The dying bishop in Robert Browning's poem uses what he would have us believe are his last moments to preach to his sons about the details of the tomb he wants built for him. The bishop is fixated on the particulars of stone and design as he drifts between clear directions and disorientation. Although the bishop is clearly a religious figure, his confusion concerning his personal beliefs on life after death is apparent. It is unclear however whether or not the bishop truly does not believe in resurrection and heavenly immortality or whether these ramblings are a result of a mind clouded with imminent death. The bishop does nonetheless discuss his tomb as if its splendor is a reflection of the depth of his belief. This fixation on using the grandeur of his burial place as a means to achieve eternal life is reflected in lines 80-84 which quite clearly elaborate on the bishop's blasphemous misconstruction of salvation:
And then how I shall lie through the 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!
Browning's reference to the senses in these lines heightens the reader's involvement with the poem but also draws attention to the disrespect the bishop has for the sanctity of a holy celebration. Images of clerics muttering through a service and the graphic reference to God being eaten relate to the bishop's overall disregard for the purpose of religion. This has the effect of emphasizing the fact that the bishop's overarching concern on his death bed is not making peace with god, but attempting to create his own immortality trough material means.
1. In the first thirteen lines, the bishop refers to the word death in various tenses seven times. How does this repetition shape our understanding of the bishop's current mental state and does it influence our ideas about the legitimacy of his condition?
2. In this poem, the bishop is supposedly talking to his sons, but is the reader given any information to support that his sons are in the room or can it be suggested that perhaps the bishop is actually hallucinating and is talking to himself? What is the effect of having the poem begin in mid-conversation?
3. The first line of the poem is a reference to Ecclesiastes 1:2, which references the futility of the bishop's efforts to memorialize himself. What is the impact of this reference as the opening line of the poem?
Modified 22 September 2003