NO 93

The Observer - The New Review - - BOOKS - By Robert McCrum

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

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