Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Nice NYT piece this morning on Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th-Century English--what, exactly?  Essayist?  Religious thinker?  Simply a writer whose name (per the Times)  " no longer keeps company, at least in America, with those of Shakespeare, Chaucer and other architects of the language"--?   Also  the producer of (it says here) "a body of work as strange and unclassifiable as any in English literature."  Which is a reasonable call, although I'd say he gets competition from his great contemporary, Robert Burton.   Still, Wiki does memorialize Browne (but not Burton) as an exemplar of "purple prose," along with Edward Bulwer-Lytton and John Ruskin.

I first met Browne in Edith Sitwell's Planet and Glow-worm (1944), a book that impressed me enough when I first enountered it about 1958, that I stole the copy belonging (I think) to my girlfriend's roommate (Vivian, call me).  Here's a passage from Browne's The Garden of Cyrus, the penultimate entry in Sitwell and also the purple prose example in Wiki:

But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports 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. Besides Hippocrates hath spoke so little and the Oneirocriticall Masters, have left such frigid Interpretations from plants that there is little encouragement to dream of Paradise itself. Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours; and though in the Bed of Cleopatra, can hardly with any delight raise up the Ghost of a Rose.
On "quincunx," go here.   As to just why Browne employs it in this passage--is left as an exercise to the reader.

1 comment:

Hydriotaphia said...

Browne writes 'the quincunx of heaven runs low....' to wind-up his discourse having ransacked art and nature in search of the Platonic form. By writing of sleep, night and dreams in this celebrated passage he creates a circular, Urobouros-like link returning to the thematic concerns of the diptych companion discourse Urn -Burial which is entirely on the unknowingness of the human condition. He was an essayist, encyclopaedist, moralist, psychological self-portraitist, and promoter of scientific journalism, these are the primary genres of interest to him as an occasional writer.