Robert Browning: Poems Summary and Analysis
"The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church"
The poem is narrated by a fictional bishop on his deathbed. In his address, he falls in and out of lucidity, often trailing off. The bishop addresses a group of young men whom he calls "nephews," but there is implication one or more might be his sons; particularly one named Anselm. He mentions a woman he once had as a lover, and how "Old Gandolf," his predecessor and rival in the Church, envied him for having the woman.
As he contemplates the inevitability of death, he reminds the men that they need to make sure his tomb is built in St. Praxed's church as he plans. Old Gandolf died before him and thus stole the "niche" where he planned to be buried, and so he intends now to have a magnificent tomb built, both to bathe his corpse in luxury and to outshine Gandolf's modest tomb of "onion-stone."
He describes how he wants the men to dig up some lapus lazuli, a precious stone that he rescued from a burning church and then hid away in a secret place that he describes to the men. He wants the stone placed between his knees so that Gandolf will be jealous. He continues to describe how magnificently he wants the tomb adorned, but notices the men whispering to each other and worries they are plotting against him. He accuses them of waiting for his death so they can sell off his villas and bury him in a plain tomb. He grows maudlin and begs them to at least decorate the tomb in jasper, a green stone, and to choose an epitaph worthy of his legacy.
The bishop works himself up again as he contemplates the fading of his life, but then falls to accusing the men of ingratitude. He finally accepts that they will act dishonorably against him and blesses them anyway. As they leave, he again rememberes how Gandolf envied his relationship with the woman he had mentioned earlier.
This 1845 dramatic monologue, one of Browning's most accomplished in the form, is notable both for its command of voice and for its contemplation of matters religious, psychological, and historical.
In the most obvious sense, the poem uses dramatic irony to criticize the hypocrisy of materialism in religion. The bishop, presumably accomplished in his field considering his great wealth, confronts the mystery of death, one of the primary reasons people seek religion in the first place, and yet is concerned almost exclusively with how magnificently adorned his tomb will be. The way he speaks to the younger men suggests that he spent his life speaking from a place of unquestioned authority; he is self-conscious to now give orders while no longer having such firm authority. He gives meticulous orders about how his tomb will be dressed, how they must fetch a stone he in fact stole from a burning church and buried away as booty, and notes how a great tomb will equate him with "the airy dome where live/the angels." He believes the lapis luzuli between his knees is equitable with "God the Father's globe," as though he is only aware of the material side of his vocation as priest, while totally oblivious to the humility and deference that is so integral to Christian doctrine.
In other words, the dramatic irony is that he believes himself worthy of great remembrance even while his requests reveal him to be a petty and misguided man, one whose sentiments do not make him fit to be a leader of men. The way he speaks of his son Anselm – he at one point notes how Anselm will stand at the foot of his tomb in piety – is counteracted by the apparent disinterest and maliciousness he later realizes the men feel for his death. In addition, his motivation is largely provided by his rivalry with Old Gandolf, suggesting that the impulse towards religion for this bishop is rooted in power and ambition rather than in true piety. Considering that he brandishes a former relationship with a woman – one whom he likely considers a temptress, since he says at one point that her eyes glittered "for [his] soul" – as a virtue even as he is by default a celibate priest, it is clear that the man is full of hypocrisy. He mentions nothing in the long poem about his accomplishments as a bishop, only his wealth.
And yet the poem's attack can easily be interpreted as being larger than simply a critique of this particular character. Browning wrote the poem while in a period of study of the transitional early Renaissance period, in which the church was cementing its place as a political organization and a surplus of new wealth had to be accounted for. While there is no known historical corollary for this incident, St. Praxed's Church is a real place. In addition, it is fairly clear that such greed and hunger for power was integral to the early Renaissance church, suggesting that Browning is contemplating the all-too-human contradictions within piety and materialism. The fact that this bishop, a top symbol of his church, is unable to realize how easily he equates God and material wealth (when in fact they ought to be diametrically opposed) is equally a comment on the religious situation of the Renaissance and contemporary issues of religion.
However, as with all of Browning's work, the issue of psychology is at least equally important to any other theme. The bishop's many hang-ups are far deeper than can be easily explained by the power of religion. For one, he is fundamentally paranoid. The idea that he continues to make decisions based on the prospect of embarrassing a dead rival suggests deep insecurity. The after-life being a central facet of Christianity, he nevertheless chooses to place his tomb somewhere that will allow him to watch Gandolf's corpse's envy. Further, he has been unable throughout his life to get over this woman, so much so that his only real comment about her relates to how his relationship made Gandolf envious. His lack of comment on their relationship and the above-mentioned implication that she was a temptress of sorts suggest that perhaps she left him unfulfilled, and so he must compensate by treating her as a commodity to make Gandolf jealous.
So extensive are his jealousies and hang-ups that he expects others to follow suit. Because we are confined to his perspective, we have no idea whether the men to whom he speaks (possibly his sons) are in fact plotting against him, but he assumes as much. He assumes they are waiting for him to die so they can fashion him a paltry tomb and then steal his villas. When he blesses them at the end of the poem despite their presumed ingratitude, it could be seen as the bishop making peace with what he assumes is an integral facet of human nature. And yet one is left to wonder how valuable such a blessing is, considering that his depiction of the Eucharist is "God made and eaten all day long." Again, he thinks of these ostensibly glorious elements as commodities to be viewed in terms of material worth. His threat to the young men is that he will give the villas to the Pope to deprive them of the inheritance, suggesting that even the Pope – the highest figure of the Church – is driven by jealousy and material greed.
Browning's command of voice allows much depth to come through dramatic irony. The blank verse (in which the lines are iambic but unrhymed) creates a relatively inelegant address (compared to, for example, the voice of a character like the duke of "My Last Duchess"), which is fitting for a man who compromises glory for the sake of material business. The masterful use of the dying address, in which he constantly loses his train of thought and lapses into nonsense, only makes believable that he would speak with such frankness about his wishes. Usually, the dramatic irony in Browning's monologues emerges because the speaker is in control of his language – like the duke or the narrator of "Porphyria's Lover" – but in this case, the speaker is extremely forthright about his desires, and so the irony cuts deeper when we see his deepest beliefs are in fact perverted and full of contradiction.
But the most impressive element of the voice is in the moments of sincerity that emerge occasionally. While most of the poem falls in line with the above analysis, there are moments when the bishop realizes the truth of impending death, of what it means to be "dying in state and by such slow degrees." There is a universal human element in this, an awareness of the inevitable, suggesting that much of the hypocrisy and contradiction in the bishop is societal and man-made, but that at the moment of our death, we all must face what cannot be dressed up and displayed.
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