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 when The Oxford English Dictionary was compiled, suggests that this figure is a huge exaggeration. But it is true that Browne was particularly fond of Latinate coinages like antediluvian or retromingent (urinating backward); and he employed them to make fine analytic distinctions, as in a letter to John Evelyn:
The crowns and garlands of the ancients were either gestatory, such as they wore about their heads or necks; portatory, such as they carried at solemn festivals; pensile or suspensory, such as they hanged about the posts of their houses in honour of their gods, as of Jupiter Thyraeus or Limeneus; or else they were depository, such as they laid upon the graves and monuments of the dead. And these were made up after all ways of art, compactile, sutile, plectile.
Browne wryly admitted that if he continued in this vein, it would soon be necessary to learn Latin in order to understand English. Today, when a knowledge of the Latin language is largely confined to professional scholars, his prose can seem formidably difficult. We may think that we understand Browne when he writes, “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture.” But he himself thought it necessary to add a marginal note explaining that the “puzzling questions” about Achilles and the Sirens were those put to the Greek grammarians by the emperor Tiberius. Most readers need a battery of explanatory notes, like those that take up 150 pages at the end of Kevin Killeen’s welcome one-volume collection of Browne’s main works, a preliminary to an eight-volume scholarly edition currently planned by Oxford University Press.
In 1915 a critic could declare that “the value of Browne now lies wholly in his style.”1 A hundred years later, literary scholars are less concerned with stylistics than they used to be, though the idiosyncrasies of Browne’s writing are admirably evoked by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff in their recent introduction to his two best-known works. Most commentators on Browne have shifted from analyzing his prose to fitting him back into his seventeenth-century setting, intellectual, social, and political. They are more interested in him as a proto-scientist than as a literary artist, and they regard as his masterpiece not Hydriotaphia but Pseudodoxia Epidemica, an encyclopedic exposure of errors, vulgar and learned, written in what is, by Browne’s standards, relatively unpretentious language.2
The preoccupation with historical setting is particularly evident in Reid Barbour’s enormously learned biography, which is as much about the different places in which Browne studied and wrote as it is about the man himself. Barbour’s intensive research has not changed the chronology of Browne’s life in any important respect. The son of a London dealer in fine fabrics who died when he was still a child, Browne was educated at Winchester College and Broadgates Hall, Oxford, which turned into Pembroke College while he was there. (Pembroke would also be the alma mater of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who published a short life of Browne in 1756.) After Oxford, Browne studied at the universities of Montpellier, Padua, and Leyden, graduating from the last as an MD in 1633. On his return to England, he served a three-year medical apprenticeship in Halifax, West Yorkshire, after which he moved to Norwich, where he married Dorothy Mileham, a member of a prominent local family, and built up a lucrative medical practice among the Norfolk gentry.
His first and most famous work, Religio Medici, written in the 1630s, was a baroque display of rhetorical skill, both beguilingly candid and exquisitely artificial. Its unauthorized publication in 1642, followed by the official version in 1643, made him an instant celebrity. There were a further nine English editions in Browne’s lifetime, translations into Latin, Dutch, French, and German, and the honor of being placed on the Papal Index. Browne’s reputation was consolidated by the appearance in 1646 of Pseudodoxia Epidemica. This was both a museum of curiosities and a deeply erudite synthesis of a vast range of European learning. It too was frequently reissued and widely translated. It was followed in 1658 by a pair of shorter tracts: Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urnes lately found in Norfolk and The Garden of Cyrus, a numerological reverie on the horticultural practices of the ancients.
Other works were published after Browne’s death, but these were the ones for which he was celebrated in his lifetime and also those most valued by posterity. For all his fame, he continued to live quietly in Norwich, treating his patients, carrying out experiments, closely observing the natural world around him, conducting a huge international correspondence on learned topics, and, as he explained, composing his books in the “snatches of time” that “the fruitlesse importunity of uroscopy [the inspection of urines] would permit us.”
Browne lived in the last age of the polymath, when European scholars still aspired to universal learning. He knew six languages, had a large library, and was celebrated for remembering “all that was remarkable in any book that he had read.” His repertoire embraced biblical history and commentary, the whole of the ancient world, and most contemporary European writing on history, geography, and philology, along with natural philosophy and medicine in all its aspects. He turned his house and garden into a cabinet of curiosities, with a huge collection of birds’ eggs, medals, and books, along with animals, insects, birds, and fish, living and dead. Cranes, eagles, storks, seagulls, ostriches, and pelicans were all represented.
Browne was a botanist who studied the plants of Norfolk, a zoologist who listed animal species, a meteorologist who pondered the causes of mists and thunder, a biblical critic who exposed innumerable mistakes that arose from taking scripture literally, an antiquarian interested in archaeological excavations, and an anthropologist with a relish for the oddity and variety of human customs. He played no public part in the great upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century, but his private sympathies were royalist; he loved the ritual of the Laudian Church, deplored the execution of Charles I, and championed church music at a time when the Puritans were destroying the organ in Norwich cathedral. He emerged briefly into the limelight in 1671, when he was knighted by Charles II on a royal visit to Norwich, a quite exceptional honor in those days for a physician or a scholar.
Barbour thickens this familiar story at every stage, for example by establishing that Browne’s doctoral dissertation at Leyden was on smallpox, confirming that the original version of Religio Medici was written in Halifax, and revealing that its author was probably captured by pirates when he visited Ireland in 1623 with his stepfather, the military adventurer Sir Thomas Dutton. He resolves many minor cruxes in Browne’s career and leaves few avenues unexplored. It would have been good, though, to have been told more about Browne’s private finances, for he could never have supported what was effectively a domestic research laboratory without substantial resources. His income as a successful physician was £1,000 a year, which put him in the top bracket of the nation’s earners, and he also owned landed property.
The thoroughness of Barbour’s research and his meticulous attention to detail will make his book indispensable to all future students of Browne. That said, his rather ponderous prose abounds in minor infelicities, including the occasional malapropism; and the meaning of some of his sentences is as obscure as those composed by his subject. His most original contribution is his account of the intellectual influences that made Browne such a prodigy of universal learning and gave him his distinctive combination of wit, eloquence, skepticism, and piety.
Barbour points to the formative experience of his education at Winchester, where the master, Hugh Robinson, provided not just an extensive training in classical rhetoric and composition, but also an introduction to hieroglyphics and the critical study of human and scriptural history. At Oxford, Browne’s college was the center of medical and anatomical studies; its master, Thomas Clayton, exemplified the model of the pious physician envisaged in Religio Medici. Browne learned cosmography, mathematics, and natural philosophy from Robert Hues, who had circumnavigated the globe with Thomas Cavendish, and theology from his doctrinally unorthodox tutor Thomas Lushington, whose skeptical emphasis on the limits of human reason left a permanent mark on his pupil’s thinking.
Even more influential were Browne’s subsequent studies abroad. At Montpellier he broadened his medical education and learned to be tolerant of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. At Padua he encountered sophisticated religious skepticism and a tradition of philosophical atheism. The anatomy theater and botanical garden at Padua “made an indelible impression.” So did the neoscholasticism of the philosophy professor Fortunio Liceti, whose reflections on the soul and the body invoked Platonic mysteries and Egyptian hieroglyphs to show how atheism could be refuted. At Leyden, by contrast, the medical ethos was strongly practical. Browne’s experience there, thinks, Barbour, “drove home the value of a minimalist, utilitarian, duty-bound approach to his profession—and his life.”
Of course, it is one thing to describe the differing intellectual environments in which Browne found himself, another to be sure about the influence they had upon him. Barbour’s account of Browne’s early years is frequently interlaced with words like “possibly,” “probably,” and “perhaps.” Nevertheless, he persuasively demonstrates that Browne’s years of immersion in European academic and religious life brought an extra dimension to his writing.
Hugh Aldersey-Williams, the author of In Search of Sir Thomas Browne, is a writer on design, with a scientific background. He first became aware of Browne when working on a book about the discovery of buckminsterfullerene. This is a form of carbon whose molecules display a five-fold patterning, similar to that which the author of The Garden of Cyrus showed to be widespread in nature. For Aldersey-Williams, who now lives in Norfolk, Browne is a local hero and an obsession. He has traced his movements in the surrounding countryside, sought vainly for traces of his house and garden, now buried under the shopping malls of modern Norwich, and communed with his bronze statue, erected by the city in 1905 to mark his tercentenary. Twelve pages of his book record a conversation in which Browne steps down from his pedestal to explain his views on religion, science, and Richard Dawkins.
Aldersey-Williams writes as an enthusiast rather than a scholar. His exposition of Browne’s ideas is punctuated by lengthy ruminations on such varied topics as homeopathy, child abuse, TV nature programs, antidepressants, and changes in Norfolk’s bird life. In long sections of the book Browne slides out of view altogether. Aldersey-Williams wants to show that Browne deserves to be better known because he has lessons to teach the modern world. These lessons include the meaning of order in nature, the reconciliation of science and religion, the need to disabuse the credulous of foolish beliefs, and the way in which we should think about life and death. He cannot forgive Browne for believing in witchcraft; and he deplores his notorious wish that “we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this triviall and vulgar way of coition.”3 But he regards Browne as a model instructor of the scientifically ignorant and believes that his contribution to science has been seriously underestimated.
Here he is rather behind the curve, for Browne’s importance as a scientist has been the central theme of much recent scholarship, notably Claire Preston’s influential study, Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science (2005), which is included in his bibliography, and Kevin Killeen’s illuminating analysis of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which is not. Aldersey-Williams gives a lively account of Browne’s intense interest in birds, animals, fish, and other forms of life, and his refutation of such notions as that moles were blind, that storks would prosper only in republics, and that badgers’ legs were shorter on one side than the other. He admits, however, that Browne did not reject the possibility that some elephants had written whole sentences and could speak; and he tolerated the literary and artistic portrayal of flying horses, centaurs, and satyrs, on the grounds that their “shadowed moralities requite their substantiall falsities.”
Aldersey-Williams is particularly enthusiastic about Browne’s study of plants. The Garden of Cyrus begins with the ancient Persian practice of planting orchards in sets of five trees arranged as a quincunx, so that “a regular angularity, and through prospect, was left on every side.” Browne explores the ubiquity of this figure of the quincunx and the number five in man-made objects, in philosophy, theology, and, above all, the natural world, for he believed that “nature geometrizeth, and observeth order in all things.” To support his argument he draws upon his vast armory of biblical and classical learning, supplemented by botanical knowledge derived from years of intensive observation of East Anglian flora.
It seems that his main thesis was correct, for Aldersey-Williams, with his keen interest in pattern and design, tells us that five-fold symmetry is indeed widespread in both nature and human culture. Other scientists could have discovered that, but only Browne was capable of writing of the prickly, purple head of the teasle (dipsacus) that “he that considereth that fabrick so regularly palisadoed, and stemm’d with flowers of the royall colour; in the house of the solitary maggot,4 may finde the seraglio of Solomon.”
The Garden of Cyrus reveals Browne’s botanical learning and his keen interest in the process of generation, but his claim to be regarded as an important scientist must rest primarily upon his magnum opus, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a systematic refutation of hundreds of erroneous beliefs, some about biblical and human history, and others relating to different branches of natural philosophy. Aldersey-Williams believes that this work contains basic principles of physics and chemistry that would not be clearly set out for another century or so. He also claims that it reveals Browne as a pioneer of the experimental method. He quotes the passage in The Garden of Cyrus where Browne asserts that, although “discursive enquiry and rationall conjecture” are valuable weapons, it is only “sense and ocular observation” that can strike the “dispatching blows unto errour”; and he cites the practical test that Browne carried out to show the falsity of the popular belief that a dead kingfisher made a good weather vane.
Yet though Pseudodoxia Epidemica contains over one hundred propositions in natural history that Browne personally tested by experiment, his normal approach is unremittingly bookish. Aldersey-Williams does not remind us that Browne lists “the three determinators of truth” as “authority, sense and reason”; and that, of these, the most prominent in Pseudodoxia Epidemica is authority. Despite his prefatory promise to rely on “experience and reason,” Browne’s refutations of vulgar errors depend heavily upon the writings of others.
In Browne’s day the old ideal of an immensely erudite collection of facts was giving way to a slimmer and more rigorous reliance on measurement and quantification. His contemporary Thomas Hobbes despised universal learning, declaring that if he had read as many books as other men he would have known no more than other men. Browne’s insatiable taste for the strange and mysterious led to an obsession with freaks and curiosities, whereas it was from the investigation of everyday regularities that real scientific progress would come. In 1665–1666 the young Isaac Newton made huge mathematical advances and began to think about universal gravitation. Two years later, Browne presented the Royal Society with a great petrified bone, a double goose egg, the one included in the other, and a stone bottle that had been filled with Málaga wine seven years earlier, but though sealed was now almost empty, its outside covered with “a thick mucous coat.”
Browne’s appreciation of the natural world was as much mystical and aesthetic as “scientific.” “Very beautifull is the rainebow,” he writes. “It compasseth the heaven about with a glorious circle, and the hands of the most high have bended it.” As a modern atheist, Aldersey-Williams is naturally perplexed by Browne’s religion. Religio Medici is a recognizable example of the introspective soul-searching that the Protestant Reformation did so much to encourage. Browne was not the only person in his day to feel “a Hell within my selfe” and to conduct an internal “battell of Lepanto.”
Compared with John Bunyan’s intense account of his spiritual conflicts and conversion experience, Religio Medici seems slippery and flippant. Browne explained that it was “to be taken in a soft and flexible sense, and not to be called unto the rigid test of reason.” It is clear that the youthful Browne had temporarily succumbed to Pyrrhonism, the skeptical belief that Christian doctrine could not survive the scrutiny of reason. He resolved his crisis, not by embracing a new rational religion, but by deciding that, although reason could demonstrate the hand of God in the workings of nature, it had to be accompanied by faith, which involved believing “a thing not only above, but contrary to reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses.” How otherwise could he accept that at the Resurrection “our estranged and divided ashes shall unite againe”?5
Browne saw no conflict between science and religion. Research into nature was a religious duty: “the world was made to be inhabited by beasts, but studied and contemplated by man: ’tis the debt of our reason we owe unto God, and the homage we pay for not being beasts.” Yet man was fallen and human reason imperfect: only in the next world would the full truth be revealed. Meanwhile, Browne declared his refusal to censure those who held divergent theological views. He was hostile to religious persecution, and he hoped for a reconciliation between the Protestant and Catholic churches. This was not a popular view in 1643, when the country was tearing itself apart over religious differences, and when many of Browne’s contemporaries regarded the pope as Antichrist and thought that heathens deserved to go to Hell.
Aldersey-Williams admires Browne for his remarkable tolerance, though he also reminds us of its limits. Browne regarded “the Alcoran of the Turks” as “an ill composed piece, containing in it vaine and ridiculous errours in philosophy, impossibilities, fictions, and vanities beyond laughter”; it was maintained by “banishment of learning,” and disseminated by “armes and violence.” He professed to be a cosmopolitan, free from national prejudices; and he vigorously refuted the notion “that Jews stinck,” “it being a dangerous point to annex a constant property unto any nation.” Yet he also spoke pejoratively of “that contemptible and degenerate issue of Jacob,” because they persisted in “an obstinate and peremptory beliefe” and stuck stubbornly to their own religion.
Toward the natural world, by contrast, Brown’s tolerance was unqualified. He saw a “generall beauty in the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind or species of creature whatsoever.” He could not tell “by what logick we call a toad, a beare, or an elephant, ugly, they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes.” When he saw a toad or a viper he had no desire to take up a stone to kill it. Humankind was also God’s creation and there was therefore no reason why black people should not be regarded as beautiful.
Aldersey-Williams even credits Browne with “a vivid postcolonial imagination.” In his posthumously published Prophecy concerning the State of Several Nations Browne correctly predicted that Mexico City would grow larger than Madrid, that the Dutch East Indies would become independent of Holland, and that African slavery would end and the continent be converted, partly to Christianity, but chiefly to Islam. His further predictions, so far unfulfilled, but perhaps not wholly out of the question, were that the Americans would invade Europe and that Islamic ships would appear in the Baltic.
The moral of Hydriotaphia is that “the sufficiency of Christian immortality frustrates all earthly glory, and…makes a folly of posthumous memory.” Browne accordingly claimed that at his death he intended “to take a totall adieu of the world, not caring for a monument, history, or epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found any where but in the universall register of God.” The irony is that, 333 years later, his memory has never been greener.
Hugh Walker, The English Essay and Essayists (London: J.M. Dent, 1915), p. 79. ↩
“Nobody, it is probable, has ever considered Pseudodoxia to be Browne’s masterpiece,” remarks Kevin Killeen in the introduction to his edition, forgetting perhaps that he himself made that very claim in his monograph Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern England: Thomas Browne and the Thorny Place of Knowledge (Ashgate, 2009), p. 6. ↩
Later critics have gleefully pointed out that this sentiment did not prevent Browne from subsequently marrying and fathering eleven children. ↩
“There being a single Maggot found almost in every head” (Browne’s marginal note). ↩
Although he also claimed that the stem and leaves of a plant could be revived from its ashes by purely natural means. ↩