On wonder

This review of Sir Thomas Browne appeared in the Irish Times.

Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall Sir Thomas Browne, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff, New York Review Books, £7.99

How many eyes has a lamprey got? Is it true that a beaver, escaping a hunter, will bite off its own testicles? Where was the soul of Lazarus during his time in the tomb? And what manner of disposal – burning or burying – best fits our mortal remains for resurrection? Such, and even odder, questions exercised the vagrant mind of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century physician once ranked among the greatest stylists in English literature, now hardly read even by scholars of his age. If Browne is known at all today, it’s because of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book partly inspired by this most curious and humane of essayists. Even a svelte edition of just two of his works is a thing of delightful rarity and strangeness.

Browne wrote at a time of reckless experiment in English prose. His century gave us the delicious Guignol of Jacobean tragedy, the soaring morbidity of John Donne’s sermons, the pseudo-clinical bizarrerie of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Browne can sound like all of these, but outflanks them too in terms of invention and eloquence. Self-tasked with reconciling science and Christianity, or recounting the discovery of funeral urns in Norfolk, he sculpts a new language for his “conjectures” (a favourite word). He famously coined such terms as “suicide”, “bisect”, “precocious” and even “literary”. But it’s the rhythms and phrasings that truly astonish – here he is on the deity himself: “We behold him but asquint upon reflex or shadow.”

It’s formulations like that which amazed later writers. Samuel Johnson, predictably, baulked at Browne’s stylistic excrescences, but Thomas De Quincey aped his genial self-obsession in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Melville filched gobbets of whale lore and a mock-scholarly tone for Moby Dick, and Borges was fascinated by the scope and guile of Browne’s imagination.

If he’s relevant (dread word) today, it’s as much for his confection of mixed genres – memoir and medical tract, popular science and lyric prose – as his bravura style. As Virginia Woolf put it:

“A halo of wonder encircles everything he sees.”

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