[Adapted from Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought, 1980. Full text]

The almost inevitable disparities between type and fulfillment in the life of a fictional character, like a character's misapplication or misinterpretation of such symbolism, produces a range of ironic commentary on fictional personages. Since the time the Wife of Bath argued for female superiority with wonderfully twisted allusions to scripture, English authors have long employed such subjective distortions of interpretive procedures as a means of creating and occasionally satirizing figures in their own works. As Barton demonstrates, such uses of commonplace types can produce gentle, if far-reaching, satire. They can also induce the reader to make far harsher judgments of a fictional character, and Rochester's misapplication and misreading of Achan's tent exemplifies such an earnest condemnation.

The double perspective or context provided by typology makes it particularly useful to the writer of dramatic monologues, since the disparity between literal and symbolical (or type and antitype) provides him with an effective means of allowing his character to convey more than he intends. Robert Browning, who is the great typologist among Victorian poets, frequently employs types for this purpose. For instance, "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church. Rome, 15 -- " (1845) uses a number of types to emphasize the precise nature of the prelate's characterizing attitudes towards life and death, matter and spirit. The Bishop, whom Ruskin took to be a brilliantly achieved emblem of the Renaissance, persistently confuses matter and spirit in a most blasphemous manner, for having no true belief in Christian immortality, he yet tries to secure himself a kind of bizarre life after death. Browning's many citations of types in the poem reveal his speaker continually misinterpreting heavenly spiritual matters which he appropriates and misapplies to his passionate yearning to make himself immortal. As George Monteiro has pointed out, "in ordering his tomb -- and the entire poem is organized around this piece of business -- the Bishop in effect parodies the Lord's command to Moses to build him a sanctuary: "According to all that I show thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle" (Full text of article). The Bishop, who sees himself as "an object worthy of worship", wishes his tomb to be constructed of stones from the Tabernacle, moreover, which were types of Heaven. Furthermore, the very details, such as the nine pillars supporting his tomb, turn out to be allusions to passages in Exodus which were commonly read as prefigurative images of Heaven as well. "Without hope for personal salvation and with no faith in the Christian Resurrection, the Bishop reduces references to John the Baptist and the Madonna to nothing more than aesthetic comparisons for his beloved lapis lazuli. At the same time, taking over metaphors which emblematize salvation, he attempts to remake them into the letter of an earthbound immortality of sorts"(5).

We may add that the Bishop's many blasphemies find their center in his complete inability to comprehend the nature of matter, spirit and the relationship between them. In particular, he cannot interpret the literal expression of spiritual matters properly. Augustine's Confessions tell that during his earlier Manichaean stage when he accepted the sect's belief in philosophical materialism, he could not conceive symbolic interpretation, and that as he came to believe in a world of the spirit, he also came to accept and understand symbolic reading of texts. In fact, the connection of the two remains so close for Augustine that he terms "spiritual" what we today would subsume under the broad category "symbolical" (6). Browning's Bishop finds himself in the predicament of a Manichaean who can only accept the material and yet passionately desires immortality which requires a belief in spirituality. As a result, he collapses matter and spirit into each other, now calling upon the capacities of the one and now the other. This fusion and confusion of states of being which his passionate desire for immortality produces, is well suited to the psychological state of a dying man, and perhaps this suitability provides another reason why Browning chose to set this character portrait within the context of a death-bed scene.

Related materials


Monteiro, George. "The Apostasy and Death of St. Praxed's Bishop." Victorian Poetry. 8 (1970): 216. (Full text of article)

Victorian Web main screen Biblical Typology Robert Browning

Last modified 29 October 2011