The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church Rome, 15 – by Robert Browning

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb” by Robert Browning is considered to be the first blank verse dramatic monologue poem in English. In it, a (fictional) dying bishop speaks to his sons and contemplates his life while waiting for death.


ROME, 15—

by Robert Browning

Robert Browning, looking thoughtful in 1889.

Robert Browning
by William Henry Grove

platinum print, 1889
(NPG x4820)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Creative Commons License

[This poem comes from Browning’s Shorter Poems, edited by Franklin Baker, published in 1917 and now in the public domain; the text has been slightly adapted and reformatted for this webpage. Mr. Baker’s notes are included below: when you see the mark ° it indicates that the editor wrote an explanatory note about the word or line; see the notes located at the end of the poem. Notes are organized by line number.]

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°(5) 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                                                     10
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                                    20
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,                                         30
°(31)—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,                                                40
°(41) And corded up in a tight olive-frail,º
°(42) 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,
°(46) That brave Frascatiº 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!                                  50
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,
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan                                                      60
Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off,
°(62) And Moses with the tablesº … 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!                                              70
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,
°(77) Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully’sº every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf’s second line—
°(79) Tully, my masters? Ulpianº serves his need!
And then how I shall lie thro’ centuries,                                                80
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:                                       90
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,
°(99)—Aha, ELUCESCEBATº quoth our friend?
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!                                                      100
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 iny vase
°(108) With grapes, and add a visor and a Term°,
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,                                  110
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                                         120
—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!

Ruskin gives this poem high praise: “Robert Browning is unerring in every sentence he writes of the Middle Ages…. I know no other piece of modern English prose or poetry in which there is so much told, as in these lines, of the Renaissance spirit—its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself, love of art, of luxury, and of good Latin. It is nearly all that I have said of the central Renaissance, in thirty pages of The Stones of Venice, put into as many lines; Browning’s also being the antecedent work.”

It is not, however, for its historical accuracy that a poem is mainly to be judged. The full and imaginative portrayal of a type, belonging not to one age only, but to human nature, is a greater achievement. And this achievement Browning has undoubtedly performed.

5. Old Gandolf. Evidently one of the Bishop’s colleagues in holy orders, and like him in holiness.

31. onion-stone. See the dictionary for descriptions of this and other stones named in the poem.

41. olive-frail. A crate, made of rushes, for packing olives.

42. lapis lazuli. A very beautiful and valuable blue stone.

46. Frascati. A town near Rome, celebrated for its villas.

56-62. Such mixture of Christian and Pagan elements was a common feature in Renaissance art and literature.

58. tripod. The triple-footed seat from which the priestesses of Apollo at Delphi delivered the oracles. thyrsus. A staff entwined with ivy and vines, and borne in the Bacchic processions.

77. Tully. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher.

79. Ulpian. A celebrated Roman jurist of the third century.

99. Elucescebat. Late Latin, from elucesco. The classical or Ciceronian form would be elucebat, from eluceo. Here appears the Bishop’s love of good Latin.

108. Term. A pillar, widening toward the top, upon which is placed a figure or a bust.

Who are grouped about the Bishop’s bed? What does he desire? Why? What tastes does he show? Point out evidences of his crimes, his suspicion, his sensual ideals, his artistic tastes, his canting hypocrisy, his confusion of the material and the immaterial, and the persistency of his passions and feelings. Note the subtlety with which these things are suggested, especially lines 18-19, 29-30, 33-44, 50-52, 59-62, 80-84, 122-125.

You may find additional notes about this poem at the George Mason University website.

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