#126: AN OLD BOAT AND THE PYRE OF PATROCLUS. Sir Thomas Browne belongs, before all else, to the world of seventeenth-century England, with its mixture of religious faith and voracious scientific curiosity. He doctored for the Paston family; he wrote notes on his own life for John Aubrey. John Evelyn visited him, at what he called Browne’s “cabinet of rarities”: it was the period when we picture gentlemen’s houses being a clutter-box of mole skeletons, birds’ nests and a variorum of rocks and minerals. But Browne was also a nearly exact contemporary of Milton, and his most widely read work is still the Religio Medici, his ardent and moving essay on his personal version of Christianity. His longest work, the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors, was an encyclopedic attempt to puncture the erroneous beliefs of his day, yet he professed a belief in witches and ghosts. It was the time before scientific observation had eaten into the grounding assumptions of religious belief, and the excitement of the newly developing observational and experimental sciences was common and contagious. From the distance of the twenty-first century, Browne’s world seems like two, jostling for the attention of the alert mind and depths of the soul.
This gave Browne, as Viriginia Woolf noted, “his power of bringing the remote and incongruous astonishingly together. A piece of an old boat is cheek by jowl with the funeral pyre of Patroclus.” This mixture of the antique and the novel is also expressed in the extravagance and wild fluency of his language. In the OED, Browne’s name is one of the sources most frequently cited--784 times for coinages, twice that many times for first usages. This is pure Renaissance, which can recall the dangers of ingenuity, as when Rabelais or Burton or Spenser risk drowning us with their welter of invention. But Browne is one of the true masters of the grand style. Of the opening sentence of the Religio Medici, Hugh Aldersey-Williams has written, “The sentence has not in fact been assembled in this way, for no part can now be removed without causing the whole thing to collapse. It has instead been organically hewn. Perhaps we experience something of the same disbelief before a wood carving by Grinling Gibbons when we realize that each exquisite detail has not been made separately and then added in, but rather its negative has been painstakingly chipped away to leave us with the final illusion of piled-up riches.”
This pile-up in turn gives Browne’s work its particular lulling ability to slow us down, to help us to move slowly among the riches, to pay attention to his language and thought the way he did to his discoveries, both scientific and internal. Browne’s many references to sleep have been remarked on, and he has been accurately called the best of all reading at bedtime; true, but always with a turn in the road. “To keep our eyes open longer were to act our Antipodes. The Huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. But who can be drowsie at that hour which freed us from everlasting sleep? Or have slumbering thoughts at that time when sleep itself must end, and as some conjecture all shall awake again?”
To read Browne, especially for the first time, find a good annotated edition, as you will want to linger and putter among the notes, to decipher Browne’s antiquarian and Biblical references. The Prose Works of Thomas Browne, edited by Norman J. Endicott for the Norton Library Seventeenth Century Series, is superb: it has all the major works. Virginia Woolf writes, “To read Sir Thomas Browne again is always to be filled with astonishment, to remember the surprises, the despondencies, the unlimited curiosities of youth.” No less than the truth.