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Any R. Browning scholars in the house?
March 12, 2014 2:24 PM   Subscribe

I am struggling to understand a line from Robert Browning's poem, The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's. The fourth line reads "She, men would have to be your mother once." This does not make sense to me grammatically. I did find this reference to the same problem, which recommends replacing "she" with "her", which still doesn't sound correct to me. It indicates that the line is a case of bad grammar from a dying man. Please help me understand what is being said here. TIA
posted by michellenoel to Writing & Language (21 answers total)
 
"She, men [would have said was] your mother once"? It looks like he is talking to his sons and nephews about his dead wife, who was so beautiful that "Old Gandalf" envied him?
posted by Frowner at 2:29 PM on March 12


I think "have" here might mean more like "believe" or "recognize"?
posted by Frowner at 2:29 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


Think of the "men would have to be your mother once" as an aside; also, as others said, the "have" means something like "think that". Put parentheses around the little clause and it makes a bit more sense:

Well--//she (men would have to be your mother once) //Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!

i.e., She (who people thought was your mother, at one time) was so fair that Old Gandolf envied me.
posted by damayanti at 2:33 PM on March 12


It's clearer with an additional comma:

"She, men, would have to be your mother once."

In other words, it would sound like this if rephrased: "Men, she would have to be your mother once."
posted by thisclickableme at 2:35 PM on March 12


I read this as:

My wife is now dead and none of you still living know her. However, in life she was so attractive that other men would have desired her (wanted to make her the mother of their children).



He then references Gandalf desiring her and envying him not once but twice.
posted by arnicae at 2:43 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


I agree with Frowner. When reading it out loud, the phrasing would be

She
men would have
to be your mother

NOT

She
Men would have to
be your mother

In other words people used to say that he and She were an item, which was gratifying to his vanity because she was a hottie, but nothing ever came of it.
posted by muddgirl at 2:44 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I'm not 100% on this --- I think the meaning is deliberately unclear --- but I think the gist is:
"The woman who was rumored to be your mother was once so fair that Gandolf envied me."

If you go back to the prior line --- "sons! Nephews, I know not" there's a couple ways of reading it:

Literal: the dying man isn't sure whether the young men by his bed are his sons or his nephews because of blindness/senility
Figurative: the dying man is a bishop of the Catholic Church; catholic priests are supposed to be celibate. He may have fathered sons but only acknowledged them as "nephews" in public. Now that he is dying, his memory slips and he names them his sons. The confused reference to their mother is an allusion to this open secret, that people "would have known" these were actually his sons.

Bit of a stretch, but I think it kind of works. Of course, it's possible, but extremely rare, for someone to have been married but then enter the priesthood after being widowed. More likely in the Middle Ages, perhaps. But much less likely, in any era, than a priest having a secret affair with their "housekeeper"; in some places and times that was pretty commonplace.
posted by Diablevert at 2:47 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


(These presumably aren't his literal sons, nor was She his wife - I've only read the poem once so I could be wrong, but I think this is a Roman Catholic Bishop so at the time he would be unmarried and nominally celibate).
posted by muddgirl at 2:47 PM on March 12


Another way to think of it, building on Frowner and damayanti, is to think of "would have" as "wanted."--an, on preview, muddgirl's got it. Remember this is a bishop being buried in Rome, so a Catholic bishop. And the men he calls to his bedside are his nephews, though he calls them sons and then expresses confusion.
posted by not that girl at 2:49 PM on March 12


Reading Diablevert's comment, when I say "nothing ever came of it" I mean that the priest became a priest and then Bishop, and She died. It does seem hinted that at least one of the people at his bedside is an unacknowledged son.
posted by muddgirl at 2:54 PM on March 12


You could parse it as referring to an image or sculpture of a woman as she appeared in her youth.

(that image), men, would have to be your mother (at one time in the past).
posted by zamboni at 2:54 PM on March 12


I read it as equivalent to "She whom men took to be your mother once"

Pretty obscurely expressed, though. Worth reading the "materials" linked at the bottom of the Victorian Web page. The one on eliding information suggests the bishop's uncertainty might be because of incest.
posted by Segundus at 2:56 PM on March 12


Thank you all so very much for your thoughts. I plan to re-read all of them later this evening when I have more time. I will read others that are posted after this, as well.
posted by michellenoel at 3:03 PM on March 12


If it's meant literally (as in, "People gossiped that she was your mom") - that would imply a completely different set of circumstances than if it was meant figuratively (something like "People gossiped that she would bear me children"). Usually it's pretty obvious who is the mother of a child, so a literal interpretation would imply some kind of secret adoption or surrendering children to the church to keep a pregnancy secret. I suspect it's supposed to be ambiguous as to which is meant.

It really is a very beautiful, frustrating, and thought-provoking poem! Thank you for asking this question.
posted by muddgirl at 3:04 PM on March 12


These presumably aren't his literal sons, nor was She his wife - I've only read the poem once so I could be wrong, but I think this is a Roman Catholic Bishop so at the time he would be unmarried and nominally celibate)

I don't think this is necessarily so - a cursory glance suggests that this poem is written about a fictional Renaissance Bishop that presided over a real church (located in Rome).

The Church of Saint Praxedis is a Catholic church, not sure whether it always has been. Certainly Catholic clergy married as late as the pre-Renaissance, and of course one never knows how late in life the Bishop joined the church - it would not have been out of the question for him to join the church in mid-life, possibly after having had a family.
posted by arnicae at 3:12 PM on March 12


when I say "nothing ever came of it" I mean that the priest became a priest and then Bishop, and She died. It does seem hinted that at least one of the people at his bedside is an unacknowledged son.

Well, not to be vulgar, but no man ever envied another because he had a hot sister. Old Gandolph envied the bishop because the bishop had something he wanted --- She, the boys' mother. I suppose it could mean that woman loved the bishop and that was enough to spur envy, and not that the bishop and the woman were lovers, but then why "nephews! Sons, oh god, I know not!"?

What's super-confusing about the line is that it's usually awful easy to be confused about who your dad is, and pretty damn hard to be confused about who your mom is. It's hard to picture a scenario where the townsfolk could know who this woman is, know who the bishop is, know that these are the bishop's nephews, and not know whether or not she was their mom. Quite easy to picture the reverse. So that's why I think the line is deliberately confusing, meant to be read as the bishop losing his faculties. Which does kind of align with the idea of him accidentally letting some old secrets slip.

But hey man, Browning often leaves you two handholds short of what you'd need to get across the gap --- he makes allusions that are clear as crystal if you too, happen to have phD-level knowledge of the Italian Renaissance and the works of Shakespeare (or are standing in the same 15th century villa he was when he wrote it), and cloudy as quartz if you don't (or aren't). Still can't help liking the neckbearded bugger myself.
posted by Diablevert at 3:21 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]


I took it to mean that had she lived, she would have been the woman he fathered children with. Read as: She, men, would have been your mother.

I assumed he was going back and forth calling them sons and nephews because he was dying, and didn't remember to always refer to his sons as nephews (as he was a bishop, and like many other bishops, fathered children he could not formally recognize but whose relation was probably an open secret).

I further imagined (and this is probably pure fancy on my part) that the narrator regretted fathering the children with the woman he eventually did. He compares their eyes to their mother's, and makes unflattering remarks about how greedy the nephews/sons are, implicating their mother by direct comparison (their eyes are greedy; their eyes are like their mother's).

Sadly, I can't stop imagining his nemesis as Ian McKellen.
posted by tllaya at 3:44 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


To complicate matters further, I read somewhere that nephews was sometimes assigned to certain men under the bishop. Frankly, I think there was some hanky panky going on.
posted by michellenoel at 3:47 PM on March 12


She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!


I think "She" was a woman people thought he would marry and beget children with before he entered the Church, but the next line implies that he went ahead and consummated the relationship anyway, because "old Gandolf" is evidently one of the other noteworthies of that church (probably the previous Bishop) honored with a statue in a niche (just as the Bishop himself expects to be), and who died before the Bishop did-- and stole the very niche for his (Gandolf's) statue that the Bishop had intended for his own!
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!
And that wasn't the only sexual relationship he carried out, either, because he doesn't know whether the young men gathered around his deathbed are his nephews (apparently a standard way for senior clergy to refer to younger clerics) or his actual sons, presumably by married women in his own flock:
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,
...
Also, old Gandolph's envy of the fairness of the Bishop's intended suggests that Gandolf was engaging in such affairs as well.

And finally, the way the woman old Gandolf envied him for having comes up in the next breath after he expresses his confusion as to whether the young men are nephews or sons, I take to mean that at least one of her sons is among those young men, and the Bishop believes he might indeed be the father.
posted by jamjam at 5:09 PM on March 12


a Roman Catholic Bishop so at the time he would be unmarried and nominally celibate

Not necessarily - he might have been widowed, or he could have put aside his wife or mistress to take holy orders. "They glitter like your mother's, for my soul" - the poem is about greed, pomp, pride, and temptation, and I wonder whether the Bishop might have set the mother, whom his rival coveted, unwillingly aside, possibly by arranging her marriage to his brother.
posted by gingerest at 5:09 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I don't know if the punctuation is Browning's or an editor's, but the "once" seems to make more sense with the following line: "She [whom] men would have [=believe] to be your mother -- once old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!" She's dead now, but once she was beautiful.
posted by zeri at 9:09 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


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