The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church What do we know about this poem? What does the title tell us?
This poem is about. . . . a fictional Bishop on his death bed who makes demands for his tomb to be built with grand materials. He is trying to outdo his recently deceased rival, Gandolf.
Context • Set in Renaissance Italy • Latter stages: the clergy had become greedy for the luxury afforded by the church’s lavish iconography • The Bishop, on his death bed and ordering a lavish tomb to be constructed, is more concerned with how he will be remembered on earth than with heaven • Metaphor for the wider corruption and greed of the church
Saint Praxed’s Church A real church in Rome, Italy. Saint Praxedes was a saint of the 2 nd century. She was a ‘holy virgin’ who denied herself riches and gave all she had to the poor and to the church. She and her sister defied the law to bury the bodies of Christians who had been martyred. For this, she too was murdered.
Context – Money and Power in Victorian England The poem deals with the unpleasant effect material wealth has on supposedly upstanding figures. Browning wrote it at a time of extreme economic upheaval. Money (previously only associated with the upper classes, although many of this class were often without it!) was becoming a mark of social standing. Many of the impoverished upper classes were marrying so-called ‘new money’. Consider Pip in Great Expectations: all he needs to become a gentleman is an inheritance. The inclusion of the real life Saint Praxted’s Church in this poem adds to a sense of satire against the hypocrisy of the Renaissance church. Browning, at this stage in his life, was not religious. Later on in life he became more understanding of faith.
Language and Imagery Let’s analyse the poem together.
1 Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! 2 Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? 3 Nephews--sons mine. . . ah God, I know not! Well-4 She, men would have to be your mother once, 5 Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was! 6 What's done is done, and she is dead beside, 7 Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since, 8 And as she died so must we die ourselves, 9 And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream. 10 Life, how and what is it? As here I lie 11 In this state-chamber, dying by degrees, 12 Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask 13 "Do I live, am I dead? " Peace, peace seems all. 14 Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace; 15 And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought 16 With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know: 17 --Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care; 18 Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South 19 He graced his carrion with, God curse the same! tricked
Canopy over a tomb 20 Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence 21 One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side, 22 And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats, 23 And up into the aery dome where live 24 The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk: 25 And I shall fill my slab of basalt there, 26 And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest, 27 With those nine columns round me, two and two, 28 The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands: 29 Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe 30 As fresh-poured wine of a mighty pulse. 31 --Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone, 32 Put me where I may look at him! True peach, 33 Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize! The side of the church from which the Bible is read during Mass Dark grey stone Cheap marble which tends to flake
Destructive fire anything 34 Draw close: that conflagration of my church 35 --What then? So much was saved if aught were missed! 36 My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig 37 The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood, 38 Drop water gently till the surface sink, 39 And if ye find. . . Ah God, I know not, I!. . . 40 Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft, Semi 41 And corded up in a tight olive-frail, precious 42 Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli, stone. 43 Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape, Bright blue 44 Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast. . . in colour. 45 Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all, 46 That brave Frascati villa with its bath, 47 So let the blue lump poise between my knees Summer 48 Like God the Father's globe on both His hands resort 49 Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay, near 50 For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst! Rome olive basket
"My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and they come to an end without hope” (Job 7: 6) Greek god of shepherds and his associated female spirits As used by the priestess of Apollo 51 Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years: 52 Man goeth to the grave, and where is he? 53 Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black-54 'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else 55 Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath? know 56 The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me, 57 Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance 58 Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so, Spear or rod used by Dionysus 59 The Saviour at his sermon on the mount, 60 Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan halo 61 Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off, 62 And Moses with the tables. . . but I know 63 Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee, 64 Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope 65 To revel down my villas while I gasp 66 Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine 67 Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at! The ten commandments mouldy limestone
Bright green stone What all young men in the Renaissance wanted! 68 Nay, boys, ye love me--all of jasper, then! 69 'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve. 70 My bath must needs be left behind, alas! 71 One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut, 72 There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world-73 And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray 74 Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts, 75 And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs? 76 --That's if ye carve my epitaph aright, 77 Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word, 78 No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line-79 Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need! 80 And then how I shall lie through centuries, 81 And hear the blessed mutter of the mass, 82 And see God made and eaten all day long, 83 And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste 84 Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke! Holy communion Speech honouring dead person Tully = Marcus Tullius Cicero, a famous Roman orator considered a model of Latin style. Ulpian = Gnaeus Domitius Ulpianus, a Roman councillor, much less well known, and whose Latin was considered less pure and stylish.
Symbol of office shroud 85 For as I lie here, hours of the dead night, 86 Dying in state and by such slow degrees, 87 I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook, 88 And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point, 89 And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop 90 Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work: 91 And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts 92 Grow, with a certain humming in my ears, 93 About the life before I lived this life, 94 And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests, 95 Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount, 96 Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes, A type of quartz stone with 97 And new-found agate urns as fresh as day, a bright colour 98 And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet, 99 --Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend? 100 No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best! 101 Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage. “he was illustrious” in Ulpian Latin. Cicero would have used “ELUCEBAT”.
Dionysus’ staff 102 All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope 103 My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart? 104 Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick, 105 They glitter like your mother's for my soul, 106 Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze, 107 Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase 108 With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term, 109 And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx 110 That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down, 111 To comfort me on my entablature 112 Whereon I am to lie till I must ask 113 "Do I live, am I dead? " There, leave me, there! Stone slab Mask like those worn on the stage Sculpted bust on top of a square pillar, used in Classical art and architecture
Coarse sandstone 114 For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude 115 To death--ye wish it--God, ye wish it! Stone-116 Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat 117 As if the corpse they keep were oozing through— 118 And no more lapis to delight the world! 119 Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there, 120 But in a row: and, going, turn your backs 121 --Ay, like departing altar-ministrants, 122 And leave me in my church, the church for peace, 123 That I may watch at leisure if he leers-124 Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone, 125 As still he envied me, so fair she was!
Form • Dramatic monologue • Iambic pentameter • Blank verse (unrhymed) This emphasises the single-mindedness of the Bishop’s last moments. He has no time to bother with rhyme. He is focusing on earthly concerns. Momentary aesthetic concerns have given way to his desire to create a longer lasting aesthetic monument – his tomb. His speech is often repetitive, unstructured and rambling.
Structure • One stanza only = one long ramble at the end of the Bishop’s life • Frequent use of ellipsis = mind wandering • The poem ends where it begins – with his mistress (“so fair she was!”) • Irregular line lengths = confusion; lack of coherence • Increased use of punctuation towards the end = increased disruption of thought/acceptance of impending death • Browning is experimenting with poetic form and structure
“Browning creates a character who is proud, envious, hypocritical, and obsessed by worldly beauty and delight, as well as a deep rivalry with the recently deceased Gandolf. The poem is an examination of the decadence and worldy excess of the Roman Catholic Church in the Renaissance. Yet, as the reader enters into the poem’s imaginative world, the Bishop also provokes sympathy” Do you agree? • Browning’s use of language and structure, especially at the end of the poem • The Bishop does not expect to be remembered for his good deeds (line 101) • What is happening around the Bishop as he speaks? • Why is he so obsessed with Gandolf and his tomb? • How Browning creates a sense of the Bishop’s life ending • Any redeeming features? PEEL