Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682)
 
[Thomas Browne, who was knighted by Charles the Second in the year 1671, was born at London in or near Cheapside, on the 19th October 1605, his father being a mercer, bat of a good Cheshire family; his mother, Ann Garraway of Sussex. The father died early, and the mother married again, her second husband, Sir Thomas Dutton, being probably identical with a soldier of a quick temper who killed his colonel, Sir Hatton Cheeke, in a duel. He seems, however, to have been a friendly stepfather, and can have had nothing to do with the inroad said to have been made on the child’s fortune by a dishonest guardian. Nor are there any signs of straitened means in any part of Browne’s career. He became a scholar of Winchester in 1616, and matriculated at Broadgate Hall, Oxford (which during his residence became Pembroke College) seven years later. The date of his B.A. degree was 1626, of his M.A. 1629, and about four years later he took the further degree of Doctor of Medicine at Leyden. He is said to have practised earlier in Oxfordshire, to have spent some time in Ireland, and then to have travelled a good deal on the Continent. After returning, and perhaps after some professional stay both in London and in Yorkshire, he settled in 1636 at Norwich, which was his home for the remainder of his life. In 1641 he married a Norfolk lady, Dorothy Mileham, who brought him into relations with some of the best families of the county. He was incorporated as M.D. of his own University in 1637; became Fellow of the College of Physicians in 1665; was knighted, as above mentioned, and died of a colic on his birthday in the year 1682. His domestic relations, of which we have some memorials in letters, etc., appear to have been uniformly happy, and his entire life was spent quietly in the practice of his profession, and the study of the sciences appertaining to it. His first literary appearance was made with the Religio Medici, written, as it would appear, about his thirtieth year, but not published till seven years later (1642), and then, by his own account, surreptitiously. A controversy, for which there is no room here, followed. The Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors, his longest and most popular work appeared in 1646; and he published the Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, and the Garden of Cyrus in 1658. Nothing more was printed in his lifetime, but additions were subsequently made, the most important of which was the Christian Morals, not published till 1716. The standard edition of Browne, a most excellent one, is that of Simon Wilkin, first published in four volumes in 1835, and since included in three volumes of Bohn’s Library. Two editions of separate works are sufficiently important to be mentioned, that of Christian Morals (1756), with a Life certainly and notes probably (certainly to me) by Dr. Johnson, and that of the same book with the Religio Medici, and a Letter to a Friend, by Dr. Greenhill, 1881, notable for the extraordinary minuteness of the pains taken with the text and vocabulary.]  1
 
GUY PATIN when, very shortly after the appearance of Religio Medici, a Latin translation by John Merryweather had brought the book to the notice of continental men of letters, described Browne as “un mélancholique agréable en ses pensées.” There may have been a little in this of the traditional estimate of English sadness. But Patin was a man of very shrewd and unprejudiced mind, and there was not as yet in his time the severance between insular and continental thought and letters which the disuse of Latin and the overbearing rise of French power and credit, political and literary, were soon to bring about. And the judgment, though inadequate, is neither inaccurate nor superficial. In temperament, as well as in those perhaps inseparable accidents of temperament, which are called manner and style, Browne strongly resembles, though with remarkable differences, his earlier contemporary, Burton. There was indeed nothing “horrid” about Browne’s melancholy, as there is traditionally asserted to have been about Burton’s, and the abundant sights which we have of him—writing to his children, mixing in the society of Norwich, noting its antiquities, and the natural history of its neighbourhood—are almost as cheerful as they can be. But it must be remembered that about Burton’s private character and ways we really know nothing at all. Comparing the works of the two men we find in Browne a somewhat slighter tendency to regard all things in relation to spiritual valetudinarianism, a more poetical temper, a more rhetorical style, more mysticism, and a more decided piety. But there is in him also the principal mark of the Burtonian melancholy, the ceaseless contemplation of things from the point of view of an unsatisfied and unflinching curiosity, which seems to regard the attempt to satisfy itself as the only panacea, or at least palliative, for the evils of life. Both are humorous, from which it will follow as the night the day that both are melancholy. And though Browne does not necessarily see, and probably was not at all disposed to see all things in melancholy as does his neighbour on the other side of St. Aldate’s, there is at least an equally strong undercurrent of this quality in him. Not merely in the famous and almost hackneyed, but here of necessity once more quoted peroration of the Urn Burial, where the subject may be said to have demanded it, but always when he is in his most impressive key, the note of sadness, not passionate or querulous, but contemplative and questioning, is heard.  2
  That Browne must have been an exceedingly careful writer is not only obvious from the most cursory perusal of his work, but may be said to be established beyond a doubt by documentary evidence. In the first place there is the very significant fact that almost all his ornate and most striking passages are to be found in the works which he himself prepared for the press and sent through it; while the posthumous works, though considerable in bulk, much more rarely exhibit them. In the second place, by a piece of good luck too rare with English authors of the first class, we possess large stores of Browne’s MSS. which were bought by Sir Hans Sloane, and thus passed to the British Museum. And these contain numerous variants, first drafts, supplements, and the like, to and of the more elaborate passages. The fact, however, could not be doubted if we had no such evidence. It is perfectly clear that Browne was, in the older and good sense, one of the most artificial writers of English that ever existed. Very few English authors—Shakespeare and Pope are the chief exceptions—have had the benefit of special lexicons such as those which, under the care of M. Adolphe Regnier and his coadjutors and successors, have been gradually compiled for almost all the greater authors of France. But if no one has yet attempted this for the whole of Browne, Dr. Greenhill has done it for three capital opuscula which he edited, as a part and a main part of an “index” which fills seventy pages to barely thrice that number of text. There is thus brought together, in an easy conspectus, what all careful readers of Browne must have always had before them dispersedly—his unmatched audacity and fecundity of vocabulary. Disengaged from its accompanying matter, and enriched with a similar glossary to the Pseudodoxia and the other works, it would probably constitute the most remarkable repertory of the kind in English.  3
  It is generally and sufficiently known that most of this vocabulary is borrowed from the classical languages, and especially from Latin. It has indeed become a commonplace that Johnson’s comparatively early work on Browne determined his own indulgence in this direction; though Johnson never Latinised with half the temerity of his master. But it would be at once an insufficiency and an injustice to put Browne down as a mere “Limousin student,” a mere clumsy corruptor of his native tongue with Latinisms and Græcisms. He was the less likely to be this, inasmuch as he was a diligent reader, and a keen relisher of Rabelais himself, and has left among his letters a Pantagruelist epistle which puzzled the excellent Wilkin, but which is masterly in sense and form, and very easily intelligible to all followers of Master Francis. Still less did he, like a contemporary whose Pantagruelism was equally undoubted, Sir Thomas Urquhart, run wild in classical or pseudo-classical compounds. But Browne never hesitated to use a Latin word in its most idiomatic Latin sense whenever he felt disposed; and what is more he did not scruple to attach remote connotations of meaning to the words that he borrowed. So, too, he would be indebted to the special sciences for terms of art,—heraldic, medical, philosophic,—and would use them unexplained and at the peril of his auditor whenever their sound or sense pleased him. He would be vernacular whenever he chose; and contrary to the wont of those who specially affect the ancient tongues of literature, he had no scruple in employing a modern foreign word—French, Italian, or Spanish—when it seemed to him to be desirable. That his license in these respects was, in one of his own most idiomatic words, “controllable”—that is to say exposed to revision and disapproval—it would be extremely rash to deny. That it was in the other sense controlled for the most part by scholarship, by sound sense, and by literary taste, I, for my part, fully believe.  4
  But this coloured, chequered, and almost fantastic vocabulary was only the raw material of Browne’s literary art. It was to him something like the marquetry materials, the coloured woods, the ivory, the tortoise-shell, the brass which the great French artists in furniture of his own latest days used in such a surprising manner. It is usual, and not improper, to conjoin Browne, Milton, and Taylor, as the three chief examples of ornate classicising magnificence in seventeenth-century English prose. But Browne deserves distinction from the two great men whose lives and whose styles so nearly coincided with his, for a much greater attention to composition proper. It is true that his syntax, indeed that his whole arrangement is, like his vocabulary, excessively classical. But it has more rarely led him than the others into positive faults of English. Writing as he did, not for pulpit delivery, not under the strain and stress of the necessities of the political pamphlet, but quietly in his study for publication at long intervals of years, he was almost bound to avoid, he certainly did as a rule though not always, avoid, the anacolutha, the confusions of English and Latin constructions, the clumsy sentences to which both Milton and Taylor were too prone. And he was more constantly able than they were (though there is no doubt little to choose between the three at their very best) to communicate to his sentences that sound as of the silver trumpet, that wonderful melody of rhythmed though not metrical prose which is the peculiar glory of his age.  5
  Even the most strictly formal criticism must, however, notice elements in the fascination exercised by Browne, which are independent of his strange and gorgeous vocabulary, independent of his unfamiliar but cunning composition, independent even of the attitude of melancholy yet affable irony which was referred to at the beginning of these remarks. His wide, it may almost be said his immense, reading was characteristic of his time, and though an additional, it is not a distinguishing charm. But there is in him something else which is almost wholly his own, which is not in Milton, or in Fuller, or in Glanvill, which is certainly not in Hobbes or Burton, and which makes one disposed to borrow Donne’s hyperbole and say of his style that “it’s body thought.” It is observable first of course, and perhaps also most, in Religio Medici, to which I should like to affix the sub-titles “Religio Anglicani, Religio generosi, Religio Philosophi.” But it is observable also in all works up to what seems to have been the last, though it is not the least, the Christian Morals. Some give less room for it than others; but always, wherever there is an opening—in the multifarious miscellany of the Vulgar Errors, in the quaint mysticism of the Garden of Cyrus, in the affectionate reasoning of the Letter to a Friend, in the learned disquisition and glowing rhetoric of the Urn Burial—it is there. It is a combination of the profoundest scepticism with the most fervent belief; a perfect ability to exercise the pickaxe and shovel of logic joined to a consciousness that anywhere may be met the wall of adamant against which pickaxe and shovel are powerless; a union of mathematical and mystical proficiency for which we may look elsewhere in vain. And perhaps hardly anything save this combination could have informed his style with its exquisite and unsurpassed quality.  6
 
 
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