The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church

by Robert Browning
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

“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.

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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 dying bishop becomes increasingly angry at them. He also asks God to curse Gandolf.

Another sin is pride. Though the bishop begins his 122 lines with a warning about vanity, he is proud of many things, especially his possessions, and the fact that he won his boys’ mother away from Gandolf. Yet he still envies (the third sin) his predecessor for that burial site.

Gluttony is manifest in a general sense by the sheer number of his possessions and in a gustatory sense by the way that he depicts the sacrament of communion; once dead, he will feast his eyes on a perpetual banquet, “God made and eaten all day long” (line 82). Greed is revealed with his last wish and his possessions. He desires his tomb to be made of basalt (a hard, dark-colored rock), as compared to his predecessor’s cheap and “paltry onion-stone” (line 31). The bishop’s legacy is mostly materialistic. Seeing that his sons are not acceding to his dying wishes, he offers his possessions as a bribe. He has accumulated a vineyard, a huge lapis lazuli stone, villas, horses, Greek manuscripts, and mistresses. Of course, as a priest he at one time took a vow of poverty.

Perhaps his greatest sin, however, is lechery. Having also taken a vow of chastity, he has also taken several mistresses and has fathered children by at least one of them. Quite often he commingles the sacred and the sexual. The lapis lazuli is described as “Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast” (line 44). On the horizontal surface of his tomb, he wants etched in bronze a bas-relief of pans and nymphs, Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Moses with the Ten Commandments, and “one Pan/ Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off” (lines 60-61). Furthermore, Browning emphasizes the ironic distance between the bishop’s sexual activity and what the cleric should be by the name of the very church that the bishop serves and represents. St. Praxed was a second century virgin martyr who converted to Christianity and gave her worldly possessions to the poor. The bishop is a sixteenth century nonvirgin who has never practiced self-sacrifice and has unofficially converted from Christianity to mammonism. He now obviously worships all the worldly goods that he can accumulate.

One helpful way of reading this poem is as an ironic sermon. After all, the bishop typically begins his address with a biblical quotation, the words from the book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, and the rest of the poem is an ironic portrayal of his own vain self-estimation, complete with moral illustrations. As a religious person, the bishop should doubtless consider this moment as an occasion for confession—to explain what he did, to acknowledge its sinfulness, and to ask for forgiveness. Instead, he dies as vain and as self-deluded as he has lived. His final thoughts dwell upon the carnal beauty of his mistress and the envy that evoked in his archrival. Browning’s final irony, then, is overwhelming. The bishop is not a servant of God but of Dionysus, the pagan god of fertility and sexuality.

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