‘Tis too late to be ambitious.

February 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

I would expect & hope that my reading from the final chapter of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia would not be met by listeners with a license to think me at all sympathetic to the triumphalism of his “true religion.” No — any sympathy I might feel for what Browne might write is quite lost amidst the celebration that he has written at all. Yes — we are celebrants of style in these parts, and will gladly run the risk of trying patiences and testing attentions in the service of such joy.

In my estimation, the final two chapters of Hydriotaphia are the bar by which all English prose is measured. I encourage you to read along as I do (noting the bits I elided), or simply read aloud for yourself — but in any event, make it an oral event. Feel the cadence of the clauses Browne stacks, one upon the other, and the drums of his alliterations, like heartbeats each, unto the end. Two examples:

If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death; our life is a sad composition; We live with death, and die not in a moment.

* * *

When many that feared to dye shall groane that they can dye but once, the dismall state is the second and living death, when life puts despair on the damned; when men shall wish the covering of Mountains, not of Monuments, and annihilation shall be courted.

Much more to be said. But for now, if the only immortality we corpses yet to expire ever experience is in our hope for anything that might endure us, remembrance or monument, then may at least, as with Browne, that hope be memorably stated and worthy of record.

§ 4 Responses to ‘Tis too late to be ambitious.

  • Yet to hear anyone reading this aloud with any insight. (I’ve been acting him 15 years). The text is baroque, rhythmic and dramatic, dead-pan, straight from the page just doesn’t work. Think I’ve also read the word ‘drums’ as a description of the text by De Quincey as well.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Kevin. I’ve never seen the piece performed — that sounds delightful, and very much something I’d like to experience. I’m not an actor, though, and fear I would butcher the text far worse than merely reading it aloud. So, I make no apologies or excuses, as to cede all control of the piece’s orality to actors would leave me in the same tragic position as you, never gaining insight from the wealth of novices.

    I was not aware that De Quincey appealed to “drums” in his description of the text. Happy to know I’m in good company there.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Ah, I see what you mean, re: the drums. He, too, appealed to the drums in the opening paragraph of the fifth chapter. I was not knowingly making appeal to this passage, but as I’d just finished reading the piece, who can say what snatches of words gathered in the corners. If I recall, as I was searching for a description, I looked at the second cited quote in my post, and saw the repetition of d’s, and heard a heart keeping time. At any rate, Kevin, thank you for reminding of De Quincey’s Rhetoric. I’ve had it on my shelf for some time, and scandalously only read what three or four subway stops in Glasgow would allow at the time. This will be remedied very soon. Lovely stuff.

  • You may enjoy this letter by Coleridge on Browne


    Seems as if the opiate imagery trickled down to the Romantics

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