Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne

Excerpt

There is a peculiarly paradoxical flavour about Sir Thomas Browne's position in English letters. Few writers of his distinction have shown less professional interest in literature as such: what primarily concerned Browne were the twin themes of scientific research and religious exploration. He fell into public authorship by accident; and, with paradoxical irony, he is remembered today less for his experiments in embryology or even his anti-sectarian mysticism than for his unique style. We know that, as Buffon said, le style c'est l'homme ragroe; and it is true that Browne's hypnotic, haunting rhythms, the rich texture of his prose, his idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery are indissolubly bound up with the beliefs he held no less than his professional vocation of medicine. But to read Browne for his style alone , as though his work were some religious incantation, the meaning of which had long, fallen into oblivion, is to lose the greater part of what he has to offer us. Few prose writers have achieved such associative denseness of texture: the strands which compose his web cannot be separated without damaging the whole.

To recover the atmosphere -- emotional no less than intellectual -- in which Browne composed his works requires some effort today. Very early the pressing problems which confronted him had changed or were forgotten: Pepys records how already in his day the Religio Medici was bracketed with Osborne's cynical Advice to a Son and Samuel Butler's Hudibras -- a collocation which would not, probably, occur to most modern readers -- and how 'these three books were the most esteemed and generally cried up for wit in the world': an equally surprising verdict. Browne had a talent for making unconscious prophecies about himself: in a letter to his son Thomas he remarked, apropos Lucan: 'I hope you are more taken with the verses than the subject, and rather embrace the expression than the example'. Subsequent . . .

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