Ostensibly a history of the ways humanity has, across history, housed the mortal remains of its dearly, or otherwise, departed, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall is a lyrical, voluptuous, and evocative meditation on mortality, fate, and fleeting fame.
Browne’s Baroque-era treatise, part of New Directions’ recently launched “Pearl” series, is, in fact, something rare, splendid, and precious; and while a certain solemnity and melancholy suffuses this luminous jewel, it rarely, if ever, sinks to despondency. A certainty of life’s brevity pervades the text, but Browne, a practicing physician in the seventeenth century, examines the topic with great erudition and humor, free of morbid curiosity. Browne, surveying “the whole stage of things” and looking “upon old times,” offers a kind of proto-ontological statement as he writes: “We have enough to do to make up our selves from present and passed times, and the whole stage of things scarce serveth for our instruction.” I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how we make our selves up, that we’re, at best, an unstable assemblage of past and present—hardly a new idea.
In the last paragraph of the fourth chapter, Browne offers this blow:
It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seemes progressionall, and otherwise made in vaine…
For Browne “the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw” is the revelation that one’s life will, inevitably, end, and that there is nothing to follow; Browne offering little to soften melancholy’s blow, stating instead that “the superior ingredient and obscured part of ourselves” might “tell us we are more then [sic] our present selves…” The justly famous final chapter is filled with all kinds of wonderful reflections on life (“Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.”), death, uncertainty, fate, fame, time (“There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things…), and eternity. Here’s another of my favorites: “But the most tedious being is that which can unwish it self, content to be nothing, or never to have been, which was beyond the male-content of Job, who cursed not the day of his life, but his Nativity…”
The inclusion of W.G. Sebald’s “preface” (an excerpt from The Rings of Saturn) finally brings together these two inimitable stylists, the former recounting, among other things his own search for Browne’s skull.
William Gass raves about Browne’s prose throughout his essays, and Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall is one of his “pillars.” In A Temple of Texts, he calls Browne “Sir Style”:
Sir Style is a skeptic; Sir Style is a stroller; Sir Style takes his time; Sir Style broods, no hen more overworked than he; Sir Style makes literary periods as normal folk make water; Sir Style ascends language as if it were a staircase of nouns; Sir Style would do a whole lot better than this.
In A History of English Prose Rhythm, George Saintsbury calls the final chapter of Urne-Buriall “an unbroken and, at most, spaced and rested symphony.” And of the Browne, Milton, and Taylor triumvirate, Saintsbury calls Browne “the greatest of the three—if not in all ways, yet certainly in those which we are more specially treading,” that is, in terms of rhythm and balance, and that his “greatness is indeed rather in the sentence than in the paragraph, though he has paragraphs of unsurpassed architecture…”
Virginia Woolf, though, after reveling in Browne’s virtuosic prose in Urne-Buriall, warns about the pitfalls of technical examinations:
A bold and prodigious appetite for the drums and tramplings of language is balanced by the most exquisite sense of mysterious affinities between ghosts and roses. But these dissections are futile enough, and indeed by drawing attention to the technical side of Sir Thomas’s art do him some disservice. In books as in people, graces and charms are delightful for the moment but become insipid unless they are felt to be part of some general energy or quality of character. To grasp that is to know them well, but to dally with charms and graces, to appraise them more and more exquisitely, is to be always at the first stage of acquaintance, superficial, polite, and ultimately bored. It is easy to detach the fine passages from their context, but in Urn Burial this character, this quality of the whole, though it expresses itself with all the charm of all the Muses, is yet of a very exalted kind. It is a difficult book to read, it is a book not always to be read with pleasure, and those who get most from it are the well-born souls.
Of those so-called well-born souls she also says: “Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those who do are of the salt of the Earth.”
I can’t resist quoting more of Woolf’s appreciative lines, the composition of which is as virtuosic as the lines she praises:
For the imagination which has gone such strange journeys among the dead is still exalted when it swings its lantern over the obscurities of the soul. He is in the dark to all the world; he has longed for death; there is a hell within him; who knows whether we may not be asleep in this world, and the conceits of life be but dreams? Steeped in such glooms, his imagination falls with a peculiar tenderness upon the common facts of human life. He turns it gradually upon the flowers and insects and grasses at his feet, so as to disturb nothing in the mysterious processes of their existence. There is a halo of wonder round everything that he sees. He that considers the thicket in the head of a teazle “in the house of the solitary maggot may find the Seraglio of Solomon”. The tavern music, the Ave Mary bell, the broken urn that the workman has dug out of the field plunge him into the depths of wonder and lead him, as he stands fixed in amazement, to extraordinary flights of speculation as to what we are, where we go, and the meaning of all things. To read Sir Thomas Browne again is always to be filled with astonishment, to remember the surprises, the despondencies, the unlimited curiosities of youth.
Speaking of symphonies, William Alwyn wrote Fifth Symphony: Hydriotaphia (1973) based “upon the rhythmical cadences” of Browne’s Urne Buriall, where “[e]ach section bears a quotation from [the book] and the music sets out to reflect these quotations though retaining its symphonic character throughout.”
Browne’s sentential symphonies bouncing within paragraphic cathedrals is a marvelous echo chamber for those numbed by life’s mundane prose, admonishing readers with almost every word that “the most tedious being is that which can unwish itself, content to be nothing, or never to have been…”