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 within. [. . .] He is the first of the autobiographers.
We hear more than a little of Woolf’s craving for a private room of her own in her implicit approbation of Browne’s shrinking from the disorderly “contacts of men with men.” So, we think, he is something of a navel-gazer, perhaps the progenitor of therapeutic writing, of redemption through self-exposure. A novelist of himself. And in some ways he is.
Browne wanted to communicate candidly with his audience, but to the contemporary reader he can often seem a guide that has at heart only our getting lost. And in fact getting lost was a specialty of Browne’s: “I love to lose my selfe in a mystery,” he writes, “to pursue my reason to an o altitudo.” This Latin phrase comes from Romans 11:33, a moment when the epistle’s author comes up against the inscrutability of God and surrenders ecstatically: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”
Browne is an echo chamber in which voices of the past, including those out of Scripture, reverberate with a difference. Or no, he is a garden in which everything that is planted flowers, crossbreeds, and gives a rich, strange harvest. His vast array of images is nearly unequaled in all of English prose. Like Augustine, Browne was obsessed with memory, and he drew constantly from the store of his own experience to flesh out his arguments. Yet he had recourse often to the o altitudo — in his idle hours, when the habits of mind developed in the course of his profession snagged on the rough edges of Scripture. Just as it’s interesting to see how Milton in Paradise Lost extends the metaphors of classical authors — referring to the moon, for instance, as an object with mass rather than merely a shiny disc in the heavens — it’s fascinating to read Browne against the King James Bible. He sustains the comparison in passages that would have been literally unthinkable for a less educated writer:
I beleeve that our estranged and divided ashes shall unite againe; that our separated dust after so many pilgrimages and transformations into the parts of mineralls, Plants, Animals, Elements, shall at the voyce of God returne into their primitive shapes, and joyne againe to make up their primary and predestinated formes.
W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn likens Browne’s sentences to “processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness.” In his preoccupations and his sonorous eloquence, Browne has no modern equivalent, unless it is F. Gonzalez-Crussi, an emeritus professor of pathology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, who in his many essays on the subjects of anatomy and morbidity writes in the old mode, “out of the fullness of his erudition,” as Browne did, and for whose continuing obscurity I can find no good reason save the diminishment of modern attention spans and our almost pathological insistence on good cheer. By profession a medical doctor like Browne, Gonzalez-Crussi created the classification system for teratomas, and yet Wikipedia — the litmus test for twenty-first century fame — is all but silent on him. But then, as Browne says, it is too late to be ambitious, and our time may be too short for our designs.
Browne also can instructively be read side-by-side with Emerson, that other rugged and cormorant-minded intellectual who was not afraid to contradict himself. Again and again these authors drive their plows over the bones of earlier opinions, overturning greener inquiries for the benefit of the soil that will produce in time mature bounties, the harsh splendor of Emerson’s Conduct of Life and the fifth section of Browne’s Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall. The insights of both writers are all but inseparable from the language used to express them, which is no doubt why both imparted their greatest inheritance to literature rather than to philosophy or theology.
Read together, the two men may seem to contest each other; but between the surrender of Browne and the self-reliance of Emerson there is less space than one might suppose. There is a consonance, for instance, in their understanding of human suffering. “The smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves.” (Browne.) “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is [. . .] something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar.” (Emerson.) And here is Browne on the self-sufficiency of the great-souled man: “Let me not injure the felicity of others, if I say I am as happy as any. I have that in me that can convert poverty into riches, transforme adversity into prosperity.” Emerson: “The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances indifferent — put all means into the shade. This all great men are and do.”
The correspondence of the two men is prophetically explained by Browne: “Every man is not onely himselfe; there have beene many Diogenes, and as many Tymons, though but few of that name [. . .] there was none then, but there hath been some one since that parallels him, and is, as it were, his revived selfe.” In reflecting on the repetition of ages and persons, he anticipates his own intellectual heirs. But where Emerson saw no need to justify his project, content to live his life “not [as] an apology, but [as] a life,” Browne was made uneasy, perhaps even frightened, by the force of his own skeptical intellect and the self-sufficient richness of his inner life. He embeds in the fabric of Religio Medici a justification for his intellectual project, which sticks out like a pulled thread: “The wisedome of God receives small honour from those vulgar heads, that rudely stare about, and with a grosse rusticity admire his workes; those highly magnifie him whose judicious enquiry into his acts, and deliberate research of his creatures, returne the duty of a devout and learned admiration.” Browne may rightly have feared that his great learning contradicted, at least on its face, Jesus’s admonition in Matthew: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
The introduction by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff is excellent in many respects and unfortunate in one or two. Greenblatt and Targoff are very good at placing Browne within his social and historical context. Certain passages, however, bear the unmistakably New Historicist stamp of Greenblatt, which means among other things that he condescends to Browne, “a relic of the past” whose voice “is the voice of a vanished world, a world utterly routed by our own conceptions of rational inquiry, scientific proof, and common sense.” This historical condescension is typical, as Greenblatt can redeem Browne at the last only by insisting that he “is also unnervingly one of our most adventurous contemporaries.” Whether or not the world Browne knew has entirely gone under, it never occurs to Greenblatt that we might have lost something worthwhile in the transition. He writes as though a past author’s value were in direct proportion to our own ability to reconcile that author’s thought to the main currents of our own age. But will many of our own most cherished beliefs — in the efficacy of global finance, the rising tide of progress, the inevitable triumph of democracy — endure much longer? From his enlightened position as a twenty-first century man, Greenblatt quarrels with Browne. This is all too easy. More interesting would be to use Browne to quarrel with the twenty-first century, for instance with our narrowness of learning, our tendency not to look deeply into things, our reflexive and unexamined atheism.
Worse, Greenblatt and Targoff occasionally nod even when attempting to read Browne on his own terms. In a passage meant to trace the twists and turns of his thought, they call him out for “baffling changes in direction and outright contradictions.” But their evidence rests primarily on two statements. In the first, Browne confesses to his melancholia, admitting that “no man ever desired life as I have sometimes death.” Then, some pages and many digressions later, he proclaims in the second, “Whosoever enjoyes not this life, I count him but an apparition, though he weare about him the sensible affections of flesh.” Quite the inconsistency, or so it seems. But the second sentence quoted here by the scholars is directly preceded, in Religio Medici, by a discussion of Christian salvation:
I say, every man hath a double Horoscope, one of his humanity, his birth; another of his Christianity, his baptisme, and from this doe I compute or calculate my Nativitie; not reckoning those Horæ combustæ, and odde dayes, or esteeming my selfe any thing, before I was my Saviours, and inrolled in the register of Christ: Whosoever enjoyes not this life, I count him but an apparition, though he weare about him the sensible affections of flesh.
Though Browne’s prose can be ambiguous, at times no doubt intentionally so, he is evidently referring here to the new life in Christ, the second life which begins for every believer upon adopting the Christian faith. His sentiment is not, then, such a swerve as the editors believe. And if he at times passionately desires death, it is in no small part due to his hope of eternal life.
Every time you’re prepared to scoff at one of Browne’s antiquated notions, you find he is already ahead of you on another matter, for instance when he writes that “of those three great inventions of Germany” — guns, the printing press, and the mariner’s compass — “there are two which are not without their incommodities, and ’tis disputable whether they exceed not their use and commodities.” His recognition of the inevitable downsides of technology, of the depletion that dogs every invented fullness, is surely wiser than the techno-utopianism that has come to be the spirit of our age. This is the unnerving contemporaneity which the editors refer to, but it would be better to call it something that doesn’t privilege our own time over Browne’s.
In about 1655, a cache of funerary urns was turned up in a field near Walsingham in Norfolk. The unearthing of these antiquities in England gave Browne the occasion for writing Urne-Buriall, as much a meditation on oblivion as it is an inquiry into ancient burial practices. Because it allowed him to interrogate both modern Christian practices of interment and those of Britain’s pre-Christian past, and to subsume both kinds of civilization under the universal human dilemma of death, the work “combined his fascination with anthropology with his interest in theology,” Greenblatt and Targoff write. “In the deepest sense, Urne-Buriall is not simply or primarily his diagnosis of the urns at Norfolk: it is his diagnosis of the human condition.”
Though an equal sharer in the condition he diagnoses, Browne stands as if outside it: his role is that of cosmic physician, a Martian anthropologist on planet Earth. From this vantage point, he can see the whole sweep of things. He recounts the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Scythians, Chaldeans, and others. Where some in Browne’s day might have taken widespread cremation as a sign that pre-Christian peoples had no belief in life after death, he finds evidence to the contrary: the funeral pyres were built, to quote Sebald’s summation, “of sweet fuel, cypress, fir, yew, and other trees perpetually verdant as silent expressions of their surviving hopes.” Just as Browne is aware of funeral rites, such as they are, in the animal kingdom, so he is sensitive to the meaning of actions taken by those whose beliefs are alien to him. Although later scholarship has overturned or withdrawn from some of his suppositions and conclusions, Urne-Buriall remains a remarkable work of natural history.
Browne finds value in such work because we are little altered from those who went before us, and therefore have much to learn from our ancestors. We can never have too much discovery, too much learning, too much antiquarianism, too much excavation of the past; indeed, when it comes to learning how to be in the world, “the whole stage of things scarce serveth for our instruction.” The dead outnumber all who shall ever live, the night of time far surpasses the day, and “a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us.”
More than anything else in the book, it is the final section of Urne-Buriall that lifts it above mere natural history and places it on heights rarely reached before or since. It might be the closest thing we have in English to a prose poem on death. In Religio Medici Browne defines death privately not as cessation of life but as transformation: est mutatio qua perficitur nobile illud extractum Microcosmi. He is fascinated by the transmigrations of silkworms. Already at 30 years old he wants to reach the end of man within himself, and go beyond, as moths refuse to end their hunger in the cocoon: “At my death I meane 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.”
On this point at least Browne would agree with the staunchest atheist: the emancipation of the dead from the need for remembrance is absolute. Whether swallowed up in nothingness, enrobed in heavenly glory, or immured in hellfire it makes no difference. Our prayers and tears are for the living alone. Yet Browne recognizes how great is our need for grief, and, beyond grief, for some hope of earthly endurance. He is clear-eyed enough to see, however, that the world makes a mockery of this need. The worst may be remembered longer than the best: “The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.”
Harsher still, he writes that most people will be entirely forgotten, that they “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.” The modern and godless version of this can be found in George Steiner’s Language and Silence: “Most men have their dusty survivance in old telephone directories (it is a mercy that these are kept at the British Museum); there is in the literal fact of their existence less of life’s truth and harvest than in Falstaff or Madame de Guermantes.” True fictions endure longer than facts, but time buries all.
There is a passage given in isolation at the end of the NYRB Classics volume because its authenticity is somewhat in dispute, but which is included in the editions of Browne’s works by Simon Wilkins and Geoffrey Keynes. It’s a shame to divorce it from the rest of the text, because it contains some of Browne’s most stunning lines, exemplary of both his style and thought:
Large are the treasures of oblivion, and heapes of things in a state next to nothing almost numberlesse; much more is buried in silence than is recorded, and the largest volumes are butt epitomes of what hath been. The account of time beganne with night, and darknesse still attendeth it. Some things never come to light; many have been delivered; butt more hath been swallowed in obscurity & the caverns of oblivion.
We see clearly here that for Browne, though as a medical doctor he was intimately acquainted with the physical wasting of the body, the most deplorable aspect of mortal life is memory’s blindness, the forgetfulness that attends all human effort. We notice in the poetry of Edmund Spenser, who died six years before Browne was born, how “forgetfulness” means oblivion, and it has this same sense for Browne. For him, then, as for Kant, the existence of God becomes something of a moral postulate. There must be some power existing from eternity for whom not only his own words but every word ever spoken does not return void, some intelligence that remembers and files them away in incorruptible archives. This memorious God stretches his hands out over the abyss, catching every particle of existence. We moderns know from physics that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only transformed in outward appearance or converted from one into the other. Only from the vantage point of finite beings does there seem to be such wastage in human affairs.
Browne has a digression on nature, and another on fortune, or chance, in which he says that the effects ascribed to them are merely the misattributed effects of God’s works, God working at one remove, as it were. To say otherwise is to find first cause in the instrument rather than the agent, “which if with reason we may doe, then let our hammers rise up and boast they have built our houses, and our pens receive the honour of our writings.” Without this God, “the true and infallible cause of all,” who makes himself felt “in the particular actions of everything,” life is a chaos; memory, though a great gift, ultimately a shameful sieve; and melancholy the proper response to existence. Without the “stable apprehension,” Browne writes, that “our ashes shall enjoy the fruits of our pious endeavours [. . ]. Atheists have beene the onely Philosophers.”
He can make such statements because, unlike Kant, he has in addition to reason the conviction of real faith. Nature for him is a second Scripture, a “universall and publik Manuscript” that testifies equally to the glory of God. This view of the world-as-text allows him to reconcile himself to problems in the text of the Bible. He makes a catalogue in Religio Medici of biblical narratives that contradict his reason, only to conclude, “Yet doe I beleeve that all this is true, which indeed my reason would perswade me to be false.” In other words, so powerful is the evidence of his senses in living contact with nature that he’s willing to run roughshod over his rational mind’s objections to the fantastical elements of Scripture. There’s that o altitudo again. But it isn’t so simple this time. Inside him there’s a Hobbesian war, or many wars — “passion against reason, reason against faith, faith against the Devill, and my conscience against all.”
Which is to say that it’s not entirely safe for an unbeliever to read Urne-Buriall — not because you might be converted to something like Browne’s faith, but because you might not be. Once you’ve accepted the truth of his lay sermon on oblivion — and the force of his eloquence even more than the progression of his logic leaves you little choice — and then have removed God from the equation, you find yourself confronted with “the uncomfortable night of nothing.” And it’s not simply a matter of accepting mortality, of having a jolly four-score to kick up our heels before trundling off to bed forever. “Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings.” This sentence, that is like the sentence of an eternal judge, returns to us out of Sebald at the end of the twentieth century, where it stands for cultural forgetfulness, especially our easy melioration of atrocities.
If all this sounds terribly bleak, something you’d never wish to darken your bookshelf with, you have mistaken Browne. Though melancholy, he is not a fatalist. He knows how much human beings are and do: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.” In the course of time, this will modulate into the irreligious Walter Pater’s exhortation to fill one’s “counted pulses” with life overflowing if not everlasting, to fan the fires of one’s perception to their utmost: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
It is the controlled weaving of difficult ideas, perceptions, and emotions into a convincing tapestry that makes Browne’s art. The subsuming of bleakness, of hopelessness, of skepticism, loss, and bitterness, of all that bubbles up from the roiling tar pits of the human heart, even of death itself in all its forms, under the operation of a phrase-making power so absolute that despair and nothingness, though felt completely and in all their force, are deprived of the power to harm. So the heart of death, laid bare and lifted up among men, exalts life.
Death preoccupied Browne because his singular project, which Woolf rightly saw as precursive to autobiograpy and confessional writing, was nothing less than charting the cosmography of the self. For him the basic question, then, was whether his self — a proxy for other selves — had a foreordained end, or whether, after its earthly span was over, it would, like the universe impelled by dark energy, continue to expand outward into eternity. He wrestled with this question like Jacob with the angel. And for all his skepticism and doubt, for all his divagations, Browne placed himself finally and firmly on the side of everlasting life: “What is made to be immortall, Nature cannot, nor will the voyce of God, destroy.”