Sir Thomas Browne: A Man of Achievement in Literature

By Joan Bennett | Go to book overview

FOREWORD

LIKE so many others I had enjoyed reading Sir Thomas Browne from the time when I first consciously enjoyed good writing, but in the course of years I became increasingly aware how imperfectly I understood him. A number of questions spurred me on to a further exploration of his work. What, for instance, was the nature and extent of Browne's scepticism? Was he exceptionally able 'to live in divided worlds', or was it common in the mid-seventeenth century to retain old beliefs (in, for example, witchcraft, or a Ptolemaic earth-centred universe) and yet to welcome, to advocate and to further the Baconian advancement of learning? Is Browne's work amusing to read because his ideas and the way he expresses them are strange to us, or because he writes humorously and is himself amused? Is the pleasure he gives to his reader due to the rhythm of his prose, his rich vocabulary and complex sentence structure, or do we enjoy his writings because they reveal a personality that delights us? These were among the questions in my mind when I chose my subject. This book is written in an attempt to answer some of them by studying his work in detail and relating it to some contemporary works that seem relevant.

I have not attempted a close analysis of Sir Thomas Browne's style although it is fully illustrated in quotations. To borrow his own phrase, 'I am naturally amorous of all that is beautiful', but the beauty of Browne's style has been admirably praised and I have little to add. His prose rhythms have been analysed and scholars have examined his rhetoric in relation to the history of prose style. In this area there is, I believe, nothing left to do and certainly nothing of which I am capable. My endeavour has been to find out what he thought and what the style expresses. To this end I have first tried to portray the man himself as we see him in his life and in his correspondence. After that I have examined each

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