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The placement of the tomb

                                        Peace, peace seems all.

Saint Praxed’s ever was the church for peace; 

And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought                     15

With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know: 

—Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care; 

Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South 

He graced his carrion with, God curse the same! 

Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence            20

One sees 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: 

And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,              25

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: 

In this section, the bishop turns to the question of his tomb and where it will be placed in the church.

It begins ironically enough with the words, “peace, peace.”

But when we consider the likely allusion…before I continue, one might think I am seeing an excess of biblical allusions in this poem. To that I plead as follows, first, Browning and his readership would have been far more familiar with the Bible than any but the most devout 21st century readers. Most professing Christians alive today would have less familiarity with the Bible than a 19th Century literate Briton.

Second, the poem is filled with numerous biblical allusions. A paper which I will note when we get to the discussion of precious stones discusses how Browning is playing off biblical allusions to precious stones, which creates its own level of irony in the bishop’s speech.

Third, the poem concerns a bishop, a worldly bishop no doubt, but a bishop nonetheless.

Peace, peace:  Twice, the prophet Jeremiah quotes the false prophets “saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ where there is no peace.” Jer. 6:14; 8:11. Likewise, the bishop says “peace, peace” and has anything but peace.

Thinking about peace leads to thinking about the church leads to the tomb:

Saint Praxed’s ever was the church for peace; 

And so, about this tomb of mine.

Now look at the movement of thought from “peace” to “I fought”

                            Peace, peace seems all.

Saint Praxed’s ever was the church for peace

And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought 

The church was never the place for “peace.” The church was the scene of a bitter struggle:

                                                    I fought                       15

With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know: 

Think also of the irony of what he is fighting to obtain, “my niche.” In the place of peace, he fought tooth and nail to “save” a “niche.” In the very act of seeking to exalt himself in his battle, he undercuts it to a bare niche.

While he fought, Gandolf deceived (cozened):

—Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care; 

Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South 

He graced his carrion with, God curse the same! 

Note the S & K (hard c’s) sounds which draw the section together. The strong accent on “Shrewd” puts greater emphasis on Gandolf’s treachery (which also repeats the idea from the previously line).  Notice how the K sound draws “cozened” to “curse”. He cozened me; God curse him.

The verb “grace” is ironically used, “graced his carrion with,” as if he flesh fit to be eaten by dogs was a blessing to grace the stone.

The bishop cannot stand to allow Gandolf to have a triumph, even in this, so he immediate returns to himself:

Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence            20

One sees the pulpit o’ the epistle-side, 

It’s a niched, but it is not that cramped of a niche, you can still see the pulpit from there. And this begins to raise the absurdity of the discussion: The bishop will be dead and buried beneath stone: he will see absolutely nothing; there will not even be a him which could possibly see. The living may be able to the tomb, but the dead will see nothing.

And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats, 

This was an interesting choice of words: a choir is the exact opposite of “silent”. The purpose of the choir is not to be silent.  What then could this mean? For the dead, the seats will always be silent. If the seats are empty, they are silent.

From there his imagination wonders up to the dome which represents the entrance into heaven:

And up into the aery dome where live 

The angels,

The angels may live in heaven, itself, but not in the dome in particular.  A thought of angels should take his mind to eternal things, beyond the earth, but at this exact moment where the ridiculousness of his position should become clear to him, his mind reverts to earth. The dome is no longer an entrance into heaven but rather the ceiling of the church:

and a sunbeam’s sure to lurk: 

While the sunbeam coming through stained glass and filling the dome with light may be magnificent, it is not heaven.

Notice the fall which continues: his imagination reaches toward heaven, misses, falls to sunlight and then:

And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,              25

And ‘neath my tabernacle take my rest,

Note the words here: slab, basalt, ‘neath. We move from aery dome to a slab of black rock covering a corpse.  It is like the fall of Satan from heaven to beneath the earth.

Tabernacle is an interesting choice of words, too.  The tabernacle was the name in books of Moses for the tent which functioned as the temple to God. Solomon would later construct a permanent building. So a tabernacle is a tent.  While the Bible uses the word “tabernacle” or “tent”as a means to reference to the temporary nature of our life, “Knowing that I must shortly put off this tabernacle” 2 Pet. 1:14. Or as a modern translation like the ESV has it, “putting off of my body”.

But the bishop does not refer to his body as the tabernacle, but rather the slab.  It could be that he is seeing the tomb as a temporary structure (like a tent) or that this is a sort of temple to himself (which does not seem beyond his arrogance).

He then returns to the idea of repose, “take my rest” (as before he referenced “peace”), but note that he cannot stay on that point:

With those nine columns round me, two and two, 

The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands: 

He turns directly to the design of his tomb.  And it is to the construction of that tomb that he will turn next.