1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Browne, Sir Thomas

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BROWNE, SIR THOMAS (1605–1682), English author and physician, was born in London, on the 19th of October 1605. He was admitted as a scholar of Winchester school in 1616, and matriculated at Broadgates Hall (Pembroke College), Oxford, in 1623, where he graduated B.A. in January 1626. He took the further degree of M.A. in 1629, studied medicine, and practised for some time in Oxfordshire. Between 1630 and 1633 he left England, travelled in Ireland, France and Italy, and on his way home received the degree of M.D. at the university of Leiden. He returned to London in 1634, and, after a short residence at Shipden Hall, near Halifax, settled in practice at Norwich in 1637. He married in 1641 Dorothy Mileham. Their eldest son, Edward, became president of the Royal College of Physicians, and glimpses of their happy family life are obtainable in the fragmentary correspondence contained in Simon Wilkin’s edition. In 1642 a copy of his Religio Medici, which he describes as “a private exercise directed to myself,” was printed from one of his MSS. without his knowledge, and reviewed by Sir Kenelm Digby in Observations . . . (1643). The interest aroused by this edition compelled Browne to put forth a correct version (1643) of the work, in which letters between Digby and Browne were included. The book was probably written as early as 1635, for he describes himself as still under thirty. In 1646 he published Pseudodoxia Epidemica; Enquiries into very many commonly received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths (1646), and in 1658 Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall; or, a discourse of the sepulchrall urnes lately found in Norfolk. Together with the Garden of Cyrus, or the quincunciall, lozenge, or net-work plantations of the ancients, artificially, naturally, and mystically considered. With Sundry observations (1658). These four works were all that he published, though several tracts, notably the Christian Morals[1] intended as a continuation of Religio Medici, were prepared for publication, and appeared posthumously. In 1671 he received the honour of knighthood from Charles II. on his visit to Norwich. He began a correspondence with John Evelyn in 1658. Very few of the letters are extant, but the diarist has left an account of a visit to Browne (Diary, 17th of October 1671). He died in 1682 on his seventy-seventh birthday, and was buried at St Peter’s, Mancroft, Norwich. His coffin was accidentally broken in 1840, and his skull is preserved in the museum of the Norwich hospital.

Browne’s writings are among the few specimens of purely literary work produced during a period of great political excitement and discord. He remained to all appearance placidly indifferent to the struggle going on around him. His first book appeared in the year of the outbreak of the Civil War; Pseudodoxia Epidemica in the critical year of 1646; and Hydriotaphia, the reflections on the shortness of human life inspired by the unearthing of some funeral urns, on the eve of the Restoration. A mind as aloof as his is a psychological curiosity, and its peculiarities are faithfully reflected in the form and matter of his works. His display of erudition, his copious citations from authorities, his constant use of metaphor and analogy, and his elaborate diction, are common qualities of the writers of the 17th century, but Browne stands apart from his contemporaries by reason of the peculiar cast of his mind. Imbued with the Platonic mysticism which taught him to look on this world as only the image, the shadow of an invisible system, he regarded the whole of experience as only food for contemplation. Nothing is too great or too small for him; all finds a place in the universe of being, which he seems to regard almost from the position of an outsider. He did not speculate systematically on the problems of existence, but he meditates repeatedly on the outward and visible signs of mortality, and on what lies beyond death. Of Browne, as of the greatest writers, it is true that the style is the man. The form of his thought is as peculiar and remarkable as the matter; the two, indeed, react on one another. Much of the quaintness of his style, no doubt, depends on the excessive employment of latinized words, many of which have failed to justify their existence; but the peculiarities of his vocabulary do not explain the unique character of his writing, which is appreciated to-day as much as ever.

The Religio Medici was a puzzle to his contemporaries, and it is still hard to reconcile its contradictions. A Latin translation appeared at Leiden in 1644, and it was widely read on the continent, being translated subsequently into Dutch, French and German. In Paris it was issued in the belief that Browne was really a Roman Catholic, but in Rome the authorities thought otherwise, and the book was placed on the Index Expurgatorius. It is the confession of a mind keen and sceptical in some aspects, and credulous in others. Browne professes to be absolutely free from heretical opinions, but asserts the right to be guided by his own reason in cases where no precise guidance is given either by Scripture or by Church teaching. “I love,” he says, “to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O, Altitudo!” The Pseudodoxia Epidemica, written in a more direct and simple style than is usual with Browne, is a wonderful storehouse of out-of-the-way facts and scraps of erudition, exhibiting a singular mixture of credulity and shrewdness. Sir Thomas evidently takes delight in discussing the wildest fables. That he himself was by no means free from superstition is proved by the fact that the condemnation of two unfortunate women, Amy Duny and Rose Cullender, for witchcraft at Norwich in 1664 was aided by his professional evidence. The Garden of Cyrus is a continued illustration of one quaint conceit. The whole universe is ransacked for examples of the Quincunx, and he discovers, as Coleridge says, “quincunxes in heaven above, quincunxes in earth below, quincunxes in the mind of man, quincunxes in tones, in optic nerves, in roots of trees, in leaves, in everything!” But the whole strength of his genius and the wonderful charm of his style are to be sought in the Urnburial, the concluding chapter of which, for richness of imagery and majestic pomp of diction, can hardly be paralleled in the English language. For anything at all resembling it we must turn to the finest passages of Jeremy Taylor or of Milton’s prose writings.

In 1684 appeared a collection of Certain Miscellany Tracts (ed. Tenison), and in 1712 Posthumous Works of the learned Sir Thomas Browne. The first collected edition of Browne’s works appeared in 1686. It is said to have been edited by Dr, afterwards Archbishop Tenison. Sir Thomas Browne’s Works, including his Life and Correspondence, were carefully edited by Simon Wilkin in 1835–1836. Among modern reprints may be mentioned Dr W. A. Greenhill’s editions in the “Golden Treasury” series of the Religio Medici, Letter to a friend and Christian Morals (1881), with an admirable bibliographical note on the complicated subject of the numerous editions of the Religio Medici; of the Hydriotaphia and the Garden of Cyrus (1896), completed by Mr E. H. Marshall; a complete edition for the English Library, edited by Mr Charles Sayle (1904, &c.). Browne’s interest in bird-lore is noted by Evelyn, and some Notes and Letters on the Natural History of Norfolk were collected from his MSS. in the Sloane Collection, and edited by Thomas Southwell in 1902.

  1. Ed. John Jeffery, archdeacon of Norwich, 1716. The dignified “Letter to a Friend, upon the occasion of the Death of his Intimate Friend” (written about 1672, pr. 1690) has been generally supposed to be a preliminary sketch for Christian Morals, but Dr W. A. Greenhill thinks it was written later.