The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church Themes

Robert Browning

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A major theme of the poem is moral decay. Although this is seen most obviously in the hypocritical and worldly Bishop, similar immorality is also suggested in the greedy and untrustworthy young men, in the envious and conniving Gandolf, in the material wealth of the churches, and in the implication that the Pope himself would welcome new villas to add to his riches. The total effect indicts the dominant Renaissance religious institution as corrupt and spiritually dead.

A bishop should guide his flock and be exemplary in Christian compassion and charity. This bishop, however, devotes himself to personal ambition, wealth, and pleasures. Rather than chastity, poverty, and obedience to God’s will, he relishes his memories of his mistress and the thought that Gandolf envied him. His villas and his indulgent luxuries show that he is no follower of Saint Praxed, who gave all she had to the poor. Even now, on his deathbed, rather than repenting his sins and thinking of God’s judgment, the Bishop concerns himself only with his earthly remains. Given the example he has set, it is no wonder that he suspects that his nephews/sons will not fulfill his instructions.

The Bishop’s closest human tie seems to be his hostile rivalry with Gandolf, which he assumes will continue after death; Gandolf will know the Bishop’s tomb is superior to his and will still envy him. The fact that the Bishop is a learned man who has had many privileges makes his...

(The entire section is 441 words.)