Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

time to literary pursuits. In 1678, he wrote “Threnodia Carolina, containing an Historical Account of the Two Last Years of the Life of King Charles I.' Herbert died in 1682.

SIR THOMAS BROWNE. Sir THOMAS BROWNE (1605–1682) was a learned, desultory, but eloquent writer, fond of discussing abstruse and conjectural points, such as only a humourist can seriously concern himself with ; and he displays throughout his works the mind rather of an amiable and eccentric scholar, than that of a man who takes an interest in the great concerns of liumanity. Browne was born in London, and after being educated at Winchester and Oxford, proceeded to travel, first in Ireland, and subsequently in France, Italy, and Holland. He belonged to the medical profession, and having obtained his doctor's degree at Leyden, settled finally as a practitioner at Norwich. His first work, entitled “Religio Medici' (The Religion of a Physician), was published surreptitiously in 1642, and next year a perfect copy was issued by himself; it immediately rendered him famous as a literary man. In this singular production lic gives a minute account of his opinions, not only on religion, but on a variety of pliilosophical and fanciful questions, besides affording the reader glimpses into the eccentricities of his personal character. The language of the work is bold and poetical, adorned with picturesque imagery, but frequently pedantic, rugged, and obscure. His next publication, entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica,' or treatise on Vulgar Errors, appeared in 1646. It is much more philosophical in its character than the “Religio Medici,' and is considered the most solid and useful of his productions. The following enumeration of some of the errors which he endeavours to dispel, will serve both to shew the kind of subjects he was fond of investigating, and to exemplify the notions which prevailed in the seventeenth century: That crystal is nothing else but ice strongly congealed ; that a diamond is softened or broken by the blood of a goat; that a pot full of ashes will contain as much water as it would without them; that bays preserve from the mischief of lightning and thunder; that an elephant hath no joints ; that a wolf, first seeing a man, begets a dumbness in him ; that moles are blind that the flesh of peacocks corrupteth not; that storks will only live in republics and free states ; that the chicken is made out of the yolk of the egg; that men weigh heavier dead that alive; that the forbiciden fruit was an apple; that there was no rainbow before the Flood; that Jolin the Baptist should not die.' He treats also of the ringfinger ; saluting upon sneezing; pigmies ; the canicular or dog days; the picture of Moses with horns; the blackness of negroes; the river Nilus; gipsies; Methuselah ; the food of John the Baptist; the cessation of oracles; Friar Bacon's brazen head that spoke; the poverty of Belisarius; and the wish of Philoxenus to have the neck of 2 crane. In 1658, Browne publislied his · Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial; a Discourse on the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk,' a work not inferior in style to the ‘Religio Medici.' Here the author's learning appears in the details which he gives concerning the modes in which the bodies of the dead have been disposed of in different ages and countries; while his reflections on death, oblivion, and immortality are, for solemnity and grandeur, probably unsurpassed in English literature. The occasion would hardly have called forth a work from any less meditative mind. In a field at Walsingham were dug up between forty and fifty urns, containing the remains of human bones, some small brass instruments, boxes, and other fragmentary relics. Coals and burnt substances were found near the same plot of ground, and hence it was conjectured that this was the Ustrina, or place of burning, or the spot whereon the Druidical sacrifices were made. Furnished with a theme for his philosophic musings, Sir Thomas Browne then comments on that vast charnel-house, the earth.

'Nature,' he says, 'hath furnished one part of the earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie higli, in urns, coins, and monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time bath endless, rarities, and shows of all varities; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth itself a discovery. That greut antiquity, America, lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the urn unto us. Thoughi, if Adam were made out of an extract of the earth, all parts might challenge a restitution, yet few have returned their bones far lower than they might receive them; not affecting the graves of giants, under billy and heavy coverings, but content with less than their own depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, snd the earth he light uponi them; even such as hope to rise again would not be content with central interment, or so desperately to place their relics as to lie beyond discovery, and in no way to be seen again; which liappy contrivance liath made communication with our forefathers, and left unto our view some parts which they never beheld themselves.'

He then successively describes and comments upon the different modes of interment and decomposition whether by fire (some apprehending a purifying virtue in fire, refining the grosser commixture, and firing out the ethereal particles so deeply immersed in it'); by making their graves in the air like the Scythians, who swore by wind and sword;' or in the sea, like some of the nations about Egypt. 'Men,' he finely remarks, have lost their reason in nothing so much as their religion, wherein stones and clouts make martyrs; and since the religion of one seems madness unto another, to afford an account or rational of old rights requires no rigid reader. That they kindled the pvre aversely, or turning their face from it, was a handsome symbol of unwilling ministration; that they washed their bones with wine and milk; that the mother wrapt them in linen and dried them in her bosom, the first fostering part, and place of their nourislıment; that they opened their eyes towards heaven, before they kiudled the fire.

E L v. ii.--3

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

as the place of their hopes or original, were no improper ceremonjes. Their last valediction, thrice uttered by the attendants, was also very solemn, and somewhat angwered by Christians, who thought it too little if they threw not the earth thrice upon the interred body. That, in strewing their tombs, the Romans affected the rose, the Greeks, amaranthus and myrtle; that the funeral pyre consisted of sweet fuc), cypress, fir, Jarix, yew, and trees perpetually verdant, lay silent expressions of their surviving hopes ; wherein Christians, who deck their coffins with bays, have found a more elegant emblem--for that it seeming dead, will restore itself from the root, and its dry and exsuccous leaves resume their verdnre again; whiclı, if we mistake not, we have also observed in furze. Whether the planting of yew in churchyards hold not its original from ancient funeral rites, or as an emblem of resurrection, from its perpetual verdure, may also admit conjecture. Among the beauties of expression in Browne, may be quoted the following eloquent definition : Nature is not at variance with art, nor art with patare-they being both the servants of His providence. Art is the perfection of natyre. Were the world now as it was the sixth day, there were yet a chaos. Nature hath made one world, and art another. Iu belief, all things are artificial, for nature is the art of God.' This seems the essence of true philosophy. To the · Hydriotaphia' is appended a small treatise, called “The Garden of Cyrus; or the Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, artificially, naturally, and mystically considered.' This is written in a similar style, and displays much of the author's whimsical fancy and propensity to laborious trifling. One of the most striking of these fancies has been often quoted. Wishing to denote that it is late, or that he was writing at a late hour, he says that 'the Hyndes (the quincunx of heaven) run low-that we are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasis of sleep-that to keep our eyes open longer were but to act our antipodes, that the buntsmen are up in America-and that they are already past their first sleep in Persia. This is fantastic, but it is the offspring of genius. Among Browne's posthumous pieces is a collection of aphorisms, entitled Christian Morals,' to which Dr. Johnson prefixed & lite of the author. He left also various essays on antiquarian and other subjects. Sir Thomas Browne died in 1682, at the age of seventy-seven. He was of a modest and cheerful disposition, retiring in his habits, and sympathised little with the pursuits and feelings of the busy multitude. His opinions were tinged with the credulity of his age. He believed in witchcraft, apparitions, and diabolical illusions; and gravely observes, that io those who would attempt to teach animals the art of speech, the dogs and cats that usually speak unvo witches may atford sore encouragement.

In the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, the practice of employing Lauin words with English terminatious is carried to excess. Thus,

[ocr errors]

speaking in his . Vulgar Errors' of the nature of ice, he says: “Ice is only water congealed by the frigidity of the air, whereby it acquireth po new form, but rather a consistence or determination of its diffluency, and admitteth not its essence, but condition of fluidity. Neither doth there anything properly conglaciate but water, or watery humidity; for the determination of quicksilver is properly fixation; that of milk, coagulation; and that of oil and unctuous bodies, only incrassation. He uses abundantly such words as dilucidate, ampliate, manuduction, indigitate, reminiscential, evocation, farraginous, advenient, ariolation, lapifidical.

Those who are acquainted with Dr. Johnson's style will at once perceive the resemblance, particularly in respect to the abundance of Latin words, which it bears to that of Sir Thomas Browne. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the author of the “Rambler' acquired much of his fondness for pompous and sounding expressions from the writings of the learned knight of Norwich. Coleridge, who was so well qualified to appreciate the writings of Browne, has numbered him among his first favourites. 'Rich in various knowledge, exuberant in conceptions and conceits; contemplative, imaginative, often truly great and magnificent in his style and diction, though, doubtless, tvo often lig, stiff, and hyper-Latinistic. He is a quiet and sublime enthusiast, with a strong tinge of the fantast : the humorist constantly mingling with, and flashing across, the philosopher, as the darting colours in shot-silk play upon the main dye. The same writer has pointed out the entireness of Browne in every subject before him. He never wanders from it, and he has no occasion to wander; for whatever happens to be his subject, he metamorphoses all nature into it. We may add the complete originality of his mind. He seems like no other writer, and his vast and solitary abstractions, stamped with his peculiar style, like the hieroglyphic characters of the East, carry the imagination back into the primeval ages of the world, or forward into the depths of eternity

Obliviono What song the sireng sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these ossuaries entered the famous nations of the dead, and slept with princes and counsellors, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodics these ashes made up, were a question above antiquarianism; not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the provincial guardians, or tutelary observators. Had they made as good provision for their names as they have done for their relies, they had not so grossly crred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally cxtant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes, which, in the oblivion of names, per6019, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as emblems of mortal vanities, antidotes against pride, vainglory, and maddening vices. Pagan yainglories, which thought the world inight last for ever, had encouragement for ambition, and finding no Atropos tinto the immortality of their names, were rever damped with the necessity of oblivion. Even old ambitions had the advantage of ours, in the attempts of their vainglories, who, acting early, and before the probable meridian of time, have by this time found great accomplishment of their designs, whereby the ancient heroes have already out

lasted their monaments and mechanical preservations. But in this latter scene of time we cannot expect such mummies unto our memories, when ambition may fear the prophecy of Elias; (1) und Charles V. can never hope to live within two Methuselahs of Hector. (2)

And therefore restless inquietude for the diuturnity of onr memories anto present considerations, seems a vanity almost out of date, and superannuated piece of folly. We cannot hope to live so long in our names as some have done in their persons ; one face of Janus holds no proportion unto the other. It is too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs. To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope, without injury to our expectations, in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and being necessitated to cye the remaining particle of futurity, are paturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that is past a inoment.

Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and the mortal right-lined circle (3) must conclude and shut up all. There is no antidote against the opinm of time, which temporally considereth all things. Our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us now we may be buried in our survivors. Gravestones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks. To be read by bare inscriptions like many in Grnter, (4) to hope for eternity by enigmatical epithets, or first letters of our names, to be studied by antiquaries who we were, and have new names given us, like many of the mumnies, are cold consolations into the students of perpetuity, even by everlasting languages.

- To be content that times to come should only know there was such a man, not caring whether they knew more of him, was a frigid ambition in Cardan; disparaging his horoscopal inclination and judgment of himself, who cares to subsist, like Hippocrates' patients, or Achilles' horses in Homer, under naked nominations, without deserts and noble acts, which are the balsam of our memories, the en telechia and soul of our subsistences. To be nameless in worthy deeds excecds an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lives more happily without a name than Herodias with one. And who had not rather have been the good thief, than Pilate.

But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit or perpetuity : who can but pity the founder of the Pyrainids. Herostratas lives that burnt the temple of Diana; he is almost lost that built it: time hath spared the epitaph of Adriau's horse ; confounded that af himself. In vain we compnte our felicities by the advantage of onr good names, sjúce bad have equal durations; aud Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon, without the favour of the everlasting register. Who knows whether the best of meu be known; or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any that stand remembered in the known account of time. Without the favour of the everlasting register, the first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuselah's long life had been his only chronicle.

Oblivion is not to be hired: the greatest part must be content to be as though they had not been; to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty-seven names make up the first story before the Flood; and the recorded names ever since coutain not one living century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that sball live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the equinox. Every hour adds into that current arithmetic which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lacina of life ; and even pagans could doubt whether thus to live were to die; since onr longest sun sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes; since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying mementos, and time, that grows old in itself, bids us, hope no long duration : diuturnity is a dream, and folly of expectation.

That the world may last but six thousand years.

2 Hector's fame lasting above two lives of Methuselah, before that famous prince weg extant. 3 The character of death. 4 Gruteri Inscriptiares Antique.

« ForrigeFortsett »