January 11, 2006

Reading Browne on the Bus

Most days I take the bus between our apartment and my place of work: it’s not that far, the trip only takes about ten minutes, but twice ten minutes times five makes for a hundred minutes every week that I oftentimes would squander by just staring absently into space. Since last summer, however, I have made a point of carrying a book with me whenever I go by bus. In recent months, I have very slowly been making my way through the collected Works of Sir Thomas Browne, in Sir Geoffrey Keynes’s four-volume (1964, Faber & Faber) edition. I began with vol. 2, which is taken up with the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, before traversing the miscellaneous works and notes in vol. 3, towards the letters, in vol. 4, where I currently find myself in the middle of Browne’s correspondence with his son Edward, a physician like his Dad… When I’m done with the letters, I intend to revisit the Religio Medici, Hydrotaphia & The Garden of Cyrus, etc. in vol. 1, works I first read about ten years ago.

Engraved portrait of Sir Thomas Browne.

I wonder how many readers arrived, as I did, at Browne’s works, by way of the enigmatic final sentence of Borges’s celebrated Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which the tale’s narrator announces his intention to continue revising ‘an uncertain translation in the style of Quevedo […] of Browne’s Urne Buriall.’ This reference implanted in me a seed of curiosity that did not bear fruit until about five years later, when I picked up a copy of the Penguin edition of Browne’s Major Works. Together with Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, which I had acquired at around the same time, Browne’s compositions gave me my first exposure to the marvellous richness of seventeenth-century English prose. Both authors remain great favourites of mine to this day. Intrigued by the extracts from the Pseudodoxia Epidemica in the Penguin Major Works, I had for some time wanted to peruse it more fully.

Detail from the illustrated title-page of the original edition of Browne's 'Religio Medici'.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no such thing as an affordabe modern edition of the Pseudodoxia, Browne’s extensive exploration & debunking of the ‘Vulgar Errors’ of his day, a kind of 17th-Century Mythbusters. Perversely, one sees French and Spanish readers are better served in this respect. While I was pleased to discover that, through the fine efforts of Mr. Eason, the entire text of the Pseudodoxia has been made available on-line, I still yearned to browse through it on the pages of an actual book. Much as I would have liked to obtain the 1981 Oxford edition, I found it cheaper (though still hardly inexpensive) to fork out for a set of the 4-volume Works. In contrast to the sonorous yet somehow disembodied authorial voice of the Religio Medici and the Urne Buriall, etc., the Pseudodoxia highlights the good doctor’s messily hands-on industriousness, and his boundless curiosity. The Miscellany Tracts, etc., and, to an even greater extent, the letters, help to further flesh out a portrait of a man at once worldly and pious, innocent and wise.

Frontal view of Sir Thomas Browne's skull.
THE First and Father-cause of common Error, is, The common infirmity of Human Nature; of whose deceptible condition, although perhaps there should not need any other eviction, than the frequent Errors we shall our selves commit, even in the expresse declarement hereof: yet shall we illustrate the same from more infallible constitutions, and persons presumed as far from us in condition, as time, that is, our first and ingenerated forefathers.
Thus may we perceive, how weakly our Fathers did Erre before the Floud, how continually and upon common discourse they fell upon Errors after; it is therefore no wonder we have been erroneous ever since. And being now at greatest distance from the beginning of Error, are almost lost in its dissemination, whose waies are boundless, and confess no circumscription.
Frontal view of Sir Thomas Browne's skull.

In the introductory epistle to the Hydrotaphia, Browne’s meditation on mortality, he ponders ‘But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or whether they are to be scattered?’ These words came to take on an unexpectedly literal significance, when Browne’s coffin, which had been interred within the walls of St. Peter Mancroft church in Norwich, was opened up ca. 1840, and his skull (pictured above) was removed. It was separated from the remainder of his remains until being re-interred in 1922.

Posted by misteraitch at January 11, 2006 01:20 PM

I've long assumed that the field of urns hallucinated by the jazz musician Johnny Carter (=Charlie Parker) in Cortazar's novella El Perseguidor ("The Pursuer") was a direct reference to Browne, as well as perhaps a passing nod to the short story of his countryman Borges.

I have the 1964 Oxford edition of Religio Medici & Other Works, edited by L. C. Martin. It's very handsome but, alas, lacks the Pseudodoxia.

Posted by: Chris Kearin on January 11, 2006 06:06 PM

I discovered Browne through the quotation in the beginning of A Coffin For Dmitrios, the wonderful thriller by Eric Ambler. Borges's reference is very sound, because the style of Quevedo is probably the richest among the spanish baroque prose.

By the way, Javier Marías has translated works by Browne, that are reprinted in his own small press, Reino de Redonda.

And sorry for my awfully written english.

Posted by: C. Rancio on January 11, 2006 07:47 PM

I like Browne and Burton and a goodly number of other seventeenth-century prose writers. I have a special fondness for Traherne's "Centuries of Meditation," a work full of beauties. Here's a little outburst of visionary light in praise of "infant sight":

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The men! Oh what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing, were moving jewels...

Posted by: marlyat2 on January 12, 2006 04:19 PM

marly@2—that’s a beautiful passage. Having read it, I like to think I’ll get around to reading some Traherne on the bus later this year.

C. R.—thank you as always for your comment. I sometimes feel I should be apologising for my English: yours is excellent. To someone new to Quevedo, would Los Sueños be a good place to start? I see there is a modern English translation of it…

Posted by: misteraitch on January 12, 2006 08:25 PM

Los sueños is a masterpiece indeed, but I think that a good translation of this work is a great achievement, because Quevedo's prose is tremendously intrincate and full of puns. His satirical skills and his bleak vision of mankind makes him similar to Swift for me.

Posted by: C. Rancio on January 13, 2006 09:14 PM

I must confess that I became accointed to Browne by sheer chance : I passed him by in a bookstore, and fell in love...
Being French, I had the privilege to receive _Pseudodoxia epidemica_ as a -much hinted at- Christmas gift a year ago.
I found it extremely exciting, especially the chapters treating of natural history, where one can find explainations for many mysterious things.
An exemple : a strange french locution compares a grumpy, not very social person to a "badly-licked bear" (ours mal léché). Th. Browne taught me that it refers to the medieval idea that the she-bear shapes her offspring by licking it...

More here (in french) :

Posted by: Abie on January 15, 2006 10:47 AM
I wonder how many readers arrived, as I did, at Browne's works , by way of the enigmatic final sentence of Borges's celebrated Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius[…]

Yes! JLB has a real gift for sending his readers on to further reading. Among many other titles, I owe him the pleasure of discovering Flann O’Brien’s amazing At Swim-Two-Birds. If you have not read it, please do; you will not regret it.

Posted by: Michelangelo on January 17, 2006 07:36 PM

Michelangleo—I read O’Brien’s The Third Policeman some years ago, but have never yet attempted At Swim-Two-Birds. I will endeavour to rectify this omission sometime soon…

Posted by: misteraitch on January 18, 2006 09:33 AM

Not to forget O'Brien's 'Dalkey Archive' of course! It recaps - in a more clipped and tight form - the principal 'joke' of 'The Third Policeman' among many other wonderful things. Do try and read it if you ever find the time.

Posted by: Aumgn on January 20, 2006 10:56 PM

Today I came across the site of an exhibition at the U.S. National Library of Medicine called "Dream Anatomy". Here is one of a number of the images by one 'John Browne'
Though with similar subject matter, place, and time, there isn't enough information to make a connection to the Thomas Browne here.
No matter. Enjoy the exhibit if you like.

Posted by: John on February 2, 2006 11:22 PM


Yours is the finest weblog I have seen since weblogging started. Thank you for it.

Posted by: Mia on February 7, 2006 12:57 PM

I'm sure you've known by now (you seem rather well-read), but have you picked up W.G. Sebald's _Rings of Saturn_, which references both Browne, and Borges' _Tlon Uqbar..._? It has a beautiful digression on the tragic story surrounding Browne's skull, in particular..

I highly recommend the text.. its one of the most beautiful novels I've encounted in a long time.

I've come accross your website while doing a good search for an image of Browne's skull, myself - for the development of an internet commonplace book similar to your own. Would you mind if I used one of your images?

Posted by: m steeleworthy on October 14, 2006 05:20 AM
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