Letter on Browne
- March 10th, 1804, Sat. night, 12 o'clock
MY DEAR -------,
Sir Thomas Browne is among my 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 too often big, stiff, and hyperlatinistic: thus I might without admixture of falsehood, describe Sir T.Browne, and my description would have only this fault, that it would be equally, or almost equally, applicable to half a dozen other writers, from the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth to the end of Charles II. He is indeed all of this; and what he has more than all this peculiar to himself, I seem to convey to my own mind in some measure by saying,- that he is a quiet and sublime enthusiast with a strong tinge of the fantast,- the humourist constantly mingling with, and flashing across, the philosopher, as the darting colours in shot silk play upon the main dye. In short, he has brains in his head which is all the more interesting for a little twist in the brains. He sometimes reminds the reader of Montaigne, but from no other than the general circumstances of an egotism common to both; which in Montaigne is too often a mere amusing gossip, a chit-chat story of whims and peculiarities that lead to nothing,- but which in Sir Thomas Browne is always the result of a feeling heart conjoined with a mind of active curiosity,- the natural and becoming egotism of a man, who, loving other men as himself, gains the habit, and the privilege of talking about himself as familiarly as about other men. Fond of the curious, and a hunter of oddities and strangenesses, while he conceived himself, with quaint and humourous gravity a useful enquirer into physical truth and fundamental science,- he loved to contemplate and discuss his own thoughts and feelings, because he found by comparison with other men's, that they too were curiousities, and so with a perfectly graceful and interesting ease he put them too into his museum and cabinet of varieties. In very truth he was not mistaken:- so completely does he see every thing in a light of his own, reading nature neither by sun, moon, nor candle light, but by the light of the faery glory around his own head; so that you might say that nature had granted to him in perpetuity a patent and monopoly for all his thoughts. Read his Hydriotaphia above all:- and in addition to the peculiarity, the exclusive Sir Thomas-Browne-ness of all the fancies and modes of illustration, wonder at and admire his entireness in every subject, which is before him- he is totus in illo; he follows it; 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. In that Hydriotaphia or Treatise on some Urns dug up in Norfolk- how earthy, how redolent of graves and sepulchres is every line ! You have now dark mould, now a thigh-bone, now a skull, then a bit of mouldered coffin! a fragment of an old tombstone with moss in its hic jacet;- a ghost or a winding-sheet- or the echo of a funeral psalm wafted on the November wind! and the gayest thing you shall meet with shall be a silver nail or gilt Anno Domini from a perished coffin top. The very same remark applies in the same force to the interesting, though the far less less interesting, Treatise on the Quincuncial Plantations of the Ancients. There is the same attention to oddities, to the remotenesses and minutiae of vegetable terms,- the same entireness of subject. You have quincunxes in heaven above, quincunxes in earth below, and quincunxes in the water beneath the earth; quincunxes in deity, quincunxes in the mind of man, quincunxes in bones, in the optic nerves, in the roots of trees, in leaves, in petals,in every thing. In short, first turn to the last leaf of this volume, and read out aloud to yourself the last seven paragraphs of chap. v. beginning with the words 'More considerables,' &c. But it is time for me to be in bed, in the words of Sir Thomas, which will serve you, my dear, as a fair specimen of his manner.- 'But the quincunx of heaven- (the Hyades or five stars about the horizion at midnight at that time)- runs low, and 'tis time we close the five ports of knowledge: we are unwilling to spin out our waking thoughts into the phantasmes of sleep, which often continueth precogitations,-making cables of cobwebs, and wildernesses of handsome groves...To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our Antipodes. The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia'. Think you, my dear Friend, that there ever was such a reason given before for going to bed at midnight;- to wit, that if we did not, we should be acting the part of our Antipodes! And then 'the huntsmen are up in America.'- What life, what fancy! -Does the whimsical knight give us thus a dish of strong green tea, and call it an opiate! I trust that you are quietly asleep-
- And that all the stars hang bright above your dwelling,
- Silent as tho' they watched the sleeping earth!