Most readers probably become aware of Sir Thomas Browne at an early age and in the same way: by discovering Edgar Allan Poe’s great story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” To this day, I can remember how as a boy I recited over and over the haunting words of its epigraph from Browne’s Urne-Burial: “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture.” (Years later, two of my favorite writers actually attempted to answer Browne’s questions: Avram Davidson speculated about the Sirens’ song in his Adventures in Unhistory, while Robert Graves took a guess at Achilles’ feminine alias in his crazy, scholarly fantasia The White Goddess.)
As a teenager, I tried to read Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Burial — and soon gave up. To appreciate Browne’s sumptuous prose requires patience, quiet, and close attention. Only then will his musical syntax, archaic diction, and subtle harmonies work their magic and reveal qualities of English lost to plainer writing. Outside the seventeenth century, Browne’s solemn pomp is usually found only in writers possessed of almost prophetic fervor, such as Thomas Carlyle or the Melville of Moby-Dick.
Somerset Maugham once declared — in The Summing Up — that if you would write perfectly, you would write like Voltaire. Maugham, that arch-professional, modeled his own clear-as-rainwater prose after Swift and Addison. In our own time, George Orwell has been held up as a model of forceful English — precise in diction, transparent in meaning. Through books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, our high school and college students are taught the virtues, and benefits, of brisk, uncluttered sentences.
But there is another tradition, one that emphasizes biblical sonorousness, ornate word painting, and rhetorical splendor. Here the bookmen and divines of the seventeenth century, not the essayists and philosophes of the eighteenth, reign supreme. During Sir Thomas Browne’s lifetime (1605-82), writing gloried in its artificiality, dazzling with a Latinate gorgeousness quite unlike the blue-denim English of today. But then the prose of John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, Lancelot Andrewes, and many others drew its power from the hellfire sermon rather than the “nothing but the facts” police report.
Such writers — and we may add John Milton, Robert Burton, and Browne to the company of the clerics — expected their prose to be spoken aloud, to be heard and hearkened to. Phrases that build on each other like interlocking bricks, melodious internal echoes, Scriptural allusions, startling imagery, and compacted paradoxes — all were meant to rouse the sleeping soul, to thrill and persuade. Every word counted, and every sentence mulled over and taken to heart. By contrast, most of our twenty-first-century English is aimed at speed readers, intended to be scanned rather than listened to, meant to provide information rather than be murmured quietly like a poem or prayer.
Sir Thomas Browne, then, is merely the best known of these old masters of the baroque organ roll. John Donne’s prose, for example, can be as stirring as his poetry. Just recall, for example, another epigraph, that to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Drawn from one of Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, this quotation has grown almost as famous as the novel it prefaces. The short passage, about human solidarity in the presence of death, begins with a hammer blow: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” then builds to a shattering, almost syllogistic proof: “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee.” Donne is, in fact, an extraordinary prose stylist throughout his devotional writings and sermons. Listen to the sibilant hiss of this sentence about the deadly blandishments of the devil, that old serpent: “This whisperer wounds thee, and with a stiletto of gold; he strangles thee with scarves of silk, he smothers thee with the down of phoenixes, he stifles thee with a perfume of amber.” The “ess” alliteration of the various verbs describing strangulation, the repetition of “thee,” the unctuous softness of the vowels and the images — silk, down, perfume, amber — are so cloyingly built up that by the end one almost gasps for air.
As it happens, the seventeenth century’s greatest poet, John Milton, is also its finest polemicist, with a command of rhetorical devices that Cicero might envy. In Aeropagitica, his classic defense of free speech, Milton writes:
He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
That phrase “and yet,” repeated three times, and the rhythmic crescendo thereby created are sheer genius.
However, we mustn’t overlook Robert Burton, whose lone masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy, mixes verbal grandiloquence and dry humor, as when he litanizes our fallen world as “but a vast Chaos, a confusion of manners, as fickle as the air, a crazy house, a turbulent troop full of impurities, a mart of walking spirits, goblins, the theatre of hypocrisy, a shop of knavery, flattery, a nursery of villainy, the scene of babbling, the school of giddiness, the academy of vice.”
Still, Sir Thomas Browne, doctor and antiquary, remains the seventeenth century’s headiest practitioner of ceremonial prose. His diction itself is intoxicating, rich with Latinate coinages and arresting phrases. In their excellent Introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Religio Medici and Urne-Burial, Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff point out that Browne coined more than a hundred words we still use, including exhaustion, hallucination, suicide, compensate, precocious, medical, and even literary. But he also layered his heavily textured sentences with weighty, even rebarbative locutions such diuturnity (long duration) and absumption (wasting away). As a result, his English, already marked by strong rhythms and asymmetrical sentence structure, regularly clangs with these alien sounds. But soon we recognize that they contribute, like tinkling cymbals and sounding brass, to a thrilling chorale ode.
To gauge Browne’s splendor at its peak, turn to Urn Burial (1658), a series of somber reflections about time, mutability, and God provoked by the discovery of some ancient burial urns. Nearly every other sentence brings an exquisitely orotund turn of phrase: “Duration, which maketh Pyramids pillars of snow, and all that’s past a moment.” “Man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.” “In vain do individuals hope for Immortality, or any patent from oblivion, in preservations below the Moon.” This is the prose of autumn’s sere and yellow leaf.
By contrast, Religio Medici (1643) — “The Faith of a Doctor” — is essentially a youthful self-portrait, composed when Browne was about thirty. In it he describes his religious convictions, while reflecting on miracles, Christian charity, the existence of spooks, witchcraft, and his own belief in providence: “Surely there are in every mans life certaine rubs, doublings and wrenches which pass a while under the effects of chance, but at the last, well examined, prove the mere hand of God.”
In these pages Browne presents himself as modest, “naturally bashful,” without “idiosyncrasies” of diet, free of envy, accepting of human differences, and unafraid of death. He rather disdains sex: “I could be content 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; It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life.” (It’s hard not to think of the observation about sexual intercourse attributed to Lord Chesterfield: “The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.”) In this instance, however, the young doctor may have changed his mind: After he married, his wife gave birth to eleven children.
As a pious Christian, Browne believes there is “some other hand that twines the thread of life than that of nature; wee are not onely ignorant in Antipathies and occult qualities, our ends are as obscure as our beginnings, the line of our dayes is drawne by night, and the various effects therein by a pencill that is invisible; wherein though wee confesse our ignorance, I am sure we doe not erre, if wee say, it is the hand of God.” Not to believe in God, he insists, is absurd: Nature itself reveals the cosmic artist’s hand, else “let our hammers rise up and boast they have built our houses, and our pens receive the honour of our writings.”
Being a physician, and eventually knighted for his services to medicine, Browne naturally brings an intimate knowledge of life and death to all his writing, but especially in his declarations of faith:
Were I of Caesars Religion, I should be of his desires, and wish rather to goe off at one blow, then to be sawed in peeces by the grating torture of a disease. Men that looke no further than their outsides thinke health an appertinance unto life, and quarrell with their constitutions for being sick; but I that have examined the parts of man, and know upon what tender filements that Fabrick hangs, doe wonder that we are not alwayes so; and considering the thousand dores that lead to death doe thanke my God that we can die but once.
As he says further, it is, after all, “in the power of every hand to destroy us, and wee are beholding unto everyone wee meete hee doth not kill us…. Certainly there is no happinesse within this circle of flesh, nor is it in the Opticks of these eyes to behold felicity; the first day of our Jubilee is death.”
Yet ultimately, Browne reiterates, death is simply a fact of life, neither to be dreaded nor embraced. Some might even imply that, as a physician, he would tacitly welcome an increase of sickness as a way to increase his wealth. Not Browne. “I feele not in me those sordid, and unchristian desires of my profession; I doe not secretly implore and wish for Plagues, rejoyce at Famines, revolve Ephemerides, and Almanacks, in expectation of malginant Aspects, fatal conjunctions, and Eclipses: I rejoyce not at unwholsome Springs, nor unseasonable Winters; my Prayer goes with the Husbandmans; I desire every thing in its proper season, that neither men nor the time bee out of temper.”
Browne, this antiquarian Montaigne, is also, like the French essayist, a psychologist and introspective voyager: “There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us,” he writes, and, more strikingly still, “There is another man within mee that’s angry with mee, rebukes, commands and dastards mee.” Yet Browne shares with such contemporaries as John Aubrey and Isaac Newton a belief in astrology, angels, and miracles. “I have often admired the mysticall way of Pythagoras, and the secret Magicke of numbers,” he tells us, and “I doe thinke that many mysteries ascribed to our owne inventions, have beene the courteous revelations of Spirits.” At several points in Religio Medici, he speaks about the nature of ghosts:
I beleeve…that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandring soules of men, but the unquiet walkes of Devils, prompting and suggesting us into mischief, bloud and villany, instilling, and stealing into our hearts that the blessed spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affaires of the world. That those phantasmes appeare often, and doe frequent Cemiteries, charnall houses, and Churches, it is because those are the dormitories of the dead, where the Devill like an insolent Champion beholds with pride the spoyles and Trophies of his victory in Adam.
The density, the thick texture of Browne’s gnarled syntax and diction make his prose endlessly re-readable — sometimes you can scarcely guess his meaning on a first perusal. But return periodically to his work, as many admirers do, and each time you are likely to find some hitherto overlooked felicity. This is especially true of the fifth and last chapter of Urn Burial, where he reflects on the end that awaits us all, even though “the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.” We shouldn’t even hope to be remembered. “The iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.” Indeed, the greater part of humankind “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.”
While Browne’s sentences can sometimes be fustian, he can, from time to time, blaze forth with sharp, epigrammatic brilliance: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an Invisible sun within us.” And, peppered throughout his writing, there are little phrases that cause the reader to pause before their odd beauty: “raptures of futurity,” “Time which antiquates Antiquities,” “our habitations in the Land of Moles and Pismires.”
Near the end of Religio Medici, Browne declares: “And therefore at my death I meane to take a totall adieu of the world, not caring of a Monument, History or Epitaph, nor so much as the bare memory of my name to be found any where but in the universall Register of God.” The good doctor wasn’t to be granted this wish. He is memorialized at his church in Norwich, England, where he spent most of his life. But, more important, Browne’s heady, idiosyncratic English provides what he might call a “patent from oblivion” and ensures that his essays will always be, at the very least, a minor monument of our literature.