l i t e r a r y l i v e s b l a i r worden
The Sage of Norwich
Sir Thomas Browne: A Life
By Reid Barbour (Oxford University Press 534pp £70)
William Hazlitt affectionately embellishes or invents a conversation at Charles Lamb’s home in which the company are invited to say which two writers from the past they would most like to meet. One of the guests perplexes his host by plumping for Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke, ‘the two greatest names in English literature’. ‘Yes,’ stammers Lamb, ‘the greatest names, but they were not persons … not characters, you know.’ Lamb asks for ‘something peculiar in the individuals, more than we can learn from their writings’. The ‘two worthies’ whom he ‘should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgowns and slippers and to exchange friendly greeting with’ are those ‘most mysterious of personages’, Sir Thomas Browne and Sir Philip Sidney’s friend Fulke Greville. Later in the conversation he concedes that his choice of Greville was capricious, but sticks to Browne.
Others have paired Browne with the essayist Montaigne and the premise is the same: the personal presence at the centre of their writings. Our liking for the prose of both men rests on our sympathy with the character it reveals, and on the style that is the character’s image. Were it not for its poetry we would know the 17th century for its prose: for Bacon’s essays, Donne’s sermons, Milton’s pamphlets, Hobbes’s political writings, Halifax’s maxims, and not least for Browne’s exotic blend of Latinate and Saxon formulations and biblical cadences. It was with Browne in mind that Dr Johnson said that every 17th-century writer tried ‘his plastick skill’ on the English language ‘by moulding it according to his own fancy’. Browne’s fancy must have looked still more adventurous in his own time, for, as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us, he is the first known user of a great many words that we now take for granted: approximate, compensate, inconsistent, literary, medical, precarious,
suicide, ultimate and a hundred more. Admittedly, the metaphysical properties of Browne’s writing had long been out of fashion by the time of Johnson, who complained that ‘his tropes are harsh, and his combinations uncouth’. The reaction had begun in Browne’s lifetime, and is reflected in a diminution of rhetoric and ornament in his later prose. Yet who can pause on the sentences of his book Religio Medici without – to invoke the most famously ravishing of them – rising ‘to an o altitudo’?
The danger of writing as memorably as Browne, if, like him, you have important things to say, is that readers may take more notice of the way you say them. A doctor in Norfolk, a county that escaped the fighting of the Civil War, he can look remote from the century’s political and religious debates. Hugh TrevorRoper, who counted Browne, with George Moore and C M Doughty, in ‘the trinity of my stylistic devotion’, regretted the tendency to think of him as ‘a mere curiosity of English literature: a gorgeously bedizened elephant lumbering majestically along our leafy English lanes’. Like his contemporary John Aubrey, who wrote of Religio Medici that it ‘first opened my understanding’, but whose own cerebral interests have been cloaked by the stylistic felicity of his gossip, Browne has struggled for intellectual as distinct from literary recognition. Reid Barbour belongs to an impressive group of scholars bent on repairing the omission.
Johnson, saluting Browne’s ‘plenitude of ideas’, observed that ‘there is no science in which he does not discover some skill; and scarce any kind of knowledge, profane or sacred, abstruse or elegant, which he does not appear to have cultivated with success’. His interests in medicine, biology, natural history, geography, archaeology, mineralogy, philosophy, music, biblical scholarship and so much else place him, with Aubrey, among the ‘virtuosi’ of the age of scientific revolution. His books made him a celebrity not only in England but also on the Continent, where Religio Medici and Pseudodoxia Epidemica prospered in translation, despite the cost to their style.
His thought is nonetheless hard to define and place, partly because of his thirst for irony and paradox, but also because to later ages he seems to look both forwards and backwards in the 17thcentury process that prised science away from the humanities, fact from value, and ideas from the sense of personality that Hazlitt portrays Lamb as craving. Eighty years ago Basil Willey, in the still-instructive pages on Browne in his The Seventeenth-Century Background, remarked that Sir Thomas is at one moment ‘a Baconian experimentalist and herald of the new world’, yet at another can be found ‘discoursing of cockatrices and unicorns and mermaids’. Browne’s treatise on the appeal of intellectual ‘error’ to human infirmity continued Bacon’s assault on ‘idols of the mind’. His project to ‘repair our primary ruins’ from the loss of universal knowledge through Adam’s transgression recalls not only Bacon but Milton, who aspired to ‘repair the ruins of our first parents’ through education and reason. Browne’s hostility to doctrinal wars and wrangles seems to align him, too, with the ‘rational theology’ and liberal intellectual tendencies of the century – Arminian and Socinian as they were called.
Yet what a fallacy it is to line up friends and enemies of intellectual progress. Far from making reason the supporter of faith, Browne delights in faith’s transcendence of it, even its contradiction of it. Beliefs in Satan, witchcraft and the sovereignty of divine providence jostle in his writing with complaints against crude conceptions of them. The disquisition on charitable giving in Religio Medici punctures, with the subversive modernity of a Hobbes, our propensity to mistake our self-concern for altruism: ‘he that relieves another upon the bare suggestion and bowels of pity, doth not this so much for his sake as for his own: for by compassion we make another’s misery our own, and so by relieving them we relieve ourselves also’. Yet when, a few
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