100 BEST NONFICTION BOOKS OF ALL TIME
Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk
Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
Sir Thomas Browne is a major-minor figure in the story of these great books, whose afterlife vindicates the power of an idiosyncratic, humane imagination. His reputation among admirers such as Coleridge, De Quincey, Lytton Strachey and, most recently, WG Sebald, confirms him as an early example of “the writer’s writer”.
Dr Johnson, another fan, described Browne’s inimitable style as “a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. In defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express, in many words, that idea for which any language could supply a single term.”
Or, in an age of scientific, political and religious ferment, Browne was a gifted polymath, obsessed with the classics. This was the inevitable outcome of his schooling, where Latin was the usual language of conversation.
After an education at Winchester and Oxford, Browne travelled in Ireland and studied medicine in France, Italy and Germany. His first book, Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor), was an eccentric devotional meditation, a genre-defying tour de force that quickly made his name in literary circles. From here, it was a natural progression, after a long and unusual life permeated by the English revolution, to Browne’s masterpiece.
Hydriotaphia is a strange and witty excursion into the burial customs of the past, a peculiar meditation on death and dying that becomes an essay on the nature of identity and humanity’s vain quest for immortality. In the dazzling profusion of myriad speculations, the intoxicated reader encounters the weird complexity of Browne’s art, mind and style in all its polyvalent majesty.
Edmund Gosse describes Browne as “the laureate of the forgotten dead”. If literary culture, as Auden says, is about “communing with the dead”, then Browne is indeed the enchanted high priest of a secular faith. At fewer than 50 pages, this is a meditation for the ages.
Browne’s prose is never less than beautiful and always arresting. “Man is a noble animal,” he writes, “splendid in ashes and pompous in the grave, solemnising nativities and deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting ceremonies of bravery in the infamy of his nature.”
In the closing pages, after numerous brilliant passages, Browne concludes with a kind of sober ecstasy: “The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit perpetuity.”
For an extended version of this review go to theguardian.com/ books