“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” was printed in 1845 in Hood’s Magazine and later that same year in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, which is contained in Bells and Pomegranates (1841-1846). It was probably suggested by Browning’s visit to Italy the previous year. Although an actual Saint Praxed’s church exists in Rome, no bishop from “15—,” the poem’s dateline, is buried there, but the bishop in the poem typifies the bishops of the era.
The poem is another fine example of Browning’s mastery of the dramatic monologue form. The speaker is the church’s bishop, who is “dying by degrees” (line 11). His silent audience is his “Nephews—sons mine” (line 3). Actually, “nephews” is a historic euphemism for illegitimate sons, and only on his death is the bishop finally willing to acknowledge his paternity. The setting is Saint Praxed’s church: More specifically, the bishop seems to be lying up front, to the right of the pulpit, and near the choir loft. The situation is simple: With not much time left, the bishop is negotiating with his “sons” to do something that he cannot—to ensure that he will be buried in a marble tomb as befits his position in the church hierarchy.
As with “My Last Duchess,” the speaker ironically creates a self-portrait very different from what he intends. Because the bishop nears death, he can no longer control his words and thus reveals a man somewhat less than a paragon of virtue, a very flawed human who has hypocritically violated his clerical vows. As a representative of the Roman Catholic church, he suggests that the institution has failed, having been corrupted by materialistic, secular concerns.
One measure of a cleric’s righteousness has always been how he avoids the seven deadly sins. Browning provides an ironic “confession” in which the bishop admits to them all. Wrath is one of the deadly sins. Dying, the bishop is still angry at Gandolf, his predecessor, who has claimed a better burial site in the church. As his negotiations with his sons prove unsuccessful, the...
(The entire section is 868 words.)