The Bishop Orders his Tomb by Robert Browning reveals the deep rooted fears and lack of belief in the heart of one of the church leaders. On his death bed, rather than hoping for the life to come or being thankful he had devoted his life to serving God, this bishop is filled with feelings of fear, regret, petty materialism, and even jealousy. This poem is ironic in its very nature as this man who, most of his life, was looked to as a religious authority figure, gloats in his sins including an affair and a love for material wealth. He mentions various possibilities of what might happen to him when he dies, but ultimately seems convinced that he will stay right there in his tomb for all of eternity. Every belief, feeling, and request that this bishop expresses reveals that in his heart, he believes exactly the opposite of what he has taught throughout his life.
The Bishop Orders his Tomb Analysis
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
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.
Browning begins this poem with an immediate reference to the book of Ecclesiastes, found in the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes 1:1 states, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
“vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
This reference sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The speaker is a Bishop, one who is considered a religious leader. He is clearly familiar with scripture, as he begins with a reference to the book of ecclesiastes. However, his choice of scripture to quote on his deathbed seems quite strange. The book of ecclesiastes itelf ends with hopefulness for a life after death, even if everything “under the sun” is futile. But the bishop doesn’t quote the end of the book, nor does he quote any of the countless scripture verses that support the idea of life after death in paradise. Rather, he quotes the despairing voice of King Solomon, who, after acquiring all the wealth there was to be gained, still considered everything futile. This opening line sets the tone and reveals to the readers that this religious leader identifies with King Solomon in his despair, feeling that everything is vanity, that everything is meaningless. He questions whether life is nothing but a dream, and he even questions whether he is currently alive or dead.
The Bishop then begins to give his nephews, and possibly one son, directions for his death and burial. He refers to a mistress that has long been dead, which implies that he is talking to not only nephews, but also an illegitimate son. He begins to question life. This is ironic, because his entire life as a religious leader, he was the one people looked to for answers to these very types of questions. And yet, as he laid on his deathbed, he asked, “Life, how and what is it?” He has yet to figure out the meaning of life.
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
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.
In this section, the speaker refers to Saint Praxed Church, which is apparently the place he is to be buried. He goes on to give his nephews and son specific instructions, and he reveals how important his resting place is to him when he says that he “fought with tooth and nail” for the specific place where he wanted his tomb. This seems strange for a bishop to say, as church leaders teach and promote the belief that one leaves the body and joins Christ in heaven upon death. If the bishop believed this, why should he be so concerned about his physical, earthly resting place?
This is only the beginning of the bishop revealing beliefs and actions that go against the teachings of the church. In the very next line, he accuses Gandolf, most likely his predecessor, or deceiving him, snatching up the best resting place before his death. He exclaims, “God curse the same!” in which he curses Gandolf. This also seems contradictory to his life’s position and work as a bishop. In the rest of this section, the bishop requires to be laid to rest within hearing distance of the choir, and where the sunbeams would shine, and where he would enjoy a beautiful view. All of these requests contradict the church’s teaching that the soul leaves the body upon death. The bishop’s request seem to infer that he beliefs he will stay in his resting place.
—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,
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 o’er the Madonna’s breast …
This section reveals that the bishop has been planning for his death for quite some time. Most of the materials he has listed here, are things he has been storing up in preparation for his death, so that his tomb might not be forgotten. He wants to be remembered on the earth, and this section reveals that he believes the best way to do it is to create a tomb for himself that everyone would awe. He had saved up these materials in the “white grape vineyard” and he told his listeners to do dig up the “fig leaves” and “lapis lazuli” (a bright blue rock) that he had buried to be used one day. He wished to be laid on the soft fig leaves, and to have his tomb decorated with the beautiful blue stone he had reserved for this very purpose. In this section, he is giving directions to those who will bury him.
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!
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,
This section is a continuance of the bishop’s directions for his own burial. He addresses his listeners as “sons” and tells them to make sure to put part of the blue stone he’s stored up “between [his] knees” which suggests a belief in the pagan ritual of burying their loved ones with wealth to take with them into the next life. He then goes on to continue describing what he wants to outside of his tomb to look like, requesting “basalt for [his] slab” which he specifically wants to be “antique black” and “bronze” and covered in blue jewels. This continues to contrast his very position in life, as he is adhering to some ancient beliefs the church had long since denied concerning the ability to take wealth with you into the next life. This section also reveals that he has put so much thought into what his tomb will look like, and little thought to the condition of his soul. This section shows the bishop to be entirely materialistic, which is not what one would expect from a religious leader.
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
Ready to twitch the Nymph’s 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!
In this section, the bishop goes so far as to list pagan gods including “Pans” and “Nymphs” along with the “Saviour” and “Moses”. This suggests a complete and total uncertainty about his beliefs. He seems to be covering his bases, so to speak. In other words, in case the pagan beliefs are true, he will be buried with some wealth. In case of the church’s teachings being true, he mentions his “Saviour” and “Moses” on his deathbed. This suggests a lack of belief. In fact, he seems to be grasping at every possibility, revealing that although he has served as a religious leader, he actually has no idea what he believes, and he is afraid of death. He is so focused on leaving a beautiful tomb to keep his memory alive. This reveals that the bishop is not sure that there is any after life at all, and if that is the case, then he wishes to make for himself a monument by which to be remembered on earth.
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!
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?
This section continues to reveal the bishop’s lack of belief in an afterlife as he gives more specific directions for his tomb. He wants it to be inlaid not only with the blue jewels he has already described, but also with “jasper” that is “as green as a pistachio-nut” and he asks them to go and find the jasper to use for his tomb, claiming that “There’s plenty jasper somewhere in the world”. He then asks them to carve images of beautiful women on his tomb, which he describes as “mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs”. This is also an ironic request, considering his role as a bishop, a church leader.
—That’s if ye carve my epitaph aright,
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully’s every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf’s second line—
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!
And then how I shall lie through centuries,
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!
In this section, he asks his hearers to write latin phrases on his tomb, and specifically requests that they be better phrases than those engraved on Gandolf’s tomb. The Bishop then laments about lying there in his grave “through centuries” listening to “the blessed mutter of the mass” and being “eaten” by worms “all day long”. He hopes he will at least be able to “feel the steady candle flame” and “taste” the “incense smoke”. This continues to reveal the bishop’s lack of belief in heaven as an after-life.
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:
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!
The bishop begins this section by going into detail about what it feels like to be dying “by such slow degrees”. He then describes his death as he “fold[s] [his] arms” and “stretch[es] [his] feet” and allows the burial clothes to be laid over him”. He talks as if he will still be conscious of what is happening to him even in death. He goes on to describe “a certain humming in [his] ears” and seems to believe that he will lie in his tomb for eternity, thinking about this life. He believes in death that he will remember his mistress. He addresses his son when he says that he will think of, “[his] tall pale mother with her talking eyes”. His having a mistress also contradicts his position as a leader in a Christian church. But this bishop, thus far, shows no interest in convincing his hearers of his Christian beliefs or lifestyle, but rather on his deathbed talks of every action and belief which contradicts the Christian lifestyle and theology.
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—
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!
In this last section, the bishop tells his listeners that if they love him at all, they will do as he has asked them to do for him, turning his tomb into a beautiful work of art by which the world would remember him. He acknowledges that his life has been short and evil, when he says, “Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage”. And at that, he continues to request more and more blue jewels to be inlaid in his tomb. He asks them to carve a vase full of grapes on the wall of his tomb. He gives further instruction for what to engrave on his tomb, specifically instructing, “And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down” which suggests that there will be intricate artwork of a lynx (a beautiful wild cat), tied to a tripod and struggling with a thyrsus (some sort of cane). It is likely that these pictures represent the struggle the bishop has felt in life. He tells his hearers that these works of art on his tomb would “comfort [him] on [his] entablature” (tomb). In his tomb, he believes, he will lie and ask himself, “Do I live? Am I dead?”
At this point, it seems the bishop begins to panic, crying out to God, nature, whomever there is to cry out to, asking why he is destined to lay in the stone which will “crumble” in a “clammy” confined tomb in which his very own corpse will begin to deteriorate. The bishop can imagine people leaving him there in his tomb, and he can no longer delight in the “lapis” of the world, nor in any other beauty the earth has to offer. He can imagine his predecessor, Gandolf, laying in the tomb that the bishop had intended for himself. He imagines that Gandolf, in his tomb, will envy the bishop for the tomb he has made for himself. This is revealed in the last two lines of the poem, in which the bishop says,
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she [the bishop’s tomb] was!
The entirety of this poem is the laments of a dying church leader who does not actually believe in what he has been teaching his whole life. This is implied by his deep concern with the materialistic beauty of his tomb and his request to be buried with precious stones. His mentioning of pagan gods along with Jesus and Moses reveal his attempt to “cover his bases” but also show that he has no real faith in what he has claimed to believe for his whole life. He does not talk about meeting his savior or life after death in paradise, but is rather concerned with the material aspect of his tomb, his memory on earth, and the comfort of his dead body. This poem is ironic in nature as this religious leader dies with no assurance of comfort in death or life after death, but rather with a feeling of utter meaninglessness and a strong desire to create an extravagant piece of art out of his tomb in order to be remembered.