To a friend intending a difficult work

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To a friend intending a difficult work  (1836) 
by Thomas Browne

Source: British Museum Sloane MS no.1827. Found in the Collected works of Sir Thomas Browne, 4 vols., ed. Simon Wilkin Fletcher and Sons, 1835-6 Norwich.

Think and think again on the work you intend; consider how strong your shoulders be; You must be a good swimmer, a Delian even, yet in this stormy sea swim not without a buoy; the books you have to disclose are no common ones, nay they are living things.

You know how wanton is the literary tribe, how eager for contest, that not for nothing surely you may fear shameless attacks from all sides. That which nobler souls praise with both thumbs, gloomier self-lovers will watch with puckered frown. Most pedants are censorious, satirical even, unsparing not merely of tumours, but even of warts. Mockers abound, if you fall short in achievement; if you exceed, envy beyond limit.

Some will strain at words but judge the matter lightly; others (and this is the heart of the matter) intent on the sense will pass dryshod over words and phrases. What the Greens cast up to the sky, the Blues will take by the sack-full. Variety of wits, discord of studies, parties, heresies, divide the fates of the noblest productions; and you may fail to please them all, unless you are wise beyond Wisdom.

While then you slave at this work, I would not have you think you are boiling asparagus. Rub out, restore, return to the anvil, prefer Cinna’s Smyrna to the Annals of Volusius. Yet shall I hardly expect a faded wreath and hesitant applause for a man of learning with ready wit and wealth of ease and solitude.

Pledging your time and labour to pure truth, yet watch that you study not your own small fame, while you claim to serve truth. Censure not modern writers, by whom you have advanced. If they err, reprove the fact but omit the name; do not praise distinguished men on all sides, and elsewhere taunt a blameless act. Though the stricken Achilles threatens no one, yet pray and act that the earth lie light on ancient names and the writers of old time. We must allow that the great men of an age seen so dimly and distantly-

‘translated to our time much would diminish’.

Still on all accounts it puts your house in order to embrace heartily, to hesitate in your doubts; nay though things be really or seemingly false proclaim them not when the day comes, still less condemn revered names wholly for a few failings arisen from the original awkwardness of things or mistakes slipped into their pages, nor attach to entire works the asterisk of iniquity.

To be truth’s swiftest champion and her best defender, strike the fact not the opponent. Put far from you scoffing, raillery, and jests, even be sparing of polished, cultivated wit, and indulge it unwillingly; still less strike in the teeth, though wounded yourself.

Be not concerned for the gallery, act to the stalls and boxes. Then to be sparing in your calculations, reckon not with bleary eyes; and that the balances of reasoning weigh justly, set out Achilles’ share exactly; slight things and trifles of less mark touch but with the finger-tips.

Where truth is in doubt, where smatters question the Sibylline leaves more readily than the learned, watch that you send no prophecy before you. To think that mere chatter has come from the oasis of Ammon, shows a vain mind, little tried in the turns of nature, and is more fit for pedants who, not to admit ignorance, leave nothing in doubt.

Tales of little faith and those taken from other’s store, add not to your own stock; be not more busy to claim trifles towards your own verdict than that the wrongdoers’ case should fail.

Add home-bred reasoning to that gained in converse, be not much indebted to extracts, digests, anthologies, lest in utmost shame you be branded a Cicilian pirate.

Force not your theme into narrow circuit, run not on with prolix trail in small matters to fill a thousand pages. To achieve success, let the picture you paint be simple in its tale. Put foreign words and those drawn from strange speech into your margin, that so you may satisfy the learned yet not weary the smatters.

So be neither diffuse with damp and slippery words nor blunt the edge of your discourse by abruptness of style. Study in particular the purest period of style, that those who move only to Ciceronian rhythm call you not a Celt. Yet if some unclassic words come in which better fit the sense, liberal minds will not number you with criminals. Serve not the critics so submissively that you refuse words taken even from Plautus or Apuleius, or home-made words.

Only let your language match your subject, then it will be shapely and free; but take care all the time not to overwhelm your work in a spate of words to attain the fluency of Isaeus; and that it slip not out too freely, avoid the danger of Strada.

But in weaving this work (and it can hardly be otherwise) darkness and thorns obstruct you, freely and continuously make use of my goodwill. I am certainly not one of those who counts my gifts or enters them in my tallies and claims, when I am to spend any urgent help. When at last your work is finished, copied, and approved, believe me:

‘Let no shop or tavern see thy book.’

Send not this work to private persons only, who are always careless in their friends’ affairs, but to eminent and well-known men who will mark any careless phrases with private, critical, or even damning sign, and amend with all care and attention the blemishes which carelessness committed or human nature insufficiently avoided.

When finally you decide to publish, after this testing by the light of the learned, dedicate your work to some great man your patron. Under his championship you shall not fear even Probus; whatever you write, I pray it be the best. Farewell, and since I write this to a most perspicuous man, with afternoon thoughts, and a following wind, I beg you think it just and fair.