Sir Thomas Browne: A Life
by reid barbour
oxford, 552 pages, $125
edited by kevin killeen
oxford, 1,018 pages, $160
Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) is one of the most bizarre and attractive figures in English letters. Though his readership has never been wide, he has had many distinguished admirers since the seventeenth century, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, De Quincey, Melville, Sir Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf, and Barbara Pym among them. (When Woolf called Browne’s fans “the salt of the earth,” she was employing the idiom in the sense in which it was originally meant by our savior.) Lytton Strachey came as close as anyone has to putting his finger on the appeal of this melancholy Norwich physician, who wrote equally well about peppercorns and “the wisdome of God in the site and motion of the Sunne,” when he said that Browne’s sentences “seem to carry the reader forward through an immense succession of ages, until at last, with a sudden change of the rhythm, the whole of recorded time crumbles and vanishes before his eyes.”
No writer in our language has ever matched Browne’s sympathy for snakes, ants, flies, chameleons, snails, and other unlovely creatures. (One of his most memorable quarrels was with Erasmus, who in his Colloquies treated of “the Enmity between a Toad and a Spider.”) An inveterate scribbler in his notebook, Browne wondered about guardian angels—whether we each had one or many and whether they were assigned to us at our conceptions or our births. He scoffed at the notion that infants do not dream. He removed his hat whenever he saw a cross, and, in Religio Medici, his remarkable spiritual autobiography, he tells us that as a young man he could “never heare the Toll of a passing Bell, though in my mirth, without my prayers and best wishes for the departing spirit.”
Browne’s charity and good-natured curiosity about all things visible and invisible would make him an attractive figure even if it were not the case that he wrote some of the most beautiful prose in the English language. While it would be absurd to deny that most of us read Browne for his melodious style rather than for his views on the diet of the infant pelican or the proper care of ostriches, it is also wrong to treat Religio Medici or The Garden of Cyrus as a collection of purple patches. Whatever we think of them, Browne really did care about such questions as the “kind of Fishes those were of which our Saviour ate with his Disciples after his Resurrection” and whether snails have eyes. He is one of the most characteristic, and almost certainly among the most endearing, figures from a bizarre period in intellectual history, one in which proponents of the nascent Baconian scientific method, the vouchsafers of the old classical authorities on medicine and science, and the churches were caught in a kind of three-way contest: when it was possible for William Harvey’s thesis about the circulation of the blood to be laughed off simply because it contradicted Galen and for Hobbes to call Aristotle “the worst teacher that ever was” and to sneer at the “strange and barbarous words” of St. Thomas.
I say “characteristic” because while Browne cannot be placed in any of these camps, he had a foot in each of them. When he insists in Vulgar Errors, his massive encyclopedia of nonsense, obscurantism, and bigotry first published in 1646, that basilisks must have existed because they were described in Pliny and alluded to in the Psalms before dismissing as “monstrous” the notion that they are born “from a Cocks egg hatched under a Toad or Serpent,” he reminds us that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamed of in our post-Humean philosophy. Browne’s is an epistemology at once humbler in the face of Scripture and tradition and more alive to the wonders of creation. It is, in other words, a perspective well worth revisiting.
It is this extraordinary admixture of awe and diffidence, captured in his autobiography when the young Browne writes that “Nature tells me I am the Image of God as well as Scripture,” that Reid Barbour takes as his starting point in his new biography. Barbour, a professor of literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brings to this wonderful book ten years of fruitful research and a judicious enthusiasm that is rare in academic volumes costing more than $100. The result is the fullest biography of its subject thus far, a book whose timing, which has coincided with the appearance of a new selection of Browne’s prose from Oxford University Press and comes in advance of a projected eight-part edition of the complete works from the same publisher, could not be more fortunate.
Browne was born in London in 1605, the same year that Bacon’s Advancement of Learning appeared. From a descendant, we have the curious and tender story of Browne’s father standing over his son and kissing his chest in imitation of Leonides of Alexandria, who prayed that the Holy Spirit would thus take possession of the infant Origen. (Later Browne would write off his own good nature as “the mercifull disposition, and humane inclination I borrowed from my Parents.”) After attending public school at Winchester and a disappointing spell in Oxford, where the aspiring physician was offered nothing but the textbooks of Hippocrates and Galen, he found his way to the continent and studied medicine in Montpellier, Padua, and Leiden in succession.
After receiving his degree in Holland, he returned to England in 1634 and practiced for a few years in Halifax. In 1637, he went to Norwich, where he was soon to marry, and spent the rest of his life there, tending to clergymen, the minor gentry, and the poor, whom he treated gratis. He and his wife, Dorothy, would have twelve children, six of whom preceded their parents in death.
It was during the early days of his medical practice that, at odd intervals and in the absence of “any good booke” with which to divert himself or even to consult for reference, he began to compose Religio Medici. Though complete by 1635, it did not appear in print for another seven years—and then only because some unscrupulous person, in whose hands the treatise found itself after Browne had allowed it to circulate in manuscript among friends and acquaintances, delivered it to a London bookseller. The authorized edition of 1643 was followed by Vulgar Errors, which history has had the good sense not to remember by its original title of Pseudodoxia Epidemica. This strange book, neither a collation of authoritative opinions from classical sources after the manner of other early modern medical treatises nor quite, by contemporary standards, a work of experimental science, was continuously republished during the English Civil War, a period in which Browne, a high-church royalist, otherwise kept his head down in Puritan and Parliamentarian Norfolk. It was not until 1658, the year of Cromwell’s death, that he published the two books upon which his reputation as a writer mainly rests: Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, a disquisition upon what he thought were Roman—they were actually Anglo-Saxon—funerary remains, and The Garden of Cyrus, a treatise on the quincunx, recognizable to most of us as the figure that appears on the five side of a die.
In 1662, Browne gave evidence in the second of the famous witch trials at Bury St. Edmunds, which resulted in the conviction and hanging of two aged widows, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny. In 1671, he was knighted by Charles II for services to the crown. Otherwise the remainder of his life seems to have been spectacularly uneventful. He died on his birthday in 1682, aged seventy-seven, which, Barbour suggests, no doubt pleased this delighter in doublings and patterns. An admirer on his deathbed wrote that he “would take nothing neither phisick nor cordiall, but with all quietnes & christian meekness dyed yesterday, & is now pronounced a great & happy man in his life & death. . . . All scholars allow him to have the most curious Learning of all sorts & that his fellow is not left.”
Biographical information about Browne has always been in short supply, which is one reason why the last great account of his life was Edmund Gosse’s, which appeared in Lord Morley’s delightful “English Men of Letters” series more than a century ago. Even now Barbour is unable to add much of direct import, something he has made up for by sinking lines into the archives of more than a dozen universities, libraries, and other institutions and pulling up, among other things, a précis of days at Winchester, sermons preached at churches Browne attended, the curriculum from medical schools on the continent, and even Christopher Wren’s annotated copy of Religio Medici.
Ultimately, however, we are drawn not to Browne’s life, which he recounted to the antiquarian John Aubrey in the space of a single paragraph, but to his enchanting prose. Kevin Killeen’s new selection is the fullest ever to have appeared in one volume and far and away the most ably edited. It is wonderful to have not only Religio Medici, Urne-Buriall, and The Garden of Cyrus, but also Vulgar Errors, which is only excerpted in my old Norton anthology of Browne, in its entirety.
Vulgar Errors is absorbing despite its uncharacteristically Baconian, indeed almost nominalist, style. (Even Browne’s commonplace books—for which Killeen has not, alas, found space here—and letters are full of curiosities. In the former we find two recipes for pickles, one of which calls for “equal parts of the liquor of oysters, and the liquor that runs from herrings newly salted, dissolving anchovy therein, or pickling therein a few smelts, or garlick, especially the seeds thereof.”) After considering the relevant ancient and modern authors and taking into account Scripture and, when possible, his own observations, Browne affirms that the Devil appears in the person of a goat with cloven hooves and a tail and that witches exist (those who disbelieve in them are “atheists”); that earwigs have wings and worms blood (or at least a “red and sanguineous humor”); that Jews do not stink (“they must be less inclinable unto this infirmity then any other Nation”); that left-handedness is neither immoral nor unnatural; and that Adam and Eve could not have possessed navels.
Implicit in all of this is Browne’s belief that error is a product of sin. Man in his fallen state was not only born ignorant but predisposed to falsehood; only by way of prudent inquiry, guided by prayer, could we come to know the truth about the world. Meanwhile, irruptions of what we are now accustomed to thinking of as the supernatural, especially when they are attested to by authorities, should be regarded the same way any other evidence would. (In this Browne reminds me of Newman, who, in his preface to the Lives of the English Saints, calls miracles “the kind of facts proper to ecclesiastical history, just as instances of sagacity and daring, personal prowess or crime, are the facts proper to secular history.”) Christians—including Catholics, who too often ignore the plain words of Pius XII in Humani Generis—wondering how to reconcile a literal belief in Adam’s first parenthood with what we have learned beyond all doubt from evolutionary biology could do worse than take Browne as their starting point.
Reading through the rest of these pages, it is difficult to resist the urge simply to quote in full sentence after sentence. Religio Medici is a book that was once on the shelf of every parsonage in England. Though he almost certainly did not mean to do so, Browne inaugurated a tradition with his autobiography of broad, tolerant, humane, mildly latitudinarian Anglicanism. Ever suspicious of odium theologicum, Browne despairs of the “particular Churches and Sects [that] usurpe the gates of heaven, and turne the key against each other” and confessed that his own doubts were “conquered, not in a martiall posture, but on my knees.” He confesses, too, that it was only with great reluctance that he abandoned his belief that “God would not persist in his vengeance for ever, but after a definite time of his wrath he would release the damned soules from torture.”
The temptation toward making lengthy extracts is even stronger in the case of Urne-Buriall. Useless as a specimen of what we would now call anthropology, its considerable charm lies in Browne’s loving catalogues of objects (“two hundred Rubies, many hundred Imperial Coyns, three hundred golden Bees”), his winsome metaphors (“miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us”; “the Land of Moles and Pismires”), and above all his apothegms, which commit themselves instantly to memory (“It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come”). He is such a naturally empathetic writer that, when he dwells at length here on pre-Christian beliefs about life after death, it becomes easy to imagine that the transmigration of souls must have held a certain appeal for someone so keenly interested in the rest of the animal kingdom, just as it is difficult not to see vestiges of doubt when he writes of “the uncomfortable night of nothing” and our ancestors’ ill-founded “hope for Immortality, or any patent from oblivion.”
The Garden of Cyrus is an even stranger affair. It is also more hopeful. Whatever one thinks of the quincunx—Browne was inclined to see it everywhere, in mythology, in Egyptian pyramids and Roman walls, in the battle tactics of Scipio, in the layouts of farms and plantations, above all, in nature, from “the Leaves in the Head of the common and prickled Artichoak” to “the motion of the Planets,” and, of course, in Scripture—it is clear that he is using the figure to make an ingenious teleological argument for the existence of God, “the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven,” and a brief for the Resurrection, “when sleep it self must end, as some conjecture all shall awake again.” Its final chapter contains what I have long thought the single most beautiful image in all of English prose:
Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dulnesse of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours; and though in the Bed of Cleopatra, can hardly with any delight raise up the ghost of a Rose.
Dr. Johnson put down the obscurity of subject matter in Urne-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus to “the pride of wit, to shew how it could exalt the low, and amplify the little . . . to expand a scanty theme.” This is not as severe a verdict as it sounds.
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon.