Abstract. To grasp the complexity of Browning's poem we must unravel several references which are ecclesiastical and scriptural as well as naturalistic or aesthetic. The full significance of the stones mentioned by the Bishop—particularly agate, lapis lazuli (sapphire), marble and jasper, stones which emblemize transcendence and salvation—can be apprehended fully only when they are viewed in scriptural context: Exodus, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Revelation.i Interested in their aesthetic value alone, the Bishop in effect denies them transcendental significance. In the moments before his death, when paganism has once again won out over Christian asceticism, the Bishop's inordinate selflove leads him into parodic reenactment of Godlike roles and functions.
And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people. —Genesis xlix.33
RUSKIN'S COMMENTARY on "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church" (text of the poem) is as well-known as the poem itself.1 We are all familiar with his praise of Browning's talent for striking upon every "principle connected with the mediaeval temper," and with his observation that manifested in this poem is "the kind of admiration with which a southern artist regarded the stone he worked in; and the pride which populace or priest took in the possession of precious mountain substance, worked into the pavements of their cathedrals, and the shafts of their tombs."2 Ruskin's acute observation has become a commonplace of Browning criticism. But there are mysteries in the poem which Ruskin did not explore, and which continue to elude readers. Indeed, we have not yet succeeded in sorting out the strands of "all those conceivable postulates and hypotheses of the poetic and satiric mind to which we owe the picture of how the bishop ordered his tomb in St. Praxed's," as Henry James observed at Browning's death in 1890.3 With Ruskin, it is not so much that his commentary misses the mark but that its accuracy, limited though it is, encourages us to bypass other, more fruitful ways to interpret references and allusions which are ecclesiastical and scriptural, not merely naturalistic or aesthetic.
Ruskin's observations have sometimes been questioned, if only implicitly. For example, both William C. DeVane and Barbara Melchiori challenge Ruskin's somewhat naturalistic position by suggesting that the sources for the aesthetic riches of the poem are primarily scholarly. In Browning's Parleyings DeVane suggests Browning's debt for details and images to Daniel Bartolf's Dei Simboli Trasportati al Morale,4 while Miss Melchiori traces lines and details describing the ideal tomb ordered by the Bishop to Gerard de Lairesse's The Art of Painting in All its Branches5 take no issue with the findings of either scholar. Rather, in the following paragraphs I shall offer suggestions on ways to interpret the full symbolic meaning Browning's Renaissance Bishop would have found—and ultimately have rejected—in the stones he covets. This matter will involve us in a striking way with the questions of his public religion, his vanity, and his private inclinations. It will also get us into the specific problem of "Browning's exceptional knowledge of Scripture.6
In recent years we have had several conflicting assessments of the Bishop's character. Two of them are of particular interest in that while each is based upon a recognition that Ecclesiastes is directly relevant, if not central, to a basic reading of the poem, they nevertheless arrive at diametrically opposed interpretations of the Bishop. After asserting that its opening line—"Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!"—"sets the tone and mood of both these works—Browning's poem and the Preacher's cynical view of life," the first critic continues:
One has but to dip into Ecclesiastes at almost any point to see how permeated the book is with an almost fatalistic point of view. It is this spirit of cynicism and disillusionment which the Bishop feels as his death draws near. This tone runs in the background of the Bishop's mind throughout the poem, breaking in at intervals upon the churchman's anxiety about the splendor of his tomb. Like the Preacher, he is convinced of the emptiness of life, the certainty of death, and the uncertainty of the hereafter.7
Beginning also with the opening allusion to Ecclesiastes, the second critic points out that in quoting Ecclesiastes the Bishop is merely mouthing "the official medieval Christian attitude toward this life and the things of this world," but that in doing so he utters "what he in no wise believes." He has not grown cynical toward this life, as the first critic would have it. Rather "the life he looks forward to will be as sensual, as selfish, and as materialistic—in an abstract, passive way —as the life he has lived in the past." The Bishop may indeed have always been cynical about his religion, but "he is far from disillusioned." Summing up, this critic recreates the Bishop's final stance:
"This is the life! He asks no better than to continue living it, lying through centuries, fixed in stone. But, oh, if only he had a slightly better location! and, oh, may his sons not build his tomb of gritstone!"8
Of the two readings just summarized, the second is the more persuasive. There is little doubt that the Bishop would thoroughly disagree with the Preacher whose advice to man was to prepare himself for the day when earthly life must come to resolution—when "the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern," then "shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (xii.6-7). In his opposition to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes the Bishop might well anticipate and paraphrase Robert Frost's "Birches" by deciding—but with different emphasis—that "Earth's the right place for [self] love: / I don't know where ifs likely to go better."
Persistently materialistic in the course of a long life, the Bishop becomes even more so at the prospect of his imminent death. Christianity and Renaissance classicism conjoin dramatically, if confusedly, in his wavering consciousness as he tries in his final moments to arrange for the monument which will become, for all purposes, his portion of immortality—an unchristian monument unashamedly glorifying body and earthly life. But the Bishops rivalry with "Old Gandolf," predecessor in life and in death, for the "True peach, / Rosy and flawless,"9 his continuing battle for the more munificent monument and the superior location for his tomb within the peaceful confines of Saint Praxed's Church, his dedication in earlier days to prizes he would now dangle before his sons ("Horses . . . and brown Greek manuscripts, / And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs"), his purist's concern with gems and stones and "Choice Latin"—even all these matters taken together do not fully determine the measure of his apostasy. Rather, one might say with more accuracy that the "worldly" Bishop's apostasy is characterized by his confusion of states of consciousness and matters of spirit. Within himself, pagan elements recalling the Old Testament still war with an overall asceticism characteristic of the New Testament. Of course, the Bishop's dilemma is most excruciating and most ironic when his desperate desire for continuing personal life beyond physical death, combined as it is with the ramblings of illness and played off against a blurred background of commonplace contemptus mundi utterances, betrays him into unwitting self-revelation. This is most clearly so when we are presented with his confused thoughts, obliquely presented, on the kingdom of God. Christian promises of spiritual salvation have to all intents been rejected by the Bishop. Nor does Ecclesiastes, invoked at the outset of the Bishop's monologue, promise personal salvation. "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter," says the Preacher. "Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man" (xii.13). Moreover, in verses which have wry application to the Bishop's ecclesiastical career and to his "marriage," Ecclesiastes reads:
For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun. . . . Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. (ix.4-9)
The Bishop adheres to pagan ways, and having taken pleasure as his earthly portion, is reluctant at the last to accept the fact that he must let go of life and accept death. His actions deny any belief in the transcendence of the spirit, but they do imply a belief in "immortality" for the body. If earthly life is to be his only "portion," he must and will deal for an extension of that life beyond the time of his death. Hence his confusing account of what he shall continue to see, and to hear, and what he will do when he has indeed become his monument. From his niche he shall see
the pulpit o' the epistle-side,
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
And up into the aery dome where live
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk;
"Put me where I may look at him [Gandolf]!" he insists; put me where
I shall 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 mcense-smoke!
The matters of the Bishop's rejection of the Christian promise of spiritual salvation and of his paradoxical attempt to extend his physical life beyond the death of his body, are woven into the poem's texture with more skill than is ordinarily noted. There are various ways in which Browning accomplishes this. We may begin our consideration of them by examining the Bishop's vanity. He shall not join in death the envied mother of his sons, as he well knows, nor is his deathbed thinking any longer dominated by inherently valuable "horses" and "brown Greek manuscripts." But he can take with him, so to speak— provided he can persuade his sons to accede to his wishes—the material symbols of immortality. At death he recalls fondly not his sons' "tall pale mother" but "new-found agate urns as fresh as day, / And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet." And he dreams that between his knees shall be "poise[d]" a "blue lump" of "lapis lazuli." As for the tomb, it shall be "all of jasper." " 'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to" the Bishop insists. But fearing that his sons will not carry out his request, he pleads: "My sons, ye would not be my death?"—an irony which masks the truth that the Bishop's portion of immortality is all too mortal, that he desperately negotiates for a symbolic extension of his earthly life. Hence, his sons' failure to provide for his monument will, in his sense, be his death.
Since the Bishop is persuaded that the position of his tomb within the church and the materials used for that tomb, along with its ornamental stones, will constitute whatever immortality is available to him, we would do well to look into the terms he specifies and the stones he names. Critics, following Ruskin or arguing with him, have traditionally viewed the Bishop's taste for "marble," "lapis lazuli," "agate," and "jasper" as evidence of his aestheticism and rampant paganism. And surely, the Bishop's concern for such substance helps to suggest the spiritual distance between the Bishop and Saint Praxed, the Roman virgin who rejected paganism for Christianity in the church bearing her name. But these stones, taken together, nave an even greater significance. Through the Bishop's choice of lapis lazuli and jasper Browning makes indirect reference to Scripture—-particularly Exodus, Ezekiel, and Revelation. Actually, it is likely that Browning counts on the reader's familiarity with these scriptural contexts for the purpose of conveying the complexity and depths of the Bishop's dilemma.
Let us start with the Book of Revelation, the description of the throne of God as it appears to Saint John the Divine:
The first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said. Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the Spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. (iv.1-3)
Later this description is repeated and its effect reinforced when John sees "a new heaven and a new earth" (xxi.l). Having "heard a great voice out of heaven saying. Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people" (xxi.3), John is carried "away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed . . . that great city, the holy Jerusalem" (xxi.10). The light emanating from Jerusalem, we are told, is "like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone" (xxi.l I):
The building of the wall of [the heavenly Jerusalem] was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire, (xxi.18-19)
Such precious stones are the ornaments of the heavenly city promised to those who have worshipped at the "tabernacle of God," but forbidden at the last to "any thing that defileth . . . whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie" (xxi.27).
Judged by Scripture, the Bishop is of course guilty of many defilements. As man and priest he has profaned God's tabernacle. The precious stones and opulent materials of the tomb he would have his sons build are elsewhere in Scripture related to priestly functions. Moses is instructed to establish the priesthood; he is to advise Aaron and his sons that they "may minister unto [the Lord] in the priest's office" (Exodus xxviii.l). And Aaron's "holy garments" are made "for glory and for beauty" (xxviii.2). In particular, the breastplate must be "doubled," Moses learns, with four rows containing three stones each, ian impressive list which includes agate, sapphire, and jasper (xxviii. 17-20).10 The full relevance for Browning's poem of these references emerges when it is recognized, as biblica commentators have long agreed, that the term commonly translated s "sapphire" in Scripture is more accurately rendered as "lapis lazuli."11 This information is given in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771), where it is noted that "the gem known to us by this name is extremely different from the sapphire of the ancients, which was . . . only a more beautiful kind of the lapis lazuli."
With this identification in mind we can see how pertinent to Browning's poem are the visions of Isaiah, where the foundation of the new Jerusalem is laid "with sapphires" (liv.ll), and especially Ezekiel's:
Above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. (i.26-28)
With these verses from Ezekiel which again describe the "kingdom of God," we move closer to a definition of the blasphemy proposed by the Bishop when he glories in the lapis lazuli he has hidden for his own use:
Some lump, ah God, of
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast . . . .
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!
Glossing the reference to "the Father's globe," one of Browning's nineteenth-century editors writes: "In the great Jesuit church in Rome, the altar of St. Ignatius is adorned with a group of the Trinity by Bernardino Ludovisi. The Father holds a globe, which is said to be the largest piece of lapislazuli in existence."12 Thus the analogy which occurs to the Bishop uncove his fantasies for us. Here is the measure of the Bishops proposal: a godly throne with his own "sapphire stone" between his "knees" (a Victorian euphemism, I take it, for "loins"), a "sapphire stone" meant to dazzle "Old Gandolf" if not Ezekiel himself.
Such godly assumptions extend beyond the matter of the stolen lapis lazuli, moreover, for through ritual-like arrangements the Bishop self-centered even in the moments before his death, continues to pose as the focus of attention. Indeed it can be said that the Bishop conceives of himself as an object worthy of worship. The very movements of his sons he would view as sacerdotal. Standing, his sons are compared to the columns of his tomb ("nine columns round me, two and two, / The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands"), with the Bishop's bed projected as the center of the tomb. Later the Bishop's bed becomes altar-like, and the Bishop concludes his ritual by ordering candles extinguished and by instructing his sons in the form their departure must take: "going, turn your backs— / Aye, like departing altar-ministrants."13
It is helpful to recognize that the Bishop's arrangements are an attempt at ritualizing his sons' behavior, thereby "deifying" himself. But the odd little ritual drama he enacts and directs is not the whole story. There are other observations to be made concerning the Bishop's conception of himself. 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" (Exodus xxv.9). The detailed and precise instructions given to Moses continue for several chapters, leading ultimately into those directions for the establishment of a priesthood (already quoted in part). A further reference to Scripture may be behind the Bishop's confused thoughts when he focuses on what he hopes will be his own death's undeathlike nature: "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." As for "nine" columns, compare Exodus: "thou shalt rear up the tabernacle . . . thou shalt hang [a veil] upon four pillars thou shalt make an hanging for the door of the tent . . . And thou shall make for the hanging five pillars" (xxvi.30-37). In short, the Bishop's detailed instructions for his own tabernacle echo and parody the Lord's instructions to Moses. Nor is it without relevance that the Bishop's wavering consciousness should cause him to instruct his sons to work out "the bas-relief in bronze" in a melange of pagan and Tudeo-Christian images and symbols:
Pans and Nymphs . . .
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
ending suitably with a representation of "Moses with the tables." The Bishop has exceeded the mere violation of Mosaic commandments—particularly the injunction which insists, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (xx.4); he has connived to usurp the place of his God.
Still we have not finished with Browning's echoings of the Old Testament. Ezekiel tells of God's judgment on Tyre and its prince. It is prophesied therein that the city and her ruler, equally devoted to beauty and riches, must inevitably fall. Tyrus, too, has usurped God's place. To Ezekiel falls the burden of addressing the prince of Tyre:
Son of man, say unto the prince of Tyrus, Thus saith the Lord GOD, Because thine heart is lifted up, and thou hast said, I am a God, I sit in the seat of God, in the midst of the seas; yet thou art a man, and not God, though thou set thine heart as the heart of God. . . . With thy wisdom and with thine understanding thou hast gotten thee riches, and hast gotten gold and silver into thy treasures: By thy great wisdom, and by thy traffic hast thou increased thy riches, and thine heart is lifted up because of thy riches: Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because thou hast set thine heart as the heart of God; Behold, therefore, I will bring strangers upon thee. . . . Wilt thou yet say before him, that slayeth thee, I am God? but thou shalt be a man, and no God, in the hand of him that slayeth thee. (xxviii.2-9)
And the analogy between Ezekiel's prophecy and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" does not end with these verses, for Ezekiel continues with Ae Lord's instructions on what Tyrus must hear:
Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God, every precious stone was thy covering? the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold. . . . Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the days that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee. Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay nee before kings, that they may behold thee. Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffic; therefore will Dnng forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee; and I will bring to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee ... and ever shalt thou be any more. (xxviii. 13-19)
Browning persuades us, if my reading is correct, that the Bishop's sons will unwittingly perform the role of "strangers" destined to enact God's will. They shall destroy the Bishop whose self-love has led him into assuming "Godlike" functions. Like those of Tyrus, the Bishop's principal sins are pride and self-deification. The precious jewels gracing the priest's breastplate described in Exodus, the jewels and stone of Ezekiel's description of Eden, and those jewels which adorn the heavenly city of Jerusalem at the center of John's vision in Revelation become far more than additional signs of the Bishop's aestheticism and hedonism. At the prospect of his death they have come to emblemize his only chance at salvation. A single throw at earthly immortality, starting out with a carefully situated tomb, becomes his answer to one of Job's dilemmas. With some confusion the Bishop himself alludes to the Book of Job when he complains: "Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years: / Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?" Telescoped by the Bishop's swirling brain, these lines recall Job vii.6-10:
My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope. O remember that my life is wind: mine eye shall no more see good. The eye of him that hath seen me shall see me no more: thine eyes are upon me, and I am not. As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away: so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more. He shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more.
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 emblemize salvation, he attempts to remake them into the letter of an earthbound immortality of sorts. When the dying Bishop insists that "There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world," Exodus, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Revelation provide a reply with an unmistakable consensus: surely there is no jasper in the world the Bishop has chosen, but jasper does exist in the kingdom of heaven he has long since repudiated.14 Negotiating to the last for lapis and jasper, the Bishop of Saint Praxed's Church fears a most probable fate. All business at an end, his portion will be closer to
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through.
And there will be "no more lapis to delight the world!"
Last modified 27 October 2011