Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Antiquaries > Browne’s style and vocabulary
  Religio Medici Pseudodoxia Epidemica  


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

X. Antiquaries.

§ 3. Browne’s style and vocabulary.

The success, however, of the expression of this attitude can hardly be hidden from anyone who has the slightest appreciation of the beauties of English prose, unless that appreciation be as one-sided as it is slight. Coleridge who was nevertheless a warm, and might have been expected to be a thorough-going, admirer of Browne, does, indeed, accuse him of being a corrupter of the language. But the passage in which the accusation occurs is a mass of anachronisms; it was evidently written in one of the well known Coleridgean fits of “fun,” as Lamb called them, that is to say, of one-sided crotchet; and the corruption alleged is that of a purely fanciful standard of Elizabethan English which appears to have been blended for himself by the critic out of two such isolated, anything but contemporary, and singularly different, exemplars as Latimer and Hooker.   8
  As a matter of fact, Browne does not corrupt, but develops, the principal tendencies of his predecessors—rhythmical elaboration, highly coloured language and conceit. His special characteristic in the lower aspects of style may, indeed, be called a corruption, if anyone chooses, and an audacious, but often real, improvement, at the pleasure of anyone else. In that lower aspect, it is the adoption, or, if need be, the manufacture, of Latin or, sometimes, Greek compounds with English terminations, in fuller indulgence than any other known case supplies, except that of his contemporary, namesake and fellow in knighthood Sir Thomas Urquhart. These manufactured words appear to annoy some people very much; but there are few of them which, with a moment’s thought, will give much trouble to any decently educated person, while, for others (as Sir Thomas might even have said, though he rarely reached the quip modest), he did not write.   9
  There is, however, a further peculiarity, the approval or disapproval of which may, once more, be a matter of taste, but which does make a somewhat heavy demand, not merely on the erudition, but on the strength and quickness of intellect, of the reader. Browne is not quite content with using an uncommonly Latinised vocabulary. He must, in many cases, employ that vocabulary itself with a peculiar sort of catachresis; so that its plain and straightforward meaning, even if known, will not fully illuminate the passage. A phrase of his own, contrasting “to construe” with “to understand,” is often very applicable to himself; and a man might not merely be able to construe but, to some extent, to understand, the meaning of every word in such a sentence as “commutatively iniquous in the valuation of transgressions” without apprehending the true drift of the whole phrase.   10
  In Religio Medici, however, he had not arrived at this pitch; while, if he had, likewise, not attained the utter magnificence of combined rhythmical cadence and imaginative illustration which distinguishes Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, there were good foretastes of it. How much importance he himself attached to the book is not very clear. His later references to it are rather slighting, and yet not quite in the way either of mock humility, or of that mannerly deprecation which was not the worst point of old-fashioned courtesy. He may have been annoyed by the comments and controversies upon it; or he may have repented of a certain youthful egotism which certainly does characterise it, and of such unguarded confessions to the vulgar as that of his dislike (very rare and suspicious then, very intelligible and common now) of the word “protestant,” of his fits of Origenism and of belief in prayers for the dead and so forth.   11

  Religio Medici Pseudodoxia Epidemica  

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