for each other. They are "The turtles of the wood," "The billing pair." No one is more astonished than Robin Hood, as he cries:

"I dare not trust the faith of mine own senses,

I fear mine eyes and ears: this is not Marian!

Nor am I Robin Hood! I pray you ask her,

Ask her, good shepherds, ask her all for me:

Or rather ask yourselves, if she be she,

Or I be I."

But Maid Marian only scolds the more, and at last goes away leaving the others in sad bewilderment. Of course this was not Maid Marian at all, but Mother Maudlin, the old witch, who had taken her form in order to make mischief.

Meanwhile the real Maid Marian discovers that the venison has been sent away to Mother Maudlin's. With tears in her eyes she declares that she gave no such orders, and Scathlock is sent to bring it back.

When Mother Maudlin comes to thank Maid Marian for her present, she is told that no such present was ever intended, and so she in anger curses the cook, casting spells upon him:

"The spit stand still, no broches turn

Before the fire, but let it burn.

Both sides and haunches, till the whole

Converted be into one coal.

[317]

The pain we call St. Anton's fire,

The gout, or what we can desire,

To cramp a cook in every limb,

Before they dine yet, seize on him."

Soon Friar Tuck comes in. "Hear you how," he says,

"Poor Tom the cook is taken! all his joints

Do crack, as if his limbs were tied with points.

His whole frame slackens; and a kind of rack,

Runs down along the spindils of his back;

A gout, or cramp, now seizeth on his head,

Then falls into his feet; his knees are lead;

And he can stir his either hand no more

Than a dead stump, to his office, as before."

He is bewitched, that is certain. And certain too it is that Mother Maudlin has done it. So Robin and his men set out to hunt for her, while Friar Tuck and Much the Miller's son stay to look after the dinner in the poor cook's stead. Robin soon meets Mother Maudlin who has again taken the form of Maid Marian. But this time Robin suspects her. He seizes the witch by her enchanted belt. It breaks, and she comes back to her own shape, and Robin goes off, leaving her cursing.

Mother Maudlin then calls for Puck-hairy, her goblin. He appears, crying:

"At your beck, madam."

"O Puck my goblin! I have lost my belt,

The strong thief, Robin Outlaw, forced it from me,"

wails Mother Maudlin. But Puck-hairy pays little attention to her complaints.

"They are other clouds and blacker threat you, dame;

You must be wary, and pull in your sails,

And yield unto the weather of the tempest.

You think your power's infinite as your malice,

And would do all your anger prompts you to;

But you must wait occasions, and obey them:

Sail in an egg-shell, make a straw your mast,

[318]

A cobweb all your cloth, and pass unseen,

Till you have 'scaped the rocks that are about you.

MAUDLIN. What rocks about me?

PUCK. I do love, madam, To show you all your dangers—when you're past them! Come, follow me, I'll once more be your pilot, And you shall thank me.

MAUDLIN. Lucky, my loved Goblin!"

And here the play breaks off suddenly, for Jonson died and left it so. It was finished by another writer later on, but with none of Jonson's skill, and reading the continuation we feel that all the interest is gone. However, you will be glad to know that everything comes right. The good people get happily married and all the bad people become good, even the wicked old witch, Mother Maudlin.


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