Home  »  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895  »  The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church

Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Robert Browning 1812–89

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church


VANITY, saith the preacher, vanity!

Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?

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,

And as she died so must we die ourselves,

And thence ye may perceive the world’s a dream.

Life, how and what is it? As here I lie

In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,

Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask,

“Do I live, am I dead?” Peace, peace seems all.

Saint Praxed’s ever was the church for peace;

And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought

With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:

—Old Gandolf cozen’d me, despite my care;

Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South

He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!

Yet still my niche is not so cramp’d but thence

One sees the pulpit on the epistle-side,

And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,

And up into the aëry dome where live

The angels, and a sunbeam’s sure to lurk:

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-pour’d red wine of a mighty pulse,

—Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone.

Put me where I may look at him! True peach,

Rosy and flawless: how I earn’d the prize!

Draw close: that conflagration of my church

—What then? So much was sav’d if aught were miss’d!

My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig

The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood,

Drop water gently till the surface sink,

And if ye find … Ah God, I know not, I!…

Bedded in store of rotten figleaves soft,

And corded up in a tight olive-frail,

Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,

Big as a Jew’s head cut off at the nape,

Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast..

Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,

That brave Frascati villa with its bath,

So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,

Like God the Father’s globe on both his hands

Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,

For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!

Swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years:

Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?

Did I say, basalt for my slab, sons? Black—

’T was ever antique-black I meant! How else

Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?

The bas-relief in bronze ye promis’d me,

Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance

Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,

The saviour at his sermon on the mount,

Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan

Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off,

And Moses with the tables … but I know

Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,

Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope

To revel down my villas while I gasp

Brick’d o’er with beggar’s mouldy travertine

Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!

Nay, boys, ye love me—all of jasper, then!

’T is jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve

My bath must needs be left behind, alas!

One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,

There ’s plenty jasper somewhere in the world—

And have I not Saint Praxed’s ear to pray

Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,

And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?

—That ’s if ye carve my epitaph ariant,

Choice Latin, pick’d phrase, Tully’s every word,

No gaudy ware like Gandolf’s second line—

Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!

And then how shall I 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 clasp’d 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:

And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts

Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,

About the life before I liv’d this life,

And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests,

Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,

Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,

And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,

And marble’s language, Latin pure, discreet,

—Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?

No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!

Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.

All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope

My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?

Ever your eyes were as a lizard’s quick,

They glitter like your mother’s for my soul,

Or ye would heighten my impoverish’d frieze,

Piece out its starv’d design, and fill my vase

With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,

And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx

That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,

To comfort me on my entablature

Wherein I am to lie till I must ask,

“Do I live, am I dead?” There, leave me, there!

For ye have stabb’d me with ingratitude

To death: ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone—

Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat

As if the corpse they keep were oozing through—

And no more lapis to delight the world!

Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,

But in a row: and, going, turn your backs

—Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,

And leave me in my church, the church for peace

That I may watch at leisure if he leers—

Old Gandolf—at me, from his onion-stone,

As still he envied me, so fair she was!