Browning's dramatic monologue is a form that, while revealing a great deal about the speaker, also can conceal or veil certain pieces of information. If the speaker were real, he would leave such expositions out, since both he and his audience (within the poem) would recognize even an obscure reference to a common past. Such mysteries enhance the poem's realism and effect, but pose a certain challenge and frustration for the reader.
In The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, we are given within a few lines such an eliding of information about the persons the Bishop is speaking to:
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 [3-7]
This is a very provocative statement. The Bishop could be talking about his heirs as his sons in the metaphorical sense, as the Catholic Church is wont to do. But the reference to possessing their mother leads us to something more sordid; for the Bishop to not know whether they are his nephews or sons it would mean he was having an affair with either his sister or the wife of his brother. Another option pops up later in the poem when the Bishop talks "about the life before I lived this life," which could mean a life before the one of the church, where he had a wife and sons. But it is by no means conclusive. It seems the speaker himself is not sure what his relationship is to his heirs. Nor are we told how many there are‹we know only that there is more than one and one's name is Anselm.
Can we gain insight into the Bishop's relationship with his heirs and their mother through what we know about his character from the rest of the poem?
Does our interpretation of the Bishop's relationship with Gandolf change if the unnamed "she" was not at one time the Bishop's wife? Are "She" and Gandolf related outside of the Bishop?
How does the poem change if the listeners are not his sons? Does it justify his paranoia about what will happen after his death?
Modified 23 September 2003