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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Sir Thomas Browne Fan Flare

Monro 1 (first pirated edition of
1642): frontispiece 

If I were 12, I would write Sir Thomas Browne Sir Thomas Browne Sir Thomas Browne all over my notebook, carve it into a park bench, and write it in Sharpie on my bluejeans.   There are so many reasons why, but here are two from this morning's reading.

Alchemy Table
For the uninitiated, Browne was a physician and considered himself a man of science.  For a 17th century intellectual that meant he combined the science, philosophy, and religion of the day with a healthy dose of alchemy without necessarily seeing distinctions between them.  As a result, you find incandescent passages such as the following.

In the first, Browne considers the end of the world.  The problem for Browne in the final scenario as its usually presented is fire. It just does not add up to the total annihilation promised by religious officials.  In Browne's hands, religion plus chemistry equals an apocalypse ending, not in ashes, but in a world covered in beautiful fused glass.
Moldavite formed by meteor collsion.  Credit: Earth Loves Glass

Religio Medici, from Section 50:
I cannot tell how to say that fire is the essence of hell; I know not what to make of Purgatory, or conceive a flame that can either prey upon, or purifie the substance of a soule....Philosophers that opinioned the worlds destruction by fire, did never dreame of annihilation, which is beyond the power of sublunary causes; for the last and powerfullest action of that element is but vitrification or a reduction of a body into Glasse; & therefore some of our Chymicks facetiously affirm... that at the last fire all shall be crystallized & reverberated into glasse, which is the utmost action of that element.
Pieter Bruegel, "The Triumph of Death." Museo del Prado.

As if that were not enough, he follows this with an empathetic rendering of suffering via a proto-Byronic Satan:

from Section 51:
Men commonly set forth the tortures of Hell by fire....[however] The heart of man is the place the devill dwels in; I feele sometimes a hell within my selfe, Lucifer keeps his court in my brest,  Legion is revived in me....Who can but pity the mercifull intention of those hands that doe destroy themselves?  the devill, were it in his power, would doe the like; which being impossible, his miseries are endlesse...

For me, this writing is so remarkable that I find myself thinking this prose is better than any poetry I've ever read.  In fact, I keep thinking that it is poetry.  George Orwell credits Browne with introducing the essay to those of us reading in English.  It's a new kind of writing for 1630, and one that begins with information and ends somewhere uncharted deep within the self.

In an introduction to an essay in his most recent anthology, John D'Agata works toward articulating the elusive domain of that genre: "that which we think about but cannot grasp, 'to vividly wander,' 'to be anxious,' 'to exhaustingly ponder' ... [T]he term suggests a literary form...[of] instinctual essaying of ideas, images, and feelings.  It is, in its best sense, an impulsive exploration.  It is not storytelling.  It is not moralizing.  It is not theorizing, learning, or knowing."  Rather it is the kind of writing, D'Agata argues that can explore the world of "emotional doubt."

So I will leave off here, with having just opened the question of genre because 1) Can you say rabbit hole?  and 2) I recognize that by calling it "poetry," I am simply saying that I love this writing.


  1. you had me at the inseparability of science, philosophy and religion...

    1. Yes! Add him to Thomas Merton and Simone Weil as one of the Remarkables, but with better writing.