“we first became conscious of impurities which hereafter stain literature with so many freakish colours”

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

[Sir Thomas Browne] is the first of the autobiographers. Swooping and soaring at the highest altitudes he stoops suddenly with loving particularity upon the details of his own body. His height was moderate, he tells us, his eyes large and luminous; his skin dark but constantly suffused with blushes. He dressed very plainly. He seldom laughed. He collected coins, kept maggots in boxes, dissected the lungs of frogs, braved the stench of the spermaceti whale, tolerated Jews, had a good word for the deformity of the toad, and combined a scientific and sceptical attitude towards most things with an unfortunate belief in witches. In short, as we say when we cannot help laughing at the oddities of people we admire most, he was a character, and the first to make us feel that the most sublime speculations of the human imagination are issued from a particular man, whom we can love. In the midst of the solemnities of the Urn Burial we smile when he remarks that afflictions induce callosities. The smile broadens to laughter as we mouth out the splendid pomposities, the astonishing conjectures of the Religio Medici. Whatever he writes is stamped with his own idiosyncrasy, and we first became conscious of impurities which hereafter stain literature with so many freakish colours that, however hard we try, make it difficult to be certain whether we are looking at a man or his writing. Now we are in the presence of sublime imagination; now rambling through one of the finest lumber rooms in the world — a chamber stuffed from floor to ceiling with ivory, old iron, broken pots, urns, unicorns’ horns, and magic glasses full of emerald lights and blue mystery.

— Virginia Woolf, “The Elizabethan Lumber Room”

the trepidations of time and mortality vexing, at secular intervals, the everlasting sabbaths of the grave.

February 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

He may have not been particularly impressed by my reading from Thomas Browne last night, but I must say I’m pleased that Kevin Faulkner stopped by to say so. For not only did I learn of his blog, Aquarium of Vulcan, a trove of things Browne and baroque, but he also put me yet again on the trail of Thomas De Quincey’s treatise on Rhetoric.

In my copy of this work, I found the following marked, but cannot for the life of me recall if it was I or one of its previous owners who found it originally notable. It matters not:

Milton, however, was not destined to gather the spolia opima of English rhetoric. Two contemporaries of his own, and whose literary course pretty nearly coincided with his own in point of time, surmounted all competition, and in that amphitheatre became the Protagonistæ. These were Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne; who, if not absolutely the foremost in the accomplishments of art, were undoutedly the richest, the most dazzling, and, with reference to their matter, the most captivating, of all rhetoricians. In them first, and perhaps . . . in them only, are the two opposite forces of eloquent passion and rhetorical fancy brought into an exquisite equilibrium, — approaching, receding, — attracting, repelling, — blending, separating, — chasing and chaased, as in a fugue, — and again lost in a delightful interfusion, so as to create a middle species of composition, more various and stimulating to the understanding than pure eloquence, more gratifying to the affections than naked rhetoric. Under this one circumstance of coincidence, in other respects their minds were of the most opposite temperament: Sir Thomas Browne, deep, tranquil, and majestic as Milton, silently premeditating and “disclosing the golden couplets,” as under some genial instinct of incubation; Jeremy Taylor, restless, fervid, aspiring, scattering abroad a prodigality of life, not unfolding but creating, with the energy and the “myriad-mindedness” of Shakspere. Where but in Sir T. B. shall one hope to find music so Miltonic, an intonation of such solemn chords as are stuck in the following opening bar of a passage in the Urn Burial — “Now, since these bones have rested quietly in the grave under the drums and tramplings of three conquests,” &c. What a melodious ascent as of a prelude to some impassioned requiem breathing from the pomps of earth, and from the sanctities of the grave! What a fluctus decumanus of rhetoric! Time expounded, not by generations or centuries, but by the vast periods of conquests and dynasties; by cycles of Pharaohs and Ptolemies, Antiochi and Arsacides! And these vast successions of time distinguished and figured by the uproars which revolve at their inaugurations; by the drums and tramplings rolling overhead upon the chambers of forgotten dead — the trepidations of time and mortality vexing, at secular intervals, the everlasting sabbaths of the grave.

‘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.

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