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Introduction: A Renaissance bishop is lying on his death. Around him stand his illegitimate sons whom he briefly refers to as “nephews” (obviously the polite dodge used when he referenced on other occasions.

The bishop is said sit at St. Praxed, “The Church of St.Praxed is notable for the beauty of its stone-work and mosaics, one of its chapels being so extraordinarily rich that it was called , or the Garden of Paradise; and so, although the bishop and his tomb there are imaginary, it supplies an appropriate setting for the poetic scene.” (https://victorianweb.org/authors/rb/bishop/text.html)

St Prasseda Church courtesy Jim Forest via flickr

The poem itself contains no stanza breaks, although there are certain dramatic and logical breaks which are here used for ease of understanding.

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews—sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! Well—
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was! 5
What’s done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world’s a dream.
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie 10
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
“Do I live, am I dead?”

The poem begins with a quotation from Eccl. 1:3, KJV, “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The repetition and the plural of vanity is used for intensification. All life is bare appearance without substance, smoke with fire, vapor which blows away.

The line is ironic: The bishop is on his deathbed. His desire is to make himself permanent and unmovable: he wants a great stone tomb with elaborate art and expensive materials. He imagines himself as a continual presence, always attending to the work in the church.

In a strange sort of way, the poem will function as a meditation upon this truth. But the bent of the bishop, who of all people should be the one to understand the importance, is constantly bending his imagination in an effort to overcome vanity – by an increase in vanity. He will not be lost to vapor because he will be entombed in precious stone. And thus he will over vanity (the ephemeral) with vanity (a vain, costly display).

l. 2 He calls his sons around his bed.
Anselm is renowned Bishop and theologian. This is yet another irony that the bastard of a worldly bishop would name his son for Anselm.

1.3. The broken rhythm of these introductory lines mimic the halting breath and speech of a dying man.

VANity saith the PREAcher, VANity!
DRAW ROUND my BED: is ANselm KEEPing BACK?
NEPHews—SONS MINE. . . ah GOD, I know not! WELL—
She,

l. 4 “She” his mistress whom he speaks of as a prize in the same manner as the stone he hopes to use for his tomb.

l.4 men would have to be your mother once,
This is the least clear reference (to me) in this poem. The difficulty is the “to be”. I take it to mean that your mother was quite desired by men at one time. This matches the next line about Old Gandolf. The “to be” could make it sound like there were men who could have been their mother, which would be absurd.

l.5 Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
Not the LOTR character! He is never further identified beyond being a rival to the bishop. They both apparently vied for the woman.

Notice how the “was” sets up the next lines:

What’s done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago,

Consider the vanity and bitterness of these lines: His mind dwells upon a rivalry with a man (whom we will soon confirm is dead) over a woman who is now dead. But rather than the fact of death and the utter permanence and completeness of the loss having the salutary effect intended by Ecclesiastes (to have a true understanding of life and death), his will is fixed upon an envious dispute with a dead man.

I wonder if there is a vague allusion to the Jew of Malta by Marlowe:

FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed—

BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world’s a dream.

It is unclear, but perhaps he became bishop after the death of the woman. Also notice this: his rival Gandolf will repeatedly be named, but the woman over whom they vied is forever nameless. She died, we will die. The last line in this thought “the world’s a dream” comes off as an aphorism, something clever to say but not something he believes. The line itself is an allusion to The Tempest:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

The Bishop alludes to these lines (which while an allusion in Browning’s poem would actually be in the future of this bishop if he were real!), but does not mean this. He says his life will disappear and then he spends the remainder of the poem seeking to prove the point wrong.

As here I lie 10
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
“Do I live, am I dead?”

He is putting on the mask of philosophy, seemingly comes to terms with his death, “dying by degrees”. Asking whether he is alive or dead is the first hint that he is not willing to accept the nature of death: no matter what one expects in death, whether non-existence, heaven, hell, or some transition, the one thing which is not expected is that he would be giving instructions to his living sons as to what sort of tomb to prepare: which is precisely what he will do.

One final note on this first lines is the alliterative D, particularly in variations on dead:

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews—sons mine . . . ah GoD, I know not! Well—
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old GanDolf envied me, so fair she was! 5
What’s Done is Done, and she is Dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she Died so must we Die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world’s a Dream.
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie 10
In this state-chamber, Dying by Degrees,
Hours and long hours in the Dead night, I ask
“Do I live, am I Dead?”