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We may know an era by its poetry - or at least those eras for which poetry was still important. It might be difficult indeed to draw any conclusions about our own days from poetry because it has become so marginal to the lives and experiences of most 21st-century denizens. But for the Victorians, who still read poetry as if it had ability to change the world, poetry was a vibrant expression of the era's values - and its fears. We can see, for example, the era's intense occupation with status and social hierarchy in Robert Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church," a poem that demonstrates how this obsession with people's position in the world merged into an obsession with death and the dead, with death as a force that erased the status that people strove so hard to create and uphold in life. And in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny" we see how the notions of status and propriety that governed Victorian life and death created such a terrible psychological pressure on the Victorians that they had at times to escape into lascivious fantasy.
It is important to note before beginning our analysis of these poems that the world in which they were written and read was one in turmoil in many ways: The Age of Victoria was a world in flux. It was a time during which many of the traditional certainties that had governed people's lives for generations had been cast aside. The Victorian era was also the time of the widespread industrialization of society, and people saw that their world was once and for all disconnected from its traditional agrarian structure and values. As people turned from the country to the city, from the farm to the factory, they lost the essential moral, cultural and aesthetic internal compass points that had for generations guided their ancestors. They had to determine again what was moral and right, what they wanted from their lives, what constituted a good life. In the face of so much that was changing, the Victorians created for themselves the illusion of safety and predictability by creating numerous rules for everyday life - rules that could be followed regardless of the rise and fall of empires, the demands of women for the vote, the wretched conditions of the new city.
This clinging to the knowable, to those things that could be determined and controlled in the face of all that could not be understood and controlled can be seen throughout Browning's meditative poem. Browning's bishop, even as he faces death, is very much occupied with moral concerns. This man of God and, we assume, of piety, is thinking not of heaven and of glory, not of coming in to the company of saints, but with his reputation on earth and on how his monument will measure up to those of others - an arena in which he feels that he understands the rules of the game being played.
The importance of display to the Victorians - who were both intensely status conscious and lived lives in which every aspect of life had a rule to govern it - is echoed throughout this poem.
The bishop is literally concerned with his place in death, with where he will rest and how his tomb shall look to the worshippers who come to the church after his death - something that most priests would consider a great show of personal vanity, but that seems to be highly appropriate to an age in which every aspect of dress, of diction, of table-setting, was proscribed. In such a world it is hardly surprising that the bishop should still be obsessed with having lost a favorite corner of the church to a worldly rival. This bishop may well be assured of a place in heaven (we have no reason to believe that he is not), but has every reason to fear that his place on earth will be compromised when he is no longer there to defend it. And for a Victorian, even a Victorian bishop, position on earth was quite nearly as important as the position that one might hold in heaven. (Indeed, considering the hierarchical nature of Victorian society, many may at some level have believed that one's position on earth in fact determined one's position in heaven.
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