'Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome, The' by Robert Browning

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Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews--sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! Well--
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
What's done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream.
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all.
Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace;
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:
--Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence
One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side,
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
And up into the aery dome where live
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,
And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest,
With those nine columns round me, two and two,
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands:
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse.
--Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!
Draw close: that conflagration of my church
--What then? So much was saved if aught were missed!
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood,
Drop water gently till the surface sink,
And if ye find . . . Ah God, I know not, I! ...
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft,
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ...
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,
That brave Frascati villa with its bath,
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,
Like God the Father's globe on both His hands
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!
Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years:
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black--
'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off,
And Moses with the tables . . . but I know
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope
To revel down my villas while I gasp
Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!
Nay, boys, ye love me--all of jasper, then!
'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve.
My bath must needs be left behind, alas!
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,
There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world--
And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?
--That's if ye carve my epitaph aright,
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line--
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!
And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work:
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,
About the life before I lived this life,
And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests,
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,
And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet,
--Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick,
They glitter like your mother's for my soul,
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,
To comfort me on my entablature
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask
"Do I live, am I dead?" There, leave me, there!
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude
To death--ye wish it--God, ye wish it! Stone--
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through--
And no more lapis to delight the world!
Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs
--Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,
And leave me in my church, the church for peace,
That I may watch at leisure if he leers--
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she was!

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Deep Dive into Robert Browning's "Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome"

Are you ready for a literary journey through time and space? Today, we're going to discuss Robert Browning's classic poem "Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome." This masterpiece of Victorian poetry explores themes of power, mortality, and religion, all while taking us on a vivid tour of a grand cathedral in the heart of Rome. So, let's get started!

Background and Context

First things first, let's take a look at the historical and cultural context that surrounds this poem. Robert Browning was a Victorian poet who lived from 1812 to 1889, a time when the British Empire was at its height and the Industrial Revolution was transforming society. Browning was a master of dramatic monologue, a literary form in which a speaker addresses a silent listener and reveals their innermost thoughts and feelings.

"Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome" was written in 1845 and published in 1846 as part of the collection "Dramatic Lyrics." The poem is based on a real-life bishop, Bishop Guido Tarlati, who died in 1349 and was buried in the Church of Saint Praxed in Rome. Browning, however, takes many liberties with historical accuracy in order to create a vivid and dramatic portrait of a powerful man on his deathbed.

Summary and Analysis

The poem opens with the bishop, who is dying, giving orders to his attendants about how he wants to be buried. He is preoccupied with the idea of his legacy and wants to make sure that he is remembered as a great man. He tells his attendants to adorn his tomb with expensive materials such as porphyry and jasper, and to depict scenes from his life on the tomb. He is especially concerned with showing off his power and wealth, ordering that his "crozier, staff, / Mitre and cope" be displayed prominently.

As the bishop gives these orders, he reflects on his life and accomplishments. He remembers how he rose to power through cunning and manipulation, and how he used his position to further his own interests rather than those of the church. He also reflects on his relationships with the people in his life, including his mistress, who he laments he cannot take with him to the afterlife.

Throughout the poem, Browning uses vivid imagery and sensory details to create a sense of the grandeur and opulence of the cathedral. He describes the marble floor as "washed by the waves of the world," and the stained glass windows as "a glory round the place." He also uses religious imagery to underscore the bishop's power and authority, referring to him as a "shepherd of souls" and depicting his attendants as "lambs."

As the poem progresses, the bishop becomes increasingly agitated and preoccupied with his own mortality. He imagines himself being judged by God and wonders whether his tomb will be a fitting tribute to his life. He becomes obsessed with the idea of his own decay and corruption, imagining that his body will be eaten by worms and his bones will turn to dust.

In the final stanza, the bishop gives his last orders to his attendants, and then dies. The poem ends with the bishop's attendants carrying out his wishes and preparing his tomb, while outside the cathedral, life goes on as usual.

Themes and Interpretation

So what are the key themes and messages of this poem? At its core, "Bishop Orders His Tomb" is a meditation on power, mortality, and the fleeting nature of human existence. The bishop is consumed with the desire to leave a lasting legacy, to be remembered as a great man long after he is gone. Yet, as the poem makes clear, this desire is ultimately futile. The bishop's power and influence will inevitably fade away, and his legacy will be forgotten.

At the same time, the poem also highlights the corrupting influence of power. The bishop's rise to power is depicted as a result of his cunning and manipulation, rather than any inherent virtue or goodness. He uses his position to further his own interests, rather than those of the church or the people he is supposed to serve. This corruption is ultimately what will contribute to his downfall and his forgotten legacy.

Religion also plays a significant role in the poem. The bishop is depicted as a shepherd of souls, a powerful figure in the church who wields immense authority. Yet, the poem also suggests that this authority is ultimately hollow and meaningless. The bishop's obsession with his own legacy and his own power is at odds with the teachings of Christianity, which emphasize humility and selflessness.


In conclusion, "Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome" is a rich and complex work of poetry that explores a range of themes and ideas. Through its vivid imagery, powerful language, and exploration of timeless themes, it continues to resonate with readers today. Whether you're a fan of Victorian poetry, interested in the history and culture of Rome, or simply looking for a thought-provoking and engaging literary work, this poem has something to offer. So why not take a journey through time and space, and explore the world of Robert Browning's masterful verse?

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Robert Browning's "Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome" is a classic poem that explores the themes of power, mortality, and art. The poem is a dramatic monologue, which means that it is spoken by a single character who reveals his thoughts and feelings to an imaginary audience. In this case, the speaker is a bishop who is about to die and is giving orders for his tomb to be built in a grandiose manner.

The poem begins with the bishop describing his own power and influence. He speaks of his wealth and the many people who have depended on him for their livelihoods. He also mentions his political connections and the favors he has done for others. The bishop is clearly proud of his accomplishments and wants to be remembered as a great man.

However, as the poem progresses, the bishop's tone becomes more desperate and anxious. He realizes that his power and influence will soon come to an end with his death. He becomes obsessed with the idea of leaving a lasting legacy through his tomb. He wants his tomb to be a work of art that will be admired for centuries to come.

The bishop's obsession with his tomb is a reflection of his fear of mortality. He knows that he will soon die and wants to ensure that he will be remembered long after he is gone. He believes that his tomb will be a testament to his greatness and will ensure that he is never forgotten.

The bishop's desire for a grandiose tomb is also a reflection of his love of art. He sees his tomb as a work of art that will rival the great works of the Renaissance. He wants his tomb to be a masterpiece that will be admired by all who see it.

The poem also explores the theme of religion. The bishop is a religious figure and his tomb is to be built in a church. However, the bishop's obsession with his tomb seems to be at odds with his religious beliefs. He is more concerned with his own legacy than with the teachings of his faith.

The poem is also notable for its use of imagery. Browning uses vivid descriptions to bring the bishop's tomb to life. He describes the tomb as being made of marble and adorned with precious stones. He also describes the tomb as being decorated with scenes from the bishop's life.

The poem's use of imagery is particularly effective in the final stanza. Browning describes the bishop's tomb as being a work of art that will outlast the bishop himself. He writes, "There's my masterpiece / To have produced which, much less to conceive, / A multitude of men worked years and years." This final stanza emphasizes the bishop's obsession with his tomb and his desire to leave a lasting legacy.

In conclusion, Robert Browning's "Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome" is a classic poem that explores the themes of power, mortality, and art. The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by a bishop who is obsessed with leaving a grandiose tomb as a testament to his greatness. The poem is notable for its use of imagery and its exploration of the conflict between the bishop's religious beliefs and his desire for a lasting legacy. Overall, the poem is a powerful meditation on the human desire for immortality and the role of art in achieving it.

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