Visions

The Sinning Bishop
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     As Robert Browning's poem "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church" begins with "Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! (1)", the reader might immediately believe, without the bias granted by the rest of the poem, that this preacher is accusing another of vanity. After all, pride is viewed in the Christian dogma as one of the seven deadly sins, and vanity is defined plainly as "excessive pride." However, as the details progress, this preacher shows his own vanity, along with the other deadly sins. These are less-than-ideal traits for a preacher, to say the least! This moral conflict is centered immediately around this preacher's (or Bishop's) death, and the priorities he expresses that are not characteristic of a proper servant of God.

     Vanity is addressed again in the form of the Bishop's judgments of the envy of others. "Old Gandolf envied me (5)," and "how I earned the prize! (33)," he claims, referring to his prominent and expensively decorated tomb. His pride takes a shocking altitude when he asks that his nephews "let the blue lump (lapis lazuli) poise between [his] knees/ Like God the Father's globe on both his hands (47-48)." Could there be any greater vanity than comparing one's self as an equal to God? He next expresses his reasoning for such vanity as it relates back to his colleague's envy: "For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst! (50)"

     The dying Bishop continues his speech with many allusions to his past Mistress ("so fair she was! (5)"), who mothered his son(s). This woman is also his last topic of speech, as he repeats "how fair she was! (125)" before finally dying. Even the suggestion of a preacher having a "mistress" is a rather scandalous one, and brings forth the indication of yet another of the deadly sins- lust. The theme of lust is found again in one of the requests he makes for the subject matter of the bronze bas-relief decorating of his tomb- "and one Pan/ Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off (60-61)." Not only is such a portrayal highly inappropriate for the grave of a Bishop in terms of the sexual content, but quite Pagan in subject. He later uses lust as a bribe for his nephews, portrayed as possibly being priests themselves, promising them "mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs (75)."

     The Bishop's greed rears its ugly head with his first confession. He bids his nephews to "draw close," and asks them to recall the "conflagration of [his] church (34)." He then confesses that he burned the church in order to mask his theft of a large, valuable stone (the previously mentioned lapis lazuli) for his own profit. He also makes some very greedy demands for the makeup of his tomb: "antique black (54)," "bas-relief in bronze (56)," "fill my vase with grapes (107-108)," etc. One would expect a holy man to be concerned with reaping the heavenly afterlife and not the expense and beauty of his material tomb... especially not such specific and numerous demands.

     The gluttony of the priest is a much more subtle and abstract presence when compared to the other characteristics. He is obsessed with the size and mass of his deathspace, needing it to be larger and more assuming than that of his colleague, Gandolf. The objects of his senseless greed inhabit the space, filling it up and spreading it farther out with each demand. Considering that this Bishop's tomb is centered in a holy space (the church), this gluttonous use of space by a departed preacher is inappropriate.

     The Bishop's personal wrath is carried out as all of these requests (or demands, rather) are summed up in his mind. It is a victory of sorts, balancing on the vicious actions which brought the Bishop such a victory. "I fought With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:" he begins. "-- Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care/ Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South/ He graced his carrion with, God curse the same! (16-19)" He concludes the violent statement with a request that God smite Old Gandolf- a very strong statement of impending wrath.

     Although there are many sins to consider in the character of this Bishop of Saint Praxed, it is vanity which spreads out and covers all the others. It is vanity which makes the preacher feel he is an equal to God, and is, in a sense, immortal. He claims that in death, he shall still see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the stimuli of the church surrounding his tomb, from "steady candle-flame (83)," to "strong, stupefying incense-smoke (84)." It was vanity which caused the Bishop to keep his mistress, whom Old Gandolf so envied, and leads him to promise vile riches to his nephews even after his death. It was the desire for continued pride and vanity which instilled thoughts of greed and material wealth into the mind of the clergyman- causing him to burn down his own church to aquire the possession. Even after his death, he wishes these possessions to be "shown off" to the living in a large, gluttonous space, if only to follow-up on his ill wishes towards his competitor, Gandolf, in a final stab of personal wrath.

     It's no wonder that this Bishop is on his 'death bed'- when even the final moments of his life as a supposed doctor of divinity are full to the brim with the very deadly sins he is charged to prevent and discourage.

Katherine Kennon (2005)