The first line of "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church" sounds like a sermon: "Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!" the speaker cries, alluding to biblical wisdom about the ultimate emptiness of worldly wealth and power. Everything that the speaker says thereafter will ironically undercut that first cry—and unintentionally prove its wisdom.
As the poem begins, its speaker, a 16th-century Italian Renaissance bishop, is lying on his deathbed, calling his sons around him to listen to his last wishes. Right from the start, then, readers know that the Bishop has perhaps not been 100% faithful to his calling: Catholic priests are meant to be celibate, and this man has not just one son, but a whole gaggle of them!
Of course, he's certainly not the only priest in his world to have strayed. When he starts out by calling his sons "nephews," he follows an old tradition:
- When a supposedly celibate priest had children, the kids were referred to not as his sons and daughters, but his nephews and nieces. In fact, the word "nepotism," meaning "using one's influence and power to favor family and friends," comes from the Italian word for "nephew."
- In the Bishop's 16th-century world, such "nephews" were likely to go far in life, supported by a wealthy father with good reasons to keep them quiet and content.
In just these first few lines, then, the poem conjures a whole world of Renaissance corruption, wealth, and power. This Bishop knows how to talk the Christian talk—but also how to take full, selfish advantage of his important church position. Lying on his deathbed, he seems to have no regrets and no shame: he knowingly refers to his sons' beautiful "mother," and gloats over just how jealous his old rival "Gandolf" (another priest—no relation to Tolkien's wizard) was of this "fair" lady. In short, he's spent his whole life as a corrupt, spiteful, selfish man, and he sees no reason to amend his ways now that he's dying.
There are hints, though, that this life has taken its toll on him. As he gathers his sons, he seems nervous that "Anselm" is "keeping back"—in other words, lurking in the background, reluctant to come forward, perhaps resentful or scheming. The Bishop's anxiety about this suggests that his selfish life has made him suspicious, always on the watch for backstabbers. (Keep an eye out for Anselm as the poem goes on; the Bishop certainly will.)
This poem is a dramatic monologue, which means that it's spoken in the first person by a particular character. The poet takes on a voice like an actor playing a part. For this particular monologue, Browning has chosen a theatrical form, too: blank verse. That means the poem is written in lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter—lines of five iambs, metrical feet with a da-DUM rhythm, like this:
Draw round | my bed: | is An- | selm keep- | ing back?
If this rhythm sounds familiar, that's not surprising: this is the same form Shakespeare used for most of the dialogue in his plays. Browning invites his readers to imagine the Bishop's speech not just as a poem, but as a performance. Like King Lear's or Leontes's speeches, the Bishop's words reveal a lot more about him than he might realize.