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Short poem

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church Rome, 15--

              1Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
              2Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
              3Nephews--sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! Well--
              4She, men would have to be your mother once,
              5Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
              6What's done is done, and she is dead beside,
              7Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
              8And as she died so must we die ourselves,
              9And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream.
            10Life, how and what is it? As here I lie
            11In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,
            12Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
            13"Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all.
            14Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace;
            15And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought
            16With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:
            17--Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;
            18Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South
            19He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!
            20Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence
            21One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side,
            22And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
            23And up into the aery dome where live
            24The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk:
            25And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,
            26And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest,
            27With those nine columns round me, two and two,
            28The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands:
            29Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe
            30As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse.
            31--Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,
            32Put me where I may look at him! True peach,
            33Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!
            34Draw close: that conflagration of my church
            35--What then? So much was saved if aught were missed!
            36My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig
            37The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood,
            38Drop water gently till the surface sink,
            39And if ye find . . . Ah God, I know not, I! ...
            40Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft,
            41And corded up in a tight olive-frail,
            42Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,
            43Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
            44Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ...
            45Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,
            46That brave Frascati villa with its bath,
            47So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,
            48Like God the Father's globe on both His hands
            49Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,
            50For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!
            51Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years:
            52Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?
            53Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black--
            54'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else
            55Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?
            56The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
            57Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance
            58Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
            59The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,
            60Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
            61Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off,
            62And Moses with the tables . . . but I know
            63Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,
            64Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope
            65To revel down my villas while I gasp
            66Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine
            67Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!
            68Nay, boys, ye love me--all of jasper, then!
            69'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve.
            70My bath must needs be left behind, alas!
            71One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,
            72There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world--
            73And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray
            74Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,
            75And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?
            76--That's if ye carve my epitaph aright,
            77Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word,
            78No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line--
            79Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!
            80And then how I shall lie through centuries,
            81And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
            82And see God made and eaten all day long,
            83And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
            84Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
            85For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
            86Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
            87I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
            88And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
            89And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
            90Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work:
            91And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts
            92Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,
            93About the life before I lived this life,
            94And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests,
            95Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,
            96Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,
            97And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,
            98And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet,
            99--Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?
          100No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!
          101Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.
          102All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope
          103My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?
          104Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick,
          105They glitter like your mother's for my soul,
          106Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,
          107Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase
          108With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,
          109And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
          110That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,
          111To comfort me on my entablature
          112Whereon I am to lie till I must ask
          113"Do I live, am I dead?" There, leave me, there!
          114For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude
          115To death--ye wish it--God, ye wish it! Stone--
          116Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat
          117As if the corpse they keep were oozing through--
          118And no more lapis to delight the world!
          119Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,
          120But in a row: and, going, turn your backs
          121--Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,
          122And leave me in my church, the church for peace,
          123That I may watch at leisure if he leers--
          124Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
          125As still he envied me, so fair she was!


1] First published in Hood's Magazine, March 1845, and reprinted in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, 1845.
St. Praxed's (Santa Prassede is the Italian form) is an actual church in Rome; the bishop is, of course, fictitious.

21] epistle-side: the side from which the epistles are read, theright-hand side as one faces the altar.

31] onion-stone: translation of the Italian name--cipollino--for a marble that breaks into layers.

42] lapis lazuli: a blue stone of which there is a fine specimen, supposed to be the largest in existence (see lines 48-9 below), in Il Gesu Church in Rome.

46] Frascati: a summer resort some dozen miles from Rome on the slope of the Alban hills.

54] antique-black: It. nero antico, black marble.

56] Such ornamentation is common on the ancient sarcophagi. The thyrsus is the cone-tipped staff, carried by followers of Dionysus.

66] travertine: the common limestone of Rome.

74] The collecting of Greek MSS. was a favourite pursuit of the virtuosi.

79] Ulpian was a late juristic writer (d. 228 A.D.); the Latin he used, therefore, differed from that of Tully (Cicero), which was accepted as the standard language of scholarship.

87] crook: the pastoral staff, symbol of his office.

95] Browning himself explained that the blunder in sex was due to the condition of the dying man; "he would not reveal himself as he does but for that." St. Praxedes was a woman.

99] Cicero would have used elucebat; the inchoative form marks later Latin.

108] vizor: mask, such as was worn by actors on the ancient stage.
Term: a square pillar ending in a bust, like those of the god Terminus.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Hood's Magazine (London: H. Penshaw, March 1845). AP H666 MICR mfm.
First publication date: 1845
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.113.
Recent editing: 2:2001/12/13

Rhyme: unrhyming

Other poems by Robert Browning