*Browne, Sir Thomas
Browne, Sir Thomas
Sir Thomas Browne, the Norwich physician, is one of the early masters of the English essay. In addition to writing one of the century’s most celebrated autobiographies in Religio Medici (1642), he produced a huge inquiry into popular errors of the times in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), a pair of elegant treatises on the contrasting subjects of urns and gardens in Hydriotaphia (popularly known as Urn Burial) and The Garden of Cyrus (1658), and a number of shorter works, the best known being the formal letter of consolation entitled A Letter to a Friend, the explicitly didactic Christian Morals, and the brief fragment on dreams—none of which can be dated precisely. Without possessing either the foundational or canonical status of a Montaigne or a Bacon, Browne has nonetheless woven himself deeply into the fabric of the essay tradition. Samuel Johnson wrote a “Life of Browne” (1756), which remains the best introduction to his works.
Browne has also been a favorite with later writers on both sides of the Atlantic: most notably Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau on the one, and Walter Pater, Leslie Stephen, and Lytton Strachey on the other.
As an essayist, Browne’s interests reflect those of the educated elite in the mid-17th century, a period when scientific curiosity and antiquarianism were both on the rise, the one not always distinguishable from the other, and both only in the process of becoming organized as distinct branches of knowledge in England at this time. (Browne’s eldest son, Edward, also a physician, was made a member of the Royal Society five years after its official inception in 1662; the first museum in England was established at Oxford in 1677, with the help of the noted collector, Elias Ashmole, with whom Browne occasionally corresponded.) To Browne these overlapping fields of inquiry at times blurred with, or were subordinated to, a third: religious belief of a broad Protestant order.
An avowed purpose of Religio Medici was to counter the popular saying “ubi tres medici, duo Athei” (of every three physicians, two are atheists), and Urn Burial intones at the outset that the “ancient of dayes”—God—ought to be the antiquarian’s “truest object.”
To these many kinds of inquiry, Browne brought his enormous erudition, his fascination for paradox, his passion for mystery, and his seeming desire for endless questions. Almost no topic was too arcane to be investigated: “What Song the Syrens Sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture” (Urn Burial). Indeed, the more arcane the better since the challenge to ingenuity would then be the greater, regardless of whether the topic involved querying the particular species of fruit used by the serpent to tempt Eve, the origins of blackness in Negroes, the meaning of burial urns discovered in a field near Walsingham, the possibility that the quincunx was the basic ordering design of the universe, or simply whether elephants had knees—though “simply” turns out to be just the wrong word since Browne also goes on to consider a whole host of other possibilities, including whether elephants were capable of talking. About the only topic this lay philosopher, scientist, physician, antiquarian, and amateur theologian did not puzzle over in print was contemporary politics. On the great events of the day—civil war, the execution of Charles I, the emergence of Cromwell—the irenic Browne is conspicuously silent.
Given Browne’s projected, and sometimes explicitly identified, audience of likeminded inquirers, and his dispassionate temperament, the essay was the ideal vehicle for purposeful expression. Its conceptual and discursive flexibility allowed Browne to set forth, in undogmatic fashion, the principal tenets of his religious beliefs in the manner of a personal essay in Religio Medici. Here Browne describes, for example, his youthful heresies, the delight he takes in exploring the “wingy mysteries in Divinity and the ayery subtleties in Religion,” himself as a microcosm of the world. In the many individual sections or brief essays that make up the two parts of Religio, the often familiar topics of faith serve as the substance out of which Browne fashions his silk-like subjectivity. At the same time, but in a different context, the essay also encourages an equally undogmatic, scrupulous, open-ended inquiry into the many popular beliefs recorded in Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Here Browne speaks in a more scholarly and “scientific” voice, seeking to test the truth of an opinion by invoking the threefold criteria of past authorities, reason, and experience.
Nonetheless, the distance between the rhetorically inflected prose of Browne and, say, the descriptively exact writings of a Newton seems greater than can be accounted for by chronology alone, even by a sea change as large as the emergence of science. Although Browne often wrote about what he observed, his prose is most memorable for its succinct phrasing and rich patterning of sounds, conspicuous in the frequent use of formal devices that we more normally associate with poetry, such as assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and parallel and antithetical phrases often of nearly equal syllabic count. These rhetorical effects could be intensified to match the gravity of subject matter, as in a sentence like the following from the famous last chapter of Urn Burial: “Time which antiquates Antiquities, /and hath an art to make dust of all things,/hath yet spared these minor Monuments.” This is prose informed by the cadences of near-perfect blank verse.
Or they could be invoked to suggest the proliferating exuberance of nature in The Garden of Cyrus: “The calicular leaves inclose the tender flowers,/and the flowers themselves lye wrapt about the seeds,/in their rudiment and first formations.” “Rudiment” is there to give amplitude to the cadence, to help fill out the line.
The American poet Elizabeth Bishop, having just purchased the elegant six-volume Keynes Edition of Browne’s Works (1928–31), jubilantly remarked: “I should like to do nothing but sit all evening and copy off such sentences as ‘That wee call a bee bird is a small dark gray bird,’ or ‘What word you give our knotts or gnatts, a small marsh bird, very fatte and a daintye dish.’ But Cotton Mather still awaits me with his prayers and groans” (One Art, 1994). Although the choice of sentences to copy might differ from one reader to another, Bishop’s response, right down to the felt contrast with the Puritan Mather, seems otherwise typical of the intoxicating effect Browne has on his readers.
Born 19 October (or 19 November) 1605 in London. Studied at Winchester College, Hampshire, 1616–23; Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College), Oxford, 1623–26, B.A., 1626, M.A., 1629; studied medicine in Montpellier and Padua and at the University of Leiden, M.D., 1633; medical apprenticeship in Oxfordshire and possibly Yorkshire, 1634–37; granted Oxford M.D., 1637. Moved to Norwich and practiced as a physician, 1637–81. Married Dorothy Mileham, 1641:12 children (five died in youth, two as young adults).
Died in Norwich, 19 October 1682.
Essays and Related Prose
Religio Medici, 1642; revised edition, 1643; edited by W.A. Greenhill, 1881, reprinted 1990, W.Murison, 1922, Jean-Jacques Denonain, 1953, Vittoria Sanna, 2 vols., 1959, and Robin H.A. Robbins, with Urn Burial, 1972
Pseudodoxia Epidemica; or, Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, 1646; edited by Robin H.A.Robbins, 2 vols., 1981 Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial; or, A Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk, Together with the Garden of Cyrus; or, The Quincundal Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered, 1658; edited
by W.A.Greenhill, 1896, John Carter, 1958, and Robin H.A.Robbins, with Religio Medici, 1972
Religio Medici and Other Works, edited by L.C.Martin, 1964
The Prose of Sir Thomas Browne, edited by Norman Endicott, 1968
Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, 1968
The Major Works, edited by C.A.Patrides, 1977
Selected Writings, edited by Claire Preston, 1995
Other writings: tracts and notes on natural history.
Collected works editions: Works, edited by Simon Wilkin, 4 vols., 1835–36; Works, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, 6 vols., 1928–31, revised edition, 4 vols., 1964.
Donovan, Dennis G., Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1981
Keynes, Geoffrey, A Bibliography of Sir Thomas Browne, Oxford: Clarendon Press, revised edition, 1968 (original edition, 1924)
Sununu, Andrea, “Recent Studies in Sir Thomas Browne (1970–1986),” English Literary Renaissance 19 (1989):118–29
Bennett, Joan, Sir Thomas Browne: A Man of Achievement in Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Croll, Morris W., Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm: Essays, edited by J. Max Patrick and others, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966
Davis, Walter R., “Urne Buriall: A Descent into the Underworld,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 10 (1977):73–87
Finch, Jeremiah S., Introduction and Notes to A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr. Edward Browne, His Son, Leiden: Brill (facsimile reprint), 1986
Fish, Stanley E., Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972
Gosse, Edmund, Sir Thomas Browne, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970 (original edition, 1905)
Grey, Robin, The Complicity of Imagination: The American Renaissance, Contests of Authority, and Seventeenth-Century English Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1996
Guibbory, Achsah, “‘A Rationall of Old Rites’: Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Buriall and the Conflict over Ceremony,” Yearbook of English Studies 21 (1991):229–41
Hall, Anne Drury, “Epistle, Meditation, and Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici,” PMLA 94 (1979):234–46
Huntley, Frank L., Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962
Johnson, Samuel, “Life of Browne,” in his Christian Morals, edited by S.C.Roberts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927; New York: Kraus, 1960 (original edition, 1756)
Leroy, Olivier, Le Chevalier Thomas Browne, 1605–1682: Médecin, styliste et métaphysicien, Paris: Gamber, 1931
Loffler, Arno, Sir Thomas Browne als Virtuoso, Nuremberg: Carl, 1972
Nathanson, Leonard, The Strategy of Truth: A Study of Sir Thomas Browne, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967
Pater, Walter, “Sir Thomas Browne,” in his Appreciations, edited by William E.Buckler, in Walter Pater: Three Major Texts, New York: New York University Press, 1986 (original edition, 1889, 1890)
Post, Jonathan F.S., Sir Thomas Browne, Boston: Twayne, 1987
Silver, Victoria, “Liberal Theology and Sir Thomas Browne’s ‘Soft and Flexible’ Discourse,” English Literary Renaissance 20 (1990): 69–105
Stapleton, Laurence, The Elected Circle: Studies in the Art of Prose, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973
Warren, Austin, “The Style of Sir Thomas Browne,” Kenyon Review 13 (Autumn 1951):674–87
Webber, Joan, The Eloquent “I”: Style and Self in SeventeenthCentury Prose, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968
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