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Let's face it: deathbed scenes are usually tearjerkers. The family gathers around, words of wisdom and love are exchanged, and the waterworks start to flow—unless you're Robert Browning.
His poem, "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church," stars a bishop on his deathbed, but that's about as conventional as it gets. For one thing, this is a bishop with a past—and also sons from a long-dead mistress. Plus, he's got some wild obsession with a dead rival named Gandolf (not that Gandolf—sorry, LOTR fans) and he's continually trying to one-up him by bringing up how hot his mistress was (weird) and fantasizing about how he's going to bling out his own tomb (weirder). We're not even going to get into some of the dude's decorating tastes. You'll just have to read the poem to believe them.
When it first came out in 1845, though, the only way you could read this poem was in a short-lived magazine called Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany. Later that same year, Browning put it in his self-published collection Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. (See? Even the greats self-published. We hope you're taking notes out there, aspiring poets.)
Though his fame was slow to grow (and he was often overshadowed by his better-known wife, fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett), Browning eventually gained a reputation as a well-read, sophisticated artist. He was particularly famous for his dramatic monologues, which often featured speakers who were historical characters going on (and on) about a particular subject.
"The Bishop Orders His Tomb" is a textbook example of this style. It's also an indictment of the hypocrisy that came to be associated with the Catholic church during the Renaissance, when many church officials abused their positions of influence for personal gain. Writer and critic John Ruskin, in fact, once wrote that this one poem said everything that he did about the Renaissance period. The only difference was that it took Ruskin three books, while Browning only needed one poem.
So check out this quirky and insightful snapshot of a spiritual leader who has lost his way as a man of God, and instead found his true calling as an interior designer.
Jealous, much? Sure you are. We all are. Whether they are our neighbors, our friends, our frenemies, or just our regular enemies, we all can think of people in our lives who seem to have it better than us. That "it" might be a worldly possession, a skill, a relationship, a tomb in a church—okay so maybe not that last one.
The speaker of "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" is trying to teach us a lesson, though. Robert Browning's bishop is, at the end of the day, a pretty misguided and pathetic soul. Even he seems to realize that at a certain point. Still, he just can't seem to get over his need to shove his possessions in his rival Gandolf's face.
Oh, and did we mention that Gandolf's dead? Yeah, it's pretty ridiculous—almost as ridiculous as any of our own rivalries. Why do we get so wrapped up in what other people might think or say about us? Why do we think that we're in some kind of competition with them, that we have to one-up them on some kind of cosmic scoreboard?
If you've never asked yourself these questions, then "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" is the poem for you. And even if you have noticed before how useless and misguided it is to get into a rivalry with anyone, this poem is a good reminder. Once you read it, you'll realize that constantly comparing yourself with others is a recipe for unhappiness, isolation, and just really bizarre decorative tastes. Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. Browning.
Browning, the Victorian
The Victorian Web serves up a heaping platter of links to good information about Browning's life and works.
The Foundation's Got You Covered
Hungry for more? The Poetry Foundation has a great bio and links to Browning's work.
Get to Church
Learn all about St. Praxed's Church on this quaint little website.
"The Bishop Orders His Tomb": The Movie
Dig this cinematic reenactment.
Tongue Firmly in Cheek
We don't endorse any of the summary here, but the video is still pretty funny to look at.
Here's a serious (and slow) interpretation.
Browning + Bach
Maybe the classical music can offset this…enthusiastic reading.
The Voice of Robert Browning
This is an actual recording of Browning attempting to recite one of his poems. The audio quality is what you'd might expect.
Behold Browning the bard and his bushy beard.
View of St. Praxed's
It would do…in a pinch.
St. Praxed's Interior
We have to admit, that is a good view of the angels.
Here's one (slightly creepy) take on the poem, created by artist Arthur Watts.
The Victorian Web has you covered if you're looking for articles on this poem.
The Norton Critical Edition
Celebrate the man's whole catalog with this book.