As the Bishop makes worldly arrangements for his tomb, he contemplates his imminent death in Robert Browning's "The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church." The Bishop seems to be an extremely materialistic person, since his requests include detailed descriptions of the sorts of materials he envisions for his tomb ("basalt", "How else/Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?/The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me", "All of jasper, then!"). It feels odd for a person to be commissioning his own memorial, both because memorials are supposed to be created after death, not before, and also because memorials at best carry the love and respect of those who survive the deceased, not of the deceased's own view of himself. Yet the Bishop's involvement in his funerary plans seems less strange when he discusses what he expects death to be like. Rather than offering lofty ideas about a paradisiacal afterlife, the Bishop anticipates physically experiencing life entombed in a church. Thus, it is not shocking that he has specific requests for his post-mortem situation.
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!
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
There are many indications in the poem that the Bishop lacks Christian faith, including his materialism, the references he makes to pagan images on his tomb, his inability to forgive, and most notably perhaps his expectations for a rather earthly afterlife.
Do the Pagan characters mentioned, Pan and the nymphs, have any greater significance beyond being symbols of the Bishop's heathenism? What sort of place is a sacred church if the Bishop believes that enmities in life — such as the rivalry he felt with Old Gandolf — will carry over into the afterlife to echo through the building? For that matter, what sort of spiritual environment is the afterlife if such rivalries remain?
While the Bishop at one point seems to realize the error of his ways (he says, "Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage"), for most of the poem, he seems relatively unconcerned about his fate. How can he not be fearful and anxious? What fears or other emotions, aside from complaisance, does the Bishop seem to have?
The Bishop appears to envision himself merging with the stone sculpture that will crown his sepulchre. What sense is this imagery conveying? Is this the end the Bishop anticipates after years in the church — turning to stone rather than going to heaven?
In this dramatic monologue, since the protagonist is not an especially sympathetic character, is there someone else with whom we sympathize?
Modified 22 September 2003