In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century’s Most Inquiring Mind
Thomas Browne (1605–1682) is by common consent the author of some of the finest prose in the English language. Nowhere is it finer than in Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall, his meditation on funeral customs, death, and immortality. The magical opening of its dedication, “When the funerall pyre was out, and the last valediction was over…,” prepares us for the sublime final chapter:
Oblivion is not to be hired: the greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man…. But man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.
Some of Browne’s famous sentences are distinctly delphic: “But the quincunx [five points arranged in an X] of Heaven runs low, and ’tis time to close the five ports of knowledge.” Others are melodious, but puzzling if one takes them too literally: “The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia.” Many are unsettlingly ironic: “The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Aequinox?” “In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equall durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon.”
English Romantics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb delighted in Browne’s sonorities, and adored what William Hazlitt called his “intricate folds and swelling drapery of dark sayings and impenetrable riddles.” Browne’s later admirers included Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, and W.G. Sebald, all of them people who were “the more interesting for a little Twist in the Brains,” as Coleridge said of Browne.
Yet Browne’s poetic prose, with its fearsome range of recondite allusion, can be labyrinthine, obscure, and even muddled. His digressions, paradoxes, and contradictions often make his arguments hard to follow and his conclusions elusive. The virtuoso Sir Kenelm Digby told Browne that Religio Medici, his youthful confession of faith, was “so strongly penned, as requireth much time, and sharp attention but to comprehend it.” The economist Sir William Petty thought it appealed only to people “who do not trouble themselfs to examine the force of an argument which pleases them in the delivery.” It was in reaction to Browne’s extravagances that Robert Boyle avoided exotic words and terms borrowed from other languages, and the newly founded Royal Society rejected “all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style,” proclaiming its allegiance to “mathematical plainness” and “a close, naked, natural way of speaking.”
Browne’s neologisms must have baffled the contemporary reader. The Oxford English Dictionary records nearly eight hundred words that allegedly make their first appearance in his writings (and often their last). Recourse to Early English Books Online, a database that was unavailable…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.