Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Imagination Sweetens Life
By Sir Thomas Browne (16051682)
From the Letter to a Friend
JULIUS SCALIGER, who in a sleepless fit of the gout could make two hundred verses in a night, would have but five plain words upon his tomb. And this serious person, though no minor wit, left the poetry of his epitaph unto others; either unwilling to commend himself or to be judged by a distich, and perhaps considering how unhappy great poets have been in versifying their own epitaphs: wherein Petrarca, Dante, and Ariosto, have so unhappily failed, that if their tombs should out-last their works, posterity would find so little of Apollo on them, as to mistake them for Ciceronian poets.
In this deliberate and creeping progress unto the grave, he was somewhat too young and of too noble a mind, to fall upon that stupid symptom observable in divers persons near their journeys end, and which may be reckoned among the mortal symptoms of their last disease; that is, to become more narrow minded, miserable, and tenacious, unready to part with any thing, when they are ready to part with all, and afraid to want when they have no time to spend; meanwhile physicians, who know that many are mad but in a single depraved imagination, and one prevalent decipiency; and that beside and out of such single deliriums a man may meet with sober actions and good sense in Bedlam; cannot but smile to see the heirs and concerned relations gratulating themselves on the sober departure of their friends; and though they behold such mad, covetous passages, content to think they die in good understanding, and in their sober senses.
Avarice, which is not only infidelity but idolatry, either from covetous progeny or questuary education, had no root in his breast, who made good works the expression of his faith, and was big with desires unto public and lasting charities; and surely where good wishes and charitable intentions exceed abilities, theorical beneficency may be more than a dream. They build not castles in the air who would build churches on earth; and though they leave no such structures here, may lay good foundations in heaven. In brief, his life and death were such, that I could not blame them who wished the like, and almost to have been himself; almost I say; for though we may wish the prosperous appurtenances of others, or to be another in his happy accidents, yet so intrinsical is every man unto himself, that some doubt may be made, whether any would exchange his being, or substantially become another man.
He had wisely seen the world at home and abroad, and thereby observed under what variety men are deluded in the pursuit of that which is not here to be found. And although he had no opinion of reputed felicities below, and apprehended men widely out in the estimate of such happiness; yet his sober contempt of the world wrought no Democritism or Cynicism, no laughing or snarling at it, as well understanding there are not felicities in this world to satisfy a serious mind; and therefore, to soften the stream of our lives, we are fain to take in the reputed contentions of this world, to unite with the crowd in their beatitudes, and to make ourselves happy by consortion, opinion, or co-existimation: for strictly to separate from received and customary felicities, and to confine unto the rigour of realities, were to contract the consolation of our beings unto too uncomfortable circumscriptions.