The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church
Rome, 15—

by Robert Browning

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 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 sunbeams 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
— 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
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 oer the Madonnas 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! 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 Nymphs 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! 70
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,  
There’s plenty jasper somewhere in the world--  
And have I not Saint Praxeds 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 Gandolfs second line  
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!  
And then how I shall lie through 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,  
— Aha, ELUCESCEBAT 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 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 — 110
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!  


The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxeds Church, Rome, 15— The bishop in this dramatic monologue is fictional; establishing the time of the poem as the late 16th century (see note about Jesu Church below) means that it takes place after the Italian Renaissance, a period that is generally considered to end around that time, when Italy began to decline politically, economically, and artistically in every area except music. St. Praxed’s Church (in Italian, Basilica di Santa Prassede all’Esquillino) is an actual church in Rome. Praxed was a 2nd century saint associated with providing Christian burials to those slain during one of the the imperial persecutions of Christians, though the documentation for her life is almost non-existant.
Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! — The poem begins by invoking Ecclesiastes, one of the most poetic and philosophical books of the Bible. The preacher refers to the speaker in this book. The ultimate message of Ecclesiastes is debatable, but an essential theme is the vanity of human ambition.
Nephews — sons mine Nephews was a common euphemism for illegitimate sons. The bishop apparently uses the euphemism, and then changes his mind and decides to address Anselm and the others in a way that acknowledges their actual relationship to him.
. . . the bishop sometimes trails off, which Browning indicates with ellipses. This reflects that the bishop is dying and not always lucid or capable of maintaining a thought.
fair — beautiful
I am Bishop since — the speaker has been Bishop since Gandolf, his predecessor, died. The way the speaker drifts from thinking about his deceased lover to thinking about his predecessor also reflects his state of mind.
cozened — cheated, defrauded
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South / He graced his carrion with — in other words, Gandolf was shrewd to pick the southern corner of the church (apparently a particularly desirable spot) for his own tomb. Note that carrion, which literally means the rotting flesh of dead animals, is a particularly insulting way for the speaker to describe Gandolf’s body.
the same — Gandolf’s body
o’ the epistle-side — on the epistle side, meaning the right side as one faces the altar. This is where the parts of the New Testament called the epistles are read. The left side is where the Gospels themselves are read. Thus, the right side is inferior to the left in liturgical terms. Gandolf’s tomb thus is in a more desirable spot, but over the next several lines we see the bishop rationalizing (and perhaps attempting to convince himself) that the spot for his own tomb is good, too.
basalt — a black igneous (meaning it formed from solidified lava) rock
tabernacle — a niche or recessed portion of a wall that is covered with a stone canopy, or in this usage the canopy itself
pulse — the pulpy flesh of the grape that yields the juice to make wine
onion-stone — poor quality marble, so called because it would flake off in layers
Peach-blossom marble — a form of marble highly valued for its color and beauty
prize — superficially, this appears to refer to the superior quality of marble the bishop intends for his own tomb, but the phrasing is overtly erotic, and thus these lines could indicate the bishop is again referring to the mother of his sons.
So much was saved if aught were missed! — in other words, the bishop once took advantage of a large fire at the church in order to save the large lump of lapiz lazuli for himself without anyone else knowing
olive-frail — a basket for gathering olives
lapis lazuli — a bright blue semi-precious gemstone that has been highly valued since ancient times for its intense color
a Jew’s head cut off at the nape — in addition to the disturbing imagery here, this description evokes the more specific story of John the Baptist, who was beheaded.
Blue as a vein oer the Madonna’s breast — a supposedly celibate bishop should not be thinking of the Virgin Mary’s exposed breast when attempting to describe a color.
Frascati — a resort town on the Mediterranean less than a day’s journey from Rome
Jesu Church — in Italian Il Gesu, this is the mother church of the Jesuit order. It was built in Rome between 1568 and 1584, which means his poem must be set in the late 16th century.
burst — presumably from anger or envy
Swift as a weavers shuttle fleet our years — an adaptation of a passage from Job: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and are spent without hope.”
antique-black — Called nero antico in Italian, this is a type of black marble that is much more attractive and expensive than basalt.
Pans and Nymphs — Pan is a minor Greek deity. He is depicted with the legs and horns of a goat and associated with pastures, shepherds, forests. Perhaps more to the point, he is depicted as sexually rapacious (and often depicted with a phallus), equally capable of bedding goddesses and nymphs or copulating with goats. He also was associated with masturbation, which myth says he taught to shepherds. Nymphs are minor divine beings in the form of beautiful young women and are connected to various woodland features (trees, springs, and so on). They are also highly sexual. Note that Pan is the root of the word panic and nymph the root of nymphomania.
wot — have knowledge, be aware
thyrsus — an ornamental staff with a pine cone at the tip often used in ceremonies and processions sacred to Dionysius, god of wine, intoxication of all kinds, and fertility.
glory halo
one Pan / Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off — besides again choosing language that suggests lust and illicit sexuality, combining this image from classical Greek myth with those of Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian saint and martyr after whom this church is named is wildly inappropriate for a bishop.
tables — the stone tablets on which YHVH supposedly inscribed the Ten Commandments
mark — listen or pay close attention to
travertine — a light-colored variety of limestone commonly used as building materialin Rome
jasper — a semiprecious form of quartz available in many color
Tully’s every word — Tully is an affectionate nickname used especially by the English to refer to Marcus Tullius Cicero, a first-century B.C. Roman politician famous for his oratory.
Ulpian — Domitius Ulpianus, a third century A.D. Roman writer on the law. The Latin of the third century is widely considered inferior to the Latin of a couple of centuries earlier.
see God made and eaten all day long — referring to the communion wafers used in the Catholic mass
crook a crozier, the staff bishops carry as an emblem of their office
mortcloth the shroud or pall laid over a dead person
Saint Praxed at his sermon Saint Praxed was female. Browning wrote in a letter than he intentionally had the bishop make this mistake to reveal his confused mental state.
ELUCESCEBAT this word means he was illustrious in the form of Latin that Ulpian spoke; Cicero (Tully) would have said elucebat. The bishop has intentionally picked the inferior Latin form for Gandolf’s epitaph.
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage a distorted quotation from Genesis 47, in which Jacob says, “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been.”
Else meaning or else; it’s a threat
a vizor and a Term a vizor is a mask, especially the kind worn by actors in the classical Greek theatre; a Term is a bust on a square pedestal (the name comes from Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries and limits, who was a common subject for these busts). Both were typical decorations for formal settings at this time.
lynx a relatively small species of wild cat, the lynx was associated with Dionysius
entablature the slab on which the bishop’s body will lie
Gritstonesandstone, a type of sedimentary rock that is quite soft because it consists of tiny particles