[This is taken from Leslie Stephens' Hours in a Library.]
'Let me not injure the felicity of others,' says Sir Thomas Browne in a suppressed passage of the 'Religio Medici,' 'if I say that I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty into riches, adversity into prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.' Perhaps on second thoughts, Sir Thomas felt that the phrase savoured of that presumption which is supposed to provoke the wrath of Nemesis; and at any rate, he, of all men, is the last to be taken too literally at his word. He is a humorist to the core, and is here writing dramatically. There are many things in this book, so he tells us, 'delivered rhetorically, many expressions therein merely tropical,... and therefore also many things to be taken in a soft and flexible sense, and not to be called unto the rigid test of reason.' We shall hardly do wrong in reckoning amongst them this audacious claim to surpassing felicity, as we may certainly include his boast that he 'could lose an arm without a tear, and with few groans be quartered into pieces.' And yet, if Sir Thomas were to be understood in the most downright literal earnest, perhaps he could have made out as good a case for his assertion as almost any of the troubled race of mankind. For, if we set aside external circumstances of life, what qualities offer a more certain guarantee of happiness than those of which he is an almost typical example? A mind endowed with an insatiable curiosity as to all things knowable and unknowable; an imagination which tinges with poetical hues the vast accumulation of incoherent facts thus stored in a capacious memory; and a strangely vivid humour that is always detecting the quaintest analogies, and, as it were, striking light from the most unexpected collocations of uncompromising materials: such talents are by themselves enough to provide a man with work for life, and to make all his work delightful. To them, moreover, we must add a disposition absolutely incapable of controversial bitterness; 'a constitution,' as he says of himself, 'so general that it consorts and sympathises with all things;' an absence of all antipathies to loathsome objects in nature—to French 'dishes of snails, frogs, and toadstools,' or to Jewish repasts on 'locusts or grasshoppers;' an equal toleration—which in the first half of the seventeenth century is something astonishing—for all theological systems; an admiration even of our natural enemies, the French, the Spaniards, the Italians, and the Dutch; a love of all climates, of all countries; and, in short, an utter incapacity to 'absolutely detest or hate any essence except the devil.' Indeed, his hatred even for that personage has in it so little of bitterness, that no man, we may be sure, would have joined more heartily in the Scotch minister's petition for 'the puir de'il'—a prayer conceived in the very spirit of his writings. A man so endowed—and it is not only from his explicit assertions, but from his unconscious self-revelation, that we may credit him with closely approaching his own ideal—is admirably qualified to discover one great secret of human happiness. No man was ever better prepared to keep not only one, but a whole stableful of hobbies, nor more certain to ride them so as to amuse himself, without loss of temper or dignity, and without rude collisions against his neighbours. That happy art is given to few, and thanks to his skill in it, Sir Thomas reminds us strongly of the two illustrious brothers Shandy combined in one person. To the exquisite kindliness and simplicity of Uncle Toby he unites the omnivorous intellectual appetite and the humorous pedantry of the head of the family. The resemblance, indeed, may not be quite fortuitous. Though it does not appear that Sterne, amidst his multifarious pilferings, laid hands upon Sir Thomas Browne, one may fancy that he took a general hint or two from so congenial an author.
The best mode of approaching so original a writer is to examine the intellectual food on which his mind was nourished. He dwelt by preference in strange literary pastures; and their nature will let us into some secrets as to his taste and character. We will begin, therefore, by examining the strange furniture of his mind, as described in his longest, though not his most characteristic book—the 'Inquiry into Vulgar Errors.' When we turn over its quaint pages, we feel as though we were entering one of those singular museums of curiosities which existed in the pre-scientific ages. Every corner is filled with a strange, incoherent medley, in which really valuable objects are placed side by side with what is simply grotesque and ludicrous. The modern man of science may find some objects of interest; but they are mixed inextricably with strange rubbish that once delighted the astrologer, the alchemist, or the dealer in apocryphal relics. And the possessor of this miscellaneous collection accompanies us with an unfailing flow of amusing gossip: at one moment pouring forth a torrent of out-of-the-way learning; at another, making a really passable scientific remark; and then lapsing into an elaborate discussion of some inconceivable absurdity; affecting the air of a grave inquirer, and to all appearance fully believing in his own pretensions, and yet somehow indulging himself in a half-suppressed smile, which indicates that the humorous aspect of a question can never be far removed from his mind. Mere curiosity is not yet differentiated from scientific thirst for knowledge; and a quaint apologue is as good a reward for the inquirer as the discovery of a law of nature. The numerous class which insists upon a joke being as unequivocal as a pistol-shot, and a serious statement as grave as a Blue-book, should therefore keep clear of Sir Thomas Browne. His most congenial readers are those who take a simple delight in following out any quaint train of reflections, careless whether it may culminate in a smile or a sigh, or in some thought in which the two elements of the sad and the ludicrous are inextricably blended. Sir Thomas, however, is in the 'Inquiry' content generally with bringing out the strange curiosities of his museum, and does not care to draw any explicit moral. The quaintness of the objects unearthed seems to be a sufficient recompense for the labour of the search. Fortunately for his design, he lived in the time when a poet might have spoken without hyperbole of the 'fairy tales of science.' To us, who have to plod through an arid waste of painful observation, and slow piecing together of cautious inferences before reaching the promised land of wondrous discoveries, the expression sometimes appears to be ironical. Does not science, we may ask with a primâ facie resemblance of right, destroy as much poetry as it generates? To him no such doubts could present themselves, for fairyland was still a province of the empire of science. Strange beings moved through the pages of natural history, which were equally at home in the 'Arabian Nights' or in poetical apologues. The griffin, the phœnix, and the dragon were not yet extinct; the salamander still sported in flames; and the basilisk slew men at a distance with his deadly glance. More commonplace animals indulged in the habits which they had learnt in fables, and of which only some feeble vestiges now remain in the eloquence of strolling showmen. The elephant had no joints, and was caught by felling the tree against which he rested his stiff limbs in sleep; the pelican pierced its breast for the good of its young; ostriches were regularly painted with a horseshoe in their bills, to indicate their ordinary diet; storks refused to live except in republics and free states; the crowing of a cock put lions to flight, and men were struck dumb in good sober earnest by the sight of a wolf. The curiosity-hunter, in short, found his game still plentiful, and, by a few excursions into Aristotle, Pliny, and other more recondite authors, was able still to display a rich bag for the edification of his readers. Sir Thomas Browne sets out on that quest with all imaginable seriousness. He persuaded himself, and he has persuaded some of his editors, that he was a genuine disciple of Bacon, by one of whose suggestions the 'Inquiry' is supposed to have been prompted. Accordingly, as Bacon describes the idols by which the human mind is misled, Sir Thomas sets out with investigating the causes of error; but his introductory remarks immediately diverge into strange paths, from which it is obvious that the discovery of true scientific method was a very subordinate object in his mind. Instead of telling us by what means truth is to be attained, his few perfunctory remarks on logic are lost in an historical narrative given with infinite zest, of the earliest recorded blunders. The period of history in which he most delighted was the antediluvian—probably because it afforded the widest field for speculation. His books are full of references to the early days of the world. He takes a keen personal interest in our first parents. He discusses the unfortunate lapse of Adam and Eve from every possible point of view. It is not without a visible effort that he declines to settle which of the two was the more guilty, and what would have been the result if they had tasted the fruit of the Tree of Life before applying to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then he passes in review every recorded speech before the Flood, shows that in each of them, with one exception, there is a mixture of falsehood and error, and settles to his own satisfaction that Cain showed less 'truth, wisdom, and reverence' than Satan under similar circumstances. Granting all which to be true, it is impossible to see how we are advanced in settling, for example, whether the Ptolemaic or the Copernican system of astronomy is to be adopted, or in extracting the grains of truth that may be overlaid by masses of error in the writings of alchemists. Nor do we really learn much by being told that ancient authorities sometimes lie, for he evidently enjoys accumulating the fables, and cares little for showing how to discriminate their degree of veracity. He tells us, indeed, that Medea was simply a predecessor of certain modern artists, with an excellent 'recipe to make white hair black;' and that Actæon was a spirited master of hounds, who, like too many of his ancestors, went metaphorically, instead of literally, to the dogs. He points out, moreover, that we must not believe on authority that the sea is the sweat of the earth, that the serpent, before the Fall, went erect like man, or that the right eye of a hedgehog, boiled in oil, and preserved in a brazen vessel, will enable us to see in the dark. Such stories, he moderately remarks, being 'neither consonant unto reason nor correspondent unto experiment,' are unto us 'no axioms.' But we may judge of his scepticism by his remarks on 'Oppianus, that famous Cilician poet.' Of this writer he says that 'abating the annual mutation of sexes in the hyæna, the single sex of the rhinoceros, the antipathy between two drums of a lamb's and a wolf's skin, the informity of cubs, the venation of centaurs, and some few others, he may be read with delight and profit.' Obviously we shall find in Sir Thomas Browne no inexorably severe guide to truth! he will not too sternly reject the amusing because it happens to be slightly improbable, or doubt an authority because he sometimes sanctions a mass of absurd fables. Satan, as he argues at great length, is at the bottom of most errors, from false religions down to a belief that there is another world in the moon; but Sir Thomas takes little trouble to provide us with an Ithuriel's spear, and, indeed, we have a faint suspicion that he will overlook at times the diabolic agency in sheer enthusiasm at the marvellous results. The logical design is little more than ostensible; and Sir Thomas, though he knew it not himself, is really satisfied with any line of inquiry that will bring him in sight of some freak of nature or of opinion suitable to his museum of curiosities.
Let us, however, pass from the anteroom, and enter this queer museum. We pause in sheer bewilderment on the threshold, and despair of classifying its contents intelligibly within any moderate space. This much, indeed, is obvious at first sight—that the title 'vulgar errors' is to some extent a misnomer. It is not given to vulgar brains to go wrong by such complex methods. There are errors which require more learning and ingenuity than are necessary for discovering truths; and it is in those queer freaks of philosophical minds that Sir Thomas specially delights. Though far, indeed, from objecting to any absurdity which lies on the common highroad, he rejoices in the true spirit of a collector when he can discover some grotesque fancy by rambling into less frequented paths of inquiry. Perhaps it will be best to take down one or two specimens, pretty much at random, and mark their nature and mode of treatment. Here, for example, is that quaint old wonder, the phœnix, 'which, after many hundred years, burneth itself, and from the ashes thereof ariseth up another.' Sir Thomas carefully discusses the pros and cons of this remarkable legend. In favour of the phœnix, it may be alleged that he is mentioned 'not only by human authors,' but also by such 'holy writers' as Cyril, Epiphanius, and Ambrose. Moreover, allusions are made to him in Job and the Psalms. 'All which notwithstanding,' the following grave reasons may be alleged against his existence: First, nobody has ever seen a phœnix. Secondly, those who mention him speak doubtfully, and even Pliny, after telling a story about a particular phœnix which came to Rome in the censorship of Claudius, unkindly turns round and declares the whole story to be a palpable lie. Thirdly, the name phœnix has been applied to many other birds, and those who speak unequivocally of the genuine phœnix contradict each other in the most flagrant way as to his age and habitat. Fourthly, many writers, such as Ovid, only speak poetically, and others, as Paracelsus, only mystically, whilst the remainder speak rhetorically, emblematically, or hieroglyphically. Fifthly, in the Scriptures, the word translated phœnix means a palm tree. Sixthly, his existence, if we look closely, is implicitly denied in the Scriptures, because all fowls entered the ark in pairs, and animals were commanded to increase and multiply, neither of which statements is compatible with the solitary nature of the phœnix. Seventhly, nobody could have known by experience whether the phœnix actually lived for a thousand years, and, therefore, 'there may be a mistake in the compute.' Eighthly, and finally, no animals really spring, or could spring, from the ashes of their predecessors and it is impossible to believe that they could enter the world in such a fashion. Having carefully summed up this negative evidence—enough, one would have fancied, to blow the poor phœnix into summary annihilation—Sir Thomas finally announces his grave conclusion in these words—'How far to rely on this tradition we refer unto consideration.' And yet he feels impelled to add a quaint reflection on the improbability of a statement made by Plutarch, that 'the brain of a phœnix is a pleasant bit, but that it causeth the headache.' Heliogabalus, he observes, could not have slain the phœnix, for it must of necessity be 'a vain design to destroy any species, or mutilate the great accomplishment of six days.' To which it is added, by way of final corollary, that after Cain had killed Abel, he could not have destroyed Eve, supposing her to have been the only woman in existence; for then there must have been another creation, and a second rib of Adam must have been animated.
We must not, however, linger too long with these singular speculations, for it is probable that phœnix-fanciers are becoming rare. It is enough to say briefly, that if anyone wishes to understand the natural history of the basilisk, the griffin, the salamander, the cockatrice, or the amphisbœna—if he wishes to know whether a chameleon lives on air, and an ostrich on horseshoes—whether a carbuncle gives light in the dark, whether the Glastonbury thorn bore flowers on Christmas-day, whether the mandrake 'naturally groweth under gallowses,' and shrieks 'upon eradication,'—on these and many other such points he may find grave discussions in Sir Thomas Browne's pages. He lived in the period when it was still held to be a sufficient proof of a story that it was written in a book, especially if the book were Latin; and some persons, such as Alexander Ross, whose memory is preserved only by the rhyme in 'Hudibras,' argued gravely against his scepticism. For Sir Thomas, in spite of his strange excursions into the marvellous, inclines for the most part to the sceptical side of the question. He was not insensible to the growing influence of the scientific spirit, though he believed implicitly in witchcraft, spoke with high respect of alchemy and astrology, and refused to believe that the earth went round the sun. He feels that his favourite creatures are doomed to extinction, and though dealing lovingly with them, speaks rather like an attached mourner at their funerals than a physician endeavouring to maintain their flickering vitality. He tries experiments and has a taste for dissection. He proves by the evidence of his senses, and believes them in spite of the general report, that a dead kingfisher will not turn its breast to the wind. He convinced himself that if two magnetic needles were placed in the centre of rings marked with the alphabet (an odd anticipation of the electric telegraph, minus the wires), they would not point to the same letter by an occult sympathy. His arguments are often to the point, though overlaid with a strange accretion of the fabulous. In discussing the question of the blackness of negroes, he may remind benevolent readers of some of Mr. Darwin's recent speculations. He rejects, and on the same grounds which Mr. Darwin declares to be conclusive, the hypothesis that the blackness is the immediate effect of the climate; and he points out, what is important in regard to 'sexual selection,' that a negro may admire a flat nose as we admire an aquiline; though, of course, he diverges into extra-scientific questions when discussing the probable effects of the curse of Ham, and rather loses himself in a 'digression concerning blackness.' We may fancy that this problem pleased Sir Thomas rather because it appeared to be totally insoluble than for any other reason; and in spite of his occasional gleams of scientific observation, he is always most at home when on the border-land which divides the purely marvellous from the region of ascertainable fact. In the last half of his book, indeed, having exhausted natural history, he plunges with intense delight into questions which bear the same relation to genuine antiquarianism that his phœnixes and salamanders bear to scientific inquiry: whether the sun was created in Libra; what was the season of the year in Paradise; whether the forbidden fruit was an apple; whether Methuselah was the longest-lived of all men (a main argument on the other side being that Adam was created at the perfect age of man, which in those days was fifty or sixty, and thus had a right to add sixty to his natural years); what was the nature of St. John the Baptist's camel's-hair garment; what were the secret motives of the builders of the Tower of Babel; whether the three kings really lived at Cologne,—these and many other profound inquiries are detailed with all imaginable gravity, and the interest of the inquirer is not the less because he generally comes to the satisfactory and sensible conclusion that we cannot possibly know anything whatever about it.
The 'Inquiry into Vulgar Errors' was published in 1646, and Sir Thomas's next publication appeared in 1658. The dates are significant. Whilst all England was in the throes of the first civil war, Sir Thomas had been calmly finishing his catalogue of intellectual oddities. This book was published soon after the crushing victory of Naseby. King, Parliament, and army, illustrating a very different kind of vulgar error, continued to fight out their quarrel to the death. Whilst Milton, whose genius was in some way most nearly akin to his own, was raising his voice in favour of the liberty of the press, good Sir Thomas was meditating profoundly on quincunxes. Milton hurled fierce attacks at Salmasius, and meanwhile Sir Thomas, in his quiet country town, was discoursing on 'certain sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk.' In the year of Cromwell's death, the result of his labours appeared in a volume containing 'The Garden of Cyrus' and the 'Hydriotaphia.'
The first of these essays illustrates Sir Thomas's peculiar mysticism. The external world was not to him the embodiment of invariable forces, and therefore capable of revealing a general law in a special instance; but rather a system of symbols, signatures of the Plastic Nature, to which mysterious truths were arbitrarily annexed. A Pythagorean doctrine of numbers was therefore congenial to his mind. He ransacks heaven and earth, he turns over all his stores of botanical knowledge, he searches all sacred and profane literature to discover anything that is in the form of an X, or that reminds him in any way of the number five. From the garden of Cyrus, where the trees were arranged in this order, he rambles through the universe, stumbling over quincunxes at every step. To take, for example, his final, and, of course, his fifth chapter, we find him modestly disavowing an 'inexcusable Pythagorism,' and yet unable to refrain from telling us that five was anciently called the number of justice: that it was also called the divisive number; that most flowers have five leaves; that feet have five toes; that the cone has a 'quintuple division;' that there were five wise and five foolish virgins; that the 'most generative animals' were created on the fifth day; that the cabalists discovered strange meanings in the number five; that there were five golden mice; that five thousand persons were fed with five barley-loaves; that the ancients mixed five parts of water with wine; that plays have five acts; that starfish have five points; and that if anyone inquire into the causes of this strange repetition, 'he shall not pass his hours in vulgar speculations.' We, however, must decline the task, and will content ourselves with a few characteristic phrases from his peroration. 'The quincunx of heaven,' he says, referring to the Hyades, 'runs low, and 'tis time to close the five parts of knowledge. We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precogitations, making cables of cobwebs, and wildernesses of handsome groves.... Night, which Pagan theology could make the daughter of chaos, affords no advantage to the description of order; although no lower than that mass can we derive its genealogy. All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the admirer of order and mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven. Although Somnus, in Homer, be sent to rouse up Agamemnon, I find no such effects in these drowsy approaches of night. To keep our eyes open longer were but to act with our Antipodes. The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. But who can be drowsy at that hour, which roused us from everlasting sleep? Or have slumbering thoughts at that hour, when sleep itself must end, and, as some conjecture, all shall wake again?'
'Think you,' asks Coleridge, commenting upon this passage, 'that there ever was such a reason given for going to bed at midnight, to wit, that if we did not, we should be acting the part of our Antipodes?' In truth, Sir Thomas finishes his most whimsical work whimsically enough. The passage is a good specimen of the quaint and humorous eloquence in which he most delights—snatching fine thought from sheer absurdities, and putting the homeliest truth into a dress of amusing oddity. It may remind us that it is time to touch upon those higher qualities, which have led one of the acutest of recent critics to call him 'our most imaginative mind since Shakspeare.' Everywhere, indeed, his imaginative writing is, if we may so speak, shot with his peculiar humour. It is difficult to select any eloquent, passage which does not show this characteristic interweaving of the two elements. Throw the light from one side, and it shows nothing but quaint conceits; from the other, and we have a rich glow of poetic colouring. His humour and his melancholy are inextricably blended; and his melancholy itself is described to a nicety in the words of Jaques:—'It is a melancholy of his own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and, indeed, the sundry contemplation of his travels, in which his often rumination wraps him in a most humorous sadness.' That most marvellous Jaques, indeed, is rather too much of a cynic, and shows none of the religious sentiment of Sir Thomas Browne; but if they could have talked together in the forest, poor Jaques would have excited a far closer sympathy than he receives from his very unappreciative companions. The book in which this 'humorous sadness' finds the fullest expression is the 'Religio Medici.' The conception of the book apparently resulted from the 'sundry contemplation of his travels,' and it is written throughout in his characteristic strain of thought. From his travels he had learnt the best lesson of a lofty toleration. The furious controversies of that age, in which the stake, the prison, and the pillory were the popular theological arguments, produced a characteristic effect on his sympathies. He did not give in to the established belief, like his kindly natured contemporary Fuller, who remarks, in a book published about the same time with the 'Religio Medici,' that even 'the mildest authors' agree in the propriety of putting certain heretics to death. Nor, on the other hand, does he share the glowing indignation which prompted the great protests of Chillingworth and Taylor against the cruelties practised in the name of religion. Browne has a method of his own in view of such questions. He shrinks from the hard, practical world into spiritual meditation. He regards all opinions less as a philosopher than as a poet. He asks, not whether a dogma is true, but whether it is amusing or quaint. If his imagination or his fancy can take pleasure in contemplating it, he is not curious to investigate its scientific accuracy. And therefore he catches the poetical side of creeds which differ from his own, and cannot even understand why anybody should grow savage over their shortcomings. He never could be angry with a man's judgment 'for not agreeing with me in that from which, perhaps, within a few days, I should dissent myself.' Travelling in this spirit through countries where the old faith still prevailed, he felt a lively sympathy for the Catholic modes of worship. Holy water and crucifixes do not offend him. He is willing to enter the churches and to pray with the worshippers of other persuasions. He is naturally inclined, he says, 'to that which misguided zeal terms superstition,' and would show his respect rather than his unbelief. In an eloquent passage, which might teach a lesson to some modern tourists, he remarks:—'At the sight of a cross or crucifix I can dispense with my hat, but scarce with the thought and memory of my Saviour. I cannot laugh at, but rather pity, the fruitless journeys of pilgrims, or contemn the miserable condition of friars; for though misplaced in circumstances, there is something in it of devotion. I could never hear the Ave Mary bell without an elevation; or think it a sufficient warrant, because they erred in one circumstance, for me to err in all—that is, in silence and dumb contempt. Whilst, therefore, they directed their devotions to her, I offered mine to God, and rectified the errors of their prayers by rightly ordering my own. At a solemn procession I have wept abundantly, while my consorts, blind with opposition and prejudice, have fallen into an excess of laughter and scorn.'
Very characteristic, from this point of view, are the heresies into which he confesses that he has sometimes fallen. Setting aside one purely fantastical theory, they all imply a desire for toleration even in the next world. He doubted whether the damned would not ultimately be released from torture. He felt great difficulty in giving up prayers for the dead, and thought that to be the object of such prayers, was 'a good way to be remembered by posterity, and far more noble than a history.' These heresies, he says, as he never tried to propagate them, or to dispute over them, 'without additions of new fuel, went out insensibly of themselves.' Yet he still retained, in spite of its supposed heterodoxy, some hope for the fate of virtuous heathens. 'Amongst so many subdivisions of hell,' he says, 'there might have been one limbo left for these.' With a most characteristic turn, he softens the horror of the reflection by giving it an almost humorous aspect. 'What a strange vision will it be,' he exclaims, 'to see their poetical fictions converted into verities, and their imagined and fancied furies into real devils! How strange to them will sound the history of Adam, when they shall suffer for him they never heard of!'
The words may remind us of an often-quoted passage from Tertullian; but the Father seems to gloat over the appalling doctrines from which the philosophical humorist shrinks, even though their very horror has a certain strange fascination for his fancy. Heresies such as these will not be harshly condemned at the present day. From others of a different kind, Sir Thomas is shielded by his natural love of the marvellous. He loves to abandon his thoughts to mysterious contemplations; he even considers it a subject for complaint that there are 'not impossibilities enough in religion for an active faith.' 'I love,' he says, 'to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! 'Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learnt of Tertullian, certum est quia impossibile est.' He rejoices that he was not an Israelite at the passage of the Red Sea, or an early Christian in the days of miracles; for then his faith, supported by his senses, would have had less merit. He loves to puzzle and confound his understanding with the thoughts that pass the limits of our intellectual powers: he rejoices in contemplating eternity, because nobody can 'speak of it without a solecism,' and to plunge his imagination into the abysses of the infinite. 'When I cannot satisfy my reason,' he says, 'I love to recreate my fancy.' He recreates it by soaring into the regions where the most daring metaphysical logic breaks down beneath us, and delights in exposing his reason to the rude test of believing both sides of a contradiction. Here, as everywhere, the strangest freaks of fancy intrude themselves into his sublime contemplations. A mystic, when abasing reason in the presence of faith, may lose sight of earthly objects in the splendour of the beatific vision. But Sir Thomas, even when he enters the holiest shrine, never quite loses his grasp of the grotesque. Wonder, whether produced by the sublime or the simply curious, has equal attraction for him. His mind is distracted between the loftiest mysteries of Christianity and the strangest conceits of Talmudists or schoolmen. Thus, for example, whilst eloquently descanting on the submissiveness of his reason, he informs us (obviously claiming credit for the sacrifice of his curiosity) that he can read of the raising of Lazarus, and yet refrain from raising a 'law case whether his heir might lawfully detain his inheritance bequeathed unto him by his death, and he, though restored to life, have no plea or title unto his former possessions.' Or we might take the inverse transition from the absurd to the sublime, in his meditations upon hell. He begins by inquiring whether the everlasting fire is the same with that of our earth. 'Some of our chymicks,' it appears, 'facetiously affirm that, at the last fire, all shall be crystallised and reverberated into glass,' but, after playing for some time with this and other strange fancies, he says in a loftier strain, though still with his odd touch of humour, 'Men speak too popularly who place it in those flaming mountains, which, to grosser apprehensions, represent hell. The heart of men is the place the devils dwell in. I feel sometimes a hell within myself; Lucifer keeps his courts in my breast; Legion is revived in me. There was more than one hell in Magdalene, when there were seven devils; for every devil is a hell unto himself; he holds enough of torture in his own ubi, and needs not the misery of circumference to afflict him; and thus a distracted conscience here is a shadow or introduction into hell hereafter.'
Sir Thomas's witticisms are like the grotesque carvings in a Gothic cathedral. It is plain that in his mind they have not the slightest tinge of conscious irreverence. They are simply his natural mode of expression; forbid him to be humorous, and you might as well forbid him to speak at all. If the severity of our modern taste is shocked at an intermixture which seemed natural enough to his contemporaries, we may find an unconscious apology in a singularly fine passage of the 'Religio Medici.' Justifying his love of church music, he says, 'Even that vulgar and tavern music, which makes one man merry, another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the first composer.' That power of extracting deep devotion from 'vulgar tavern music' is the great secret of Browne's eloquence. It is not wonderful, perhaps, that, with our associations, the performance seems of questionable taste; and that some strains of tavern music mix unpleasantly in the grander harmonies which they suggest. Few people find their religious emotions stimulated by the performance of a nigger melody, and they have some difficulty in keeping pace with a mind which springs in happy unconsciousness, or rather in keen enjoyment, of the contrast from the queer or commonplace to the most exalted objects of human thought.
One other peculiarity shows itself chiefly in the last pages of the 'Religio Medici.' His worthy commentators have laboured to defend Sir Thomas from the charge of vanity. He expatiates upon his own universal charity; upon his inability to regard even vice as a fitting object for satire; upon his warm affection to his friend, whom he already loves better than himself, and whom yet in a few months he will regard with a love which will make his present feelings seem indifference; upon his absolute want of avarice or any kind of meanness; and, which certainly seems a little odd in the midst of these self-laudations, upon his freedom from the 'first and father sin, not only of man, but of the devil, pride.' Good Dr. Watts was shocked at this 'arrogant temerity,' and Dr. Johnson appears rather to concur in the charge. And certainly, if we are to interpret his language in a matter-of-fact spirit, it must be admitted that a gentleman who openly claims for himself the virtues of charity, generosity, courage, and modesty, might be not unfairly accused of vanity. To no one, as we have already remarked, is such a matter-of-fact criticism less applicable. If a humorist was to be denied the right of saying with a serious face what he does not quite think, we should make strange work of some of the most charming books in the world. The Sir Thomas Browne of the 'Religio Medici' is by no means to be identified with the everyday flesh-and-blood physician of Norwich. He is the ideal and glorified Sir Thomas, and represents rather what ought to have been than what was. We all have such doubles who visit us in our day-dreams and sometimes cheat us into the belief that they are our real selves, but most of us luckily hide the very existence of such phantoms; for few of us, indeed, could make them agreeable to our neighbours. And yet the apology is scarcely needed. Bating some few touches, Sir Thomas seems to have claimed little that he did not really possess. And if he was a little vain, why should we be angry? Vanity is only offensive when it is sullen or exacting. When it merely amounts to an unaffected pleasure in dwelling on the peculiarities of a man's own character, it is rather an agreeable literary ingredient. Sir Thomas defines his point of view with his usual felicity. 'The world that I regard,' he says in the spirit of the imprisoned Richard II., 'is myself: it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other, I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.' That whimsical inversion of the natural order is the key to the 'Religio Medici.' We, for the nonce, are to regard Sir Thomas Browne as a world, and to study the marvels of his microcosm instead of the outside wonders. And no one can deny that it is a good and kindly world—a world full of the strangest combinations, where even the most sacred are allied with the oddest objects. Yet his imagination everywhere diffuses a solemn light such as that which falls through painted windows, and which somehow harmonises the whole quaint assemblage of images. The sacred is made more interesting instead of being degraded by its association with the quaint; and on the whole, after a stay in this microcosm, we feel better, calmer, more tolerant, and a good deal more amused than when we entered it.
Passing from the portrait to the original, we may recognise, or fancy that we recognise, the same general features. Sir Thomas assures us that his life, up to the period of the 'Religio Medici,' was a 'miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not a history, but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common ears like a fable.' Johnson, with his usual sense, observes that it is rather difficult to detect the miraculous element in any part of the story open to our observation. 'Surely,' he says, 'a man may visit France and Italy, reside at Montpelier and Padua, and at last take his degree at Leyden, without anything miraculous.' And although Southey endeavours to maintain that the miracle consisted in Browne's preservation from infidelity, it must be admitted that to the ordinary mind that result seems explicable by natural causes. We must be content with Johnson's explanation, that, in some sense, 'all life is miraculous;' and, in short, that the strangeness consists rather in Browne's view of his own history, than in any unusual phenomena. Certainly, no man seems on the whole to have slipped down the stream of life more smoothly. After his travels he settled quietly at Norwich, and there passed forty-five years of scarcely interrupted prosperity. In the 'Religio Medici' he indulges in some disparaging remarks upon marriage. 'The whole world,' he says, 'was made for man; but the twelfth part of man for woman. Man is the whole world and the breath of God; woman the rib and crooked part of man.' He wishes, after the fashion of Montaigne, that we might grow like the trees, and avoid this foolish and trivial ceremony; and therefore—for such inferences are perfectly legitimate in the history of a humorist—he married a lady, of whom it is said that she was so perfect that 'they seemed to come together by a kind of natural magnetism,' had ten children, and lived very happily ever afterwards. It is not difficult, from the fragmentary notices that have been left to us, to put together some picture of his personal appearance. He was a man of dignified appearance, with a striking resemblance, as Southey has remarked, to Charles I., 'always cheerful, but never merry,' given to unseasonable blushing, little inclined to talk, but strikingly original when once launched in conversation; sedate in his dress, and obeying some queer medical crotchets as to its proper arrangement; always at work in the intervals of his 'drudging practice;' and generally a sober and dignified physician. From some letters which have been preserved we catch a view of his social demeanour. He was evidently an affectionate and liberal father, with good old orthodox views of the wide extent of the paternal prerogative. One of his sons was a promising naval officer, and sends home from beyond the seas accounts of such curiosities as were likely to please the insatiable curiosity of his parent. In his answers, the good Sir Thomas quotes Aristotle's definition of fortitude for the benefit of his gallant lieutenant, and argues elaborately to dissuade him from a practice which he believes to prevail in 'the king's shipps, when, in desperate cases, they blow up the same.' He proves by most excellent reasons, and by the authority of Plutarch, that such self-immolation is an unnecessary strain of gallantry; yet somehow we feel rather glad that Sir Thomas could not be a witness to the reception of this sensible, but perhaps rather superfluous, advice, in the messroom of the 'Marie Rose.' It is more pleasant to observe the carefulness with which he has treasured up and repeats all the compliments to the lieutenant's valour and wisdom which have reached him from trustworthy sources. This son appears to have died at a comparatively early age; but with the elder son, Edward—who, like his father, travelled in various parts of Europe, and then became a distinguished physician—he maintained a long correspondence, full of those curious details in which his soul delighted. His son, for example, writes from Prague that 'in the mines at Brunswick is reported to be a spirit; and another at the tin mine at Stackenwald, in the shape of a monke, which strikes the miners, playeth on the bagpipe, and many such tricks.' They correspond, however, on more legitimate inquiries, and especially on the points to be noticed in the son's medical lectures. Sir Thomas takes a keen interest in the fate of an unlucky 'oestridge' which found its way to London in 1681, and was doomed to illustrate some of the vulgar errors. The poor bird was induced to swallow a piece of iron weighing two and a-half ounces, which, strange to say, it could not digest. It soon afterwards died 'of a soden,' either from the severity of the weather or from the peculiar nature of its diet.
In one well-known case Sir Thomas's peculiar theories received a more unfortunate application; he contributed by his evidence to the death of the witches tried by Hale in 1664; and one could wish that in this case his love of the wonderful had been more checked by his sense of humour.
The fact that he was knighted by Charles II. in 1671 is now memorable only for Johnson's characteristic remark. The lexicographer's love of truth and loyalty to his pet monarch struggle with each other in the equivocal compliment to Charles's virtue in rewarding excellence 'with such honorary distinctions at least as cost him nothing.' The good doctor died in 1682, in the seventy-seventh year of age, and met his end, as we are assured, in the spirit of his own writings. 'There is,' he admirably says, 'but one comfort left, that, though it be in the power of the weakest arm to take away life, it is not in the strongest to deprive us of death.' Most men, for one reason or another, have at times been 'half in love with easeful death.' Sir Thomas gives his view more fully in another passage, in which he says, with his usual quaint and eloquent melancholy, 'When I take a full view and circle of myself, without this reasonable moderator and equal piece of justice, death, I do conceive myself the miserablest person extant. Were there not another life that I hope for, all the vanities of this world should not entreat a moment's breath from me. Could the devil work my belief to imagine I could never die, I could not outlive that very thought. I have so abject a conceit of this common way of existence, this retaining to the sun and elements, I cannot think this to be a man, or to have according to the dignity of humanity. In expectation of a better, I can with patience embrace this life, yet, in my best meditations, do often defy death.'
What, after all, one is inclined to ask, is the secret of the strange charm of Sir Thomas's style? Will you be kind enough to give us the old doctor's literary prescription, that we may produce the same effects at will? In what proportions shall we mingle humour, imagination, and learning? How are we to select the language which will be the fittest vehicle for the thought? or rather, for the metaphor is a little too mechanical, what were the magic spells with which he sways our imaginative moods? Like other spells, we must reply, it is incommunicable: no real answer can be given even by critics who, like Coleridge and De Quincey, show something of the same power. Coarser observers can only point to such external peculiarities as the Latinisms in which he indulges even more freely than most of his contemporaries. To Johnson they seemed 'pedantic;' to most modern readers they have an old-world charm; but in any case we know little more of Sir Thomas when we have observed that he is capable of using for 'hanging' the periphrasis 'illaqueation or pendulous suffocation.' The perusal of a page will make us recognise what could not be explained in a whole volume of analysis. One may, however, hazard a remark upon the special mood which is clothed or incarnated in his stately rhetoric. The imagination of Sir Thomas, of course, shows the generic qualities roughly described as Northern, Gothic, Teutonic, or romantic. He writes about tombs, and all Englishmen, as M. Taine tells us, like to write about tombs. When we try to find the specific differences which distinguish it from other imaginations of similar quality, we should be inclined to define him as belonging to a very rare intellectual family. He is a mystic with a sense of humour, or rather, his habitual mood is determined by an attraction towards the two opposite poles of humour and mysticism. He concludes two of his treatises (the 'Christian Morals' and 'Urn Burial') in words expressive of one of these tendencies: 'If any have been so happy as personally to understand Christian annihilation, ecstacy, exolution, transformation, the kiss of the spouse, and ingression into the divine shadow according to mystical theology, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the world is in a manner over, and the earth in ashes unto them.' Many of Sir Thomas's reflections, his love in spiritualising external emblems, as, for example, in the reflections on the quincunx, and the almost sensuous delight in the contemplation of a mystery, show the same bent. The fully-developed mystic loses sight of the world and its practical duties in the rapture of formless meditations; facts become shadows, and emotions the only realities. But the presence of a mystical element is the mark of all lofty imaginations. The greatest poet is he who feels most deeply and habitually that our 'little lives are rounded with a sleep;' that we are but atoms in the boundless abysses of space and time; that the phenomenal world is but a transitory veil, to be valued only as its contemplation arouses or disciplines our deepest emotions. Capacity for passing from the finite to the infinite, for interpreting the high instincts before which our mortal nature
'Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised,'
is the greatest endowment of the Shakespeares and Dantes. Mysticism proper is the abuse of this tendency, which prompts to the impossible feat of soaring altogether beyond the necessary base of concrete realities. The mystic temperament is balanced in some great men, as in Shakespeare, by their intense interest in human passion; in others, as in Wordsworth, by their profound sense of the primary importance of the moral law; and in others, as in Jeremy Taylor, by their hold upon the concrete imagery of a traditional theology; whilst to some, the mystic vision is strangely blended with an acceptance of the epicurean precept, Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Sir Thomas Browne seems to be held back from abandoning himself to the ecstasies of abstract meditation, chiefly by his peculiar sense of humour. There is a closer connection than we are always willing to admit between humour and profanity. Humour is the faculty which always keeps us in mind of the absurdity which is the shadow of sublimity. It is naturally allied to intellectual scepticism, as in Rabelais or Montaigne; and Sir Thomas shared the tendency sufficiently to be called atheist by some wiseacres. But his humour was too gentle to suggest scepticism of the aggressive kind. It is almost too free from cynicism. He cannot adopt any dogma unreservedly, but neither does any dogma repel him. He revels in the mental attitude of hopeless perplexity, which is simply unendurable to the commonplace and matter-of-fact intellects. He likes to be balanced between opposing difficulties; to play with any symbol of worship without actually worshipping it; to prostrate himself sincerely at many shrines, and yet with a half smile on his lips. He cannot be a rhetorician in the ordinary sense of the word; he would have been hopelessly out of place on the floor of the senate, stirring men's patriotism or sense of right; for half his sympathy would always be with the Opposition. He could not have moved the tears or the devotional ecstasies of a congregation, for he has too vivid a sense that any and every dogma is but one side of an inevitable antinomy. Strong convictions are needed for the ordinary controversial successes, and his favourite point of view is the centre from which all convictions radiate and all look equally probable. But then, instead of mocking at all, he sympathises with all, and expresses the one sentiment which may be extracted from their collision—the sentiment of reverence blended with scepticism. It is a contradictory sentiment, one may say, in a sense, but the essence of humour is to be contradictory. The language in which he utters himself was determined by his omnivorous appetite for every quaint or significant symbol to be discovered in the whole field of learning. With no prejudices, nothing comes amiss to him; and the signature of some mysterious principle may be found in every object of art or nature. Science in its infancy was still half mystic, and the facts which he gathered were all tinged with the semi-mythical fancies of the earliest explorers of the secrets of nature. In an old relic, recalling 'the drums and tramplings of three conquests,' in a queer annual, or an ancient fragment of history might be the appropriate emblem, or something more than the emblem of a truth equally impressive to the scientific and the poetical imagination. He would have been happy by the midnight lamp in Milton's 'high lonely tower;' but his humour would look at the romances which Milton loved rather with the eyes of Cervantes than of Milton. Their tone of sentiment would be too strained and highflown; and he would prefer to read of the spirits that are found
'In fire, air, flood, or underground,'
or to try to penetrate the secret of
by reading all the nonsense that had been written about them in the dawn of inquiry. He should be read in a corresponding spirit. One should often stop to appreciate the full flavour of some quaint allusion, or lay down the book to follow out some diverging line of thought. So read in a retired study, or beneath the dusty shelves of an ancient library, a page of Sir Thomas seems to revive the echoes as of ancient chants in college chapels, strangely blended with the sonorous perorations of professors in the neighbouring schools, so that the interferences sometimes produce a note of gentle mockery and sometimes heighten solemnity by quaintness.
That, however, is not the spirit in which books are often read in these days. We have an appetite for useful information, and an appetite for frivolous sentiment or purely poetical musing. We cannot combine the two after the quaint fashion of the old physician. And therefore these charming writings have ceased to suit our modern taste; and Sir Thomas is already passing under that shadow of mortality which obscures all, even the greatest, reputations, and with which no one has dwelt more pathetically or graphically than himself.
If we are disposed to complain, Sir Thomas shall himself supply the answer, in a passage from the 'Hydriotaphia,' which, though described by Hallam as the best written of his treatises, is not to my taste so attractive as the 'Religio Medici.' The concluding chapter, however, is in his best style, and here are some of his reflections on posthumous fame. The end of the world, he says, is approaching, and 'Charles V. can never hope to live within two Methuselahs of Hector.' 'And, therefore, restless inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories with present considerations seems a vanity out of date, and a superannuated piece of folly. We cannot hope to live as long in our names as some have done in their persons. One face of Janus holds no proportion to the other. 'Tis too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs. To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted into thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment.'
If the argument has now been vulgarised in the hands of Dr. Cumming and his like, the language and the sentiment are worthy of any of our greatest masters.
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