Although the genres, settings, characters, and imagery of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s” and Great Expectations differ greatly, Dickens” and Browning’s use of the first-person narrative serves to draw the reader in whilst establishing a multifaceted view of their protagonist. Both examine the pursuit of material wealth and the unpleasant effects it has on purportedly upstanding figures. In a time when the economic climate was changing, they challenge the notion of money and what possessing it entailed.
Money (or some equivalent) always has driven, and always will drive society worldwide. It is therefore hardly surprising then that it has been thoroughly examined in centuries of literature. However, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution money, or more specifically, those who possessed it, were beginning to assume a whole new identity. One of the most iconic novels of the Victorian Era, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations follows the journey of a young boy’s pursuit of wealth, and the trials and tribulations entailed in obtaining it and everything it signified. Telling the tale of an ailing Bishop’s dying wish for an extravagant resting place, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s” by Robert Browning is another of the great works of the century that examines the desire for riches.
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution Britain was undergoing an extreme economic upheaval, the effects of which were far-reaching, particularly in the class system. Money, heretofore only associated with but not a criterion for admittance into the upper class, was beginning to become a mark of social standing. The daughters of prosperous merchants, for example, were becoming perfectly acceptable matches for certain members the (usually financially challenged) aristocracy. The importance of bloodlines was becoming adumbrated by material wealth. Dickens’s Miss Havisham is the embodiment of this social phenomenon: born the daughter of an extremely wealthy brewer she is considered, especially by Pip, upper class, and as an extension of this so is Estella. It is because of this Pip so desperately wants to become a gentleman, and for this he needs only money and education, not a superior heritage. The importance of money and its significance to Pip is highlighted when his wildest dreams are finally realised:
“Bear in mind then, that Brag is a good dog, but Holdfast is a better. Bear going to make my that in mind, will you?” repeated Mr. Jaggers, shutting his eyes and nodding his head at Joe, as if he were forgiving him something. “Now, I return to this young fellow. And the communication I have got to make is, that he has great expectations.”
Joe and I gasped, and looked at one another.
“I am instructed to communicate to him,” said Mr. Jaggers, throwing his finger at me sideways, "that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of that property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman — in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations."
My dream was out; my wild fancy was surpassed by sober reality; Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune on a grand scale.
“The Bishop Orders His Tomb” also largely concerns the hypocrisy of monetary pursuit. Although the poem's bishop is fictional, Saint Praxed’s Church very much exists. Situated in Rome, it is dedicated to a martyred virgin of the second century who rejected paganism for Christianity and donated her wealth to the Church. It is no accident that Browning chose it to satirize the hypocrisy of the Renaissance Church. John Ruskin remarked upon this in Modern Painters IV, where he praised the poet's accurate depiction of
its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself, love of art, of luxury, and of good Latin. It is nearly all I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of The Stones of Venice [1851-3] put into as many lines, Browning's being the antecedent work. [Works, xx, 34]
Here is a bishop, listing all the precious items he has collected for the sole purpose of leaving behind an impressive tomb, concerned more by his desire to beat his old adversary, Gandolf, than by following the example of this patron saint and abstaining from all material wealth:
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.
Ñ 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!
Browning mocks the Bishop’s notion of death, as the he even practices the position he will lie in within his tomb:
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:
In this poem Browning deviates from his customary formatting, using iambic pentameter unrhymed lines as opposed to the rhyming schemes found in poems of his such as “My Last Duchess” and “Soliloquy of a Spanish Cloister.” By using blank verse he is not only emphasising the single-mindedness of the Bishop’s last moments but is also creating a sense of informality not found in his other poetry. This style is more personal and in keeping with the first person narrative. This is not unlike the close narration of Pip in Great Expectations. However, despite their use of first-person narrative both Browning and Dickens successfully convey the more objectionable sides to their protagonists: the Bishop’s greed and Pip’s snobbery.
Allingham, Philip V. "Robert Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" (1845): Another Renaissance Portrait Ñ The Sensual, The Profane, and the Sacerdotal." The Victorian Web. Web. 17 May 2010.
Collins. "Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's. Rome. 15-"" The Victorian Web. Web. 17 May 2010.
Monteiro, George. “The Apostasy and Death of St. Praxed's Bishop.” Victorian Poetry 8 (1970).
Modified 18 May 2010