The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

This is one of my favorite poems by Robert Browning. It tells the tale of a dying ecclesiastic who, before he dies, learns that he is not highly regarded.

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church
Rome, 15—

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!	        
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	
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,	
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask	
“Do I live, am I dead?” Peace, peace seems all.	
Saint Praxed’s ever was the church for peace;	
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought	      
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	       
One sees the pulpit on 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,	      
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:	
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe	
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse.	      
—Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,	
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,	
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!	
Draw close: that conflagration of my church	
—What then? So much was saved if aught were missed!	        
My sons, ye would not be my death! Go dig	
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood,	
Drop water gently till the surface sink,	
And if ye find … Ah God, I know not, I!…	
Bedded in store of rotten figleaves soft,	       
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,	
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli.	
Big as a Jew’s head cut off at the nape,	
Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast …	
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,	        
That brave Frascati villa with its bath,	
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!	        
Swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years:	
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?	
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black—	
’Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else	
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?	      
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,	
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance	
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,	
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,	
And Moses with the tables … but I know	
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,	
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope	
To revel down my villas while I gasp	      
Bricked o’er with beggar’s mouldy travertine	
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!	
Nay, boys, ye love me—all of jasper, then!	
’Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve	
My bath must needs be left behind, alas!	        
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,	
There ’s plenty jasper somewhere in the world—	
And have I not Saint Praxed’s ear to pray	
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,	
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?	        
—That ’s if ye carve my epitaph aright,	
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully’s every word,	
No gaudy ware like Gandolf’s second line—	
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!	
And then how 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 incense-smoke!	
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,	       
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,	
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,	
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,	
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop	
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s work:	       
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts	
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,	
About the life before I lived this life,	
And this life too, popes, cardinals, and priests,	
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,	       
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,	
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,	
And marble’s language, Latin pure, discreet,	
—Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?	
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!	       
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.	
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope	
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?	
Ever your eyes were as a lizard’s quick,	
They glitter like your mother’s for my soul,	        
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,	
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase	
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,	
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx	
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,	        
To comfort me on my entablature	
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask	
“Do I live, am I dead?” There, leave me, there!	
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude	
To death: ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone—	       
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat	
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through—	
And no more lapis to delight the world!	
Well go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,	
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs	        
—Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,	
And leave me in my church, the church for peace,	
That I may watch at leisure if he leers—	
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,	
As still he envied me, so fair she was!

Browning Decides To Be a Poet

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

It is time for another poem by one of my favorite poets, the late Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo of Argentina.

Robert Browning Decides To Be a Poet

In these red labyrinths of London
I find that I have chosen
the strangest of all callings,
save that, in its way, any calling is strange.
Like the alchemist
who sought the philosopher's stone
in quicksilver,
I shall make everyday words—
the gambler's marked cards, the common coin—
give off the magic that was their
when Thor was both the god and the din,
the thunderclap and the prayer.
In today's dialect
I shall say, in my fashion, eternal things:
I shall try to be worthy
of the great echo of Byron.
This dust that I am will be invulnerable.
If a woman shares my love
my verse will touch the tenth sphere of the concentric heavens;
if a woman turns my love aside
I will make of my sadness a music,
a full river to resound through time.
I shall live by forgetting myself.
I shall be the face I glimpse and forget,
I shall be Judas who takes on
the divine mission of being a betrayer,
I shall be Caliban in his bog,
I shall be a mercenary who dies
without fear and without faith,
I shall be Polycrates, who looks in awe
upon the seal returned by fate.
I will be the friend who hates me.
The persian will give me the nightingale, and Rome the sword.
Masks, agonies, resurrections
will weave and unweave my life,
and in time I shall be Robert Browning.

The line about “if a woman turns my love aside” is particularly poignant. For most of his life, Borges was in love with a fellow writer, Norah Lange, who instead married Oliverio Girondo, whom he hated with a passion.

Argentinean Writer Norah Lange (1905-1972)

Borges did eventually get married in his old age—twice. The first one was a disaster, the second one more of a helpmate.

“Something Buried Somewhere in the Book”

G. K. Chesterton Holding Book and Pen

I can think of few authors who can be read and re-read with as much pleasure as G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936). I am currently re-reading his Autobiography, which is less an autobiography than a collection of essays on various themes suggested by his life. If there is any vestige remaining within me of the Catholicism with which I was raised and educated, it is owing largely to Chesterton and such writers as Trappist Monk Thomas Merton. What Chesterton says here about a soi-disant biography he wrote about Robert Browning applies equally to his own autobiography.

Finally, a crown of what I can only call respectability came to me from the firm of Macmillan; in the form of a very flattering invitation to write the study of Browning for the English Men of Letters Series. It had just arrived when I was lunching with Max Beerbohm, and he said to me in a pensive way: “A man ought to write on Browning while he is young.” No man knows he is young while he is young. I did not know what Max meant at the time; but I see now that he was right; as he generally is. Anyhow, I need not say that I accepted the invitation to write a book on Browning. I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong. But there is something buried somewhere in the book; though I think it is rather my boyhood than Browning’s biography.

In the Red Labyrinths

Victorian Block in London

Every once in a while, I feel I must return to Jorge Luis Borges, the man who has influenced so many of the paths my life has taken in the last forty years:

Browning Decides To Be a Poet

In these red labyrinths of London
I find that I have chosen
the strangest of all callings,
save that, in its way, any calling is strange.
Like the alchemist
who sought the philosopher’s stone
in quicksilver,
I shall make everyday words—
the gambler’s marked cards, the common coin—
give off the magic that was there
when Thor was both the god and the din,
the thunderclap and the prayer.
In today’s dialect
I shall say, in my fashion, eternal things:
I shall try to be worthy
of the great echo of Byron.
This dust that I am will be invulnerable.
If a woman shares my love
my verse will touch the tenth sphere of the concentric heavens;
if a woman turns my love aside
I will make of my sadness a music,
a full river to resound through time.
I shall live by forgetting myself.
I shall be the face I glimpse and forget,
I shall be Judas who takes on
the divine mission of being a betrayer,
I shall be Caliban in his bog,
I shall be a mercenary who dies
without fear and without faith,
I shall be Polycrates, who looks in awe
upon the seal returned by fate.
I will be the friend who hates me.
The Persian will give me the nightingale, and Rome the sword.
Masks, agonies, resurrections
will weave and unweave my life,
and in time I shall be Robert Browning.

The above photograph by Robert Freidus is from The Victorian Web.

The Etruscan Smile

A Smile That Shines Across Millennia

A Smile That Shines Across Millennia

The whole world of the smiling girl in he above photo is long gone, but her smile still speaks to us. It tells us that, even in Ancient Rome, there was something to laugh about. When I took the picture on Friday, I did not note the provenance of the figurine, but I wonder if it was Etruscan. This ancient people is the only one that has allowed itself to be depicted as wreathed in smiles—very contrary to the picture we have of the dour Romans.

Below is a hollow cinerary urn from the Banditaccia Necropolis showing a married couple, whose ashes are presumably intermingled therein:

Hi, We’re Dead. Why Don’t You Come and Join Us?

Hi, We’re Dead. Why Don’t You Come and Join Us?

I guess my little figurine is not Etruscan.Their images always show them as having sharp features and almond eyes. The girl above is definitely Roman.

Not to change the subject, but it reminds me somewhat of the following poem by Robert Browning:

My Last Duchess

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let
Herself be lessened so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

That line about “all smiles stopped together” is grimly humorous.