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  Browne’s “scepticism” A Letter to a Friend  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

X. Antiquaries.

§ 6. Hydriotaphia; The Garden of Cyrus.


These posthumously published works contain, as will be pointed out presently, better things than some critics have found in them. But their author, whatever pains he had taken with them, could hardly have made any—even the fragment on Dreams—into a thing more magnificent than Urn Burial. Its companion, like the posthumous pieces, has sometimes been rather harshly judged. Everybody of competence admits the splendour of the peroration “But the quincunx of heaven runs low,” with its sign-manual or hallmark of Brownism in the observation “To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our Antipodes.”  4  But the whole of the fifth or last chapter leads us to this in a fashion which has not universally been perceived or acknowledged, and chapter 1, despite its touch of the whimsical, is no ordinary prelude. Even the three central chapters, for all their bewildering hunt of the quincunx through arts and sciences, buildings and beds, botany and zoology, are not long enough to be tedious, and, despite the prevailing motive, are too various to incur the charge of monotony. But a certain allowance must always be made in the praise of The Garden of Cyrus: in that of Urn Burial there is none necessary or even permissible. That Browne thought his urns older than they really were is perfectly immaterial, even if true; and no faults of a more serious nature occur. On the other hand, the author, on the very first page, has struck, and has maintained with wonderful fugue-variations to the close, a note at once directly appealing to ordinary humanity, and susceptible of being played upon with the strangest and remotest harmonies. This is not merely derived from the contrast of death and life—it is the result of a sort of double or triple consideration of the shortness of individual life, the length of time as contrasted with this and the shortness, again, of time, as a whole, contrasted with eternity. Now, one of these sides of the thought is uppermost; now, another; now, two, or all three, are kept in evidence together, with the most rapid shifting, while the changes illumine or are illumined by the phantasmagoria of Browne’s imaginative learning. The purely historical part is much shorter than the corresponding portion of The Garden of Cyrus; and it seems relatively shorter still because of the more human interest of the subject, and the comparative, if not entire, absence of merely trivial scientific detail. But the really important point is the constant illumination just referred to—the almost continuous series of imaginative explosions where the subject catches fire from the author’s spirit or vice versa. The greatest triumph of this pyrotechnical  5  explosion is, of course, the famous “Now since these dead bones” at the beginning of the fifth and (for in both these tractates Browne kept to his sacred number five) last chapter, where the display continues unbroken to the very conclusion, the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world. But the tone has been only a little lower throughout the treatise; the very first lines “When the funeral pyre was out and the last valediction over” set a rhythm which is never too metrical and yet always cadenced beyond ordinary prose; and the imagination of the reader is constantly invited to incandescence corresponding to that of the writer, in such phrases, prodigally scattered over every page, and in almost every paragraph, as “What virtue yet sleeps in this terra damnata and aged cinders” and “his soul was viewing the large stations of the dead,” which occur within a dozen lines of each other.   19

Note 4. There are few better examples than this of the truth of Sir Henry Craik’s observation, that the object of seventeenth century “wit” was “not to excite laughter but to compel attention.” [ back ]
Note 5. There is no reason why any connotation of artificiality or triviality should be attached to this word. Summer lightning and the Aurora Borealis are only pyrotechnics on the great scale, and the effect of these against a dark sky is exactly that of Browne’s rhetoric on a smaller. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Browne’s “scepticism” A Letter to a Friend  
 
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