THE MODERN READER might come to Sir Thomas Browne as a foreigner comes to a forbidding country, about which he has heard rumors of wealth and splendor. He might come, say, as Lafcadio Hearn came to Japan in 1890, to marvel and report on "the indescribable antique queerness of everything," which, Hearn wrote, "gives you that weird sensation of remoteness — of the far away in time and place."
A full-scale digression on Hearn, which I wrote and then redacted from this essay, seemed initially like an appropriate means of ingress into Browne, an early modern English writer whose characteristic method was to pursue a line of thought like a thread through a labyrinth stocked with the riches of immense erudition, chasing it through twisting byways until he seemed entirely lost, only to grasp it firmly once again and reach all at once a startling conclusion — startling because it often contradicted his earlier opinion.
There is a crucial passage in Religio Medici, one of two works contained in the one-volume collection of Browne's writing just issued by NYRB Classics, in which he defines his project and tallies his inner resources, sounding very much like Saint Augustine:
I could never content my contemplation with those generall pieces of wonder, the flux and reflux of the sea, the encrease of Nile, the conversion of the Needle to the North; and therefore have studied to match and parallel those in the more obvious and neglected pieces of Nature, which without further travell I can doe in the Cosmography of my selfe; wee carry with us the wonders, wee seek without us: There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us.
The corresponding passage from Augustine's Confessions sees the church father expressing astonishment that others do not engage, as he does, in a sort of interior tourism: "Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering." For both Augustine and Browne, scholars of immense learning, the individual human being's inner life seemed the most wonderful fact in nature.
It’s tempting here simply to quote from Browne, mapping the book under consideration on a scale of one-to-one. There are sentences here which reverberate in the inner ear forever. "The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox?" (Urn-Buriall.) "For the world, I count it not an Inne, but an Hospitall, and a place, not to live, but to die in. The world that I regard is my selfe." (Religio Medici.) The NYRB Classics volume makes enormous demands on the reader, not only by preserving the original spellings of words from Browne's manuscripts but by placing cheek by jowl two of the most dense, idiosyncratic, and sobering literary works to come out of the English Renaissance (a now unfashionable but entirely apt term for early modern England). But before we venture further, let's get our bearings. A bit of pre-reading is called for. What are we to make, for instance, of the following back-cover blurb by Virginia Woolf?
Browne has paved the way for all psychological novelists, autobiographers, confession mongers, and dealers in the curious shades of our private life. He it was who first turned from the contacts of men with men to their lonely life w...