I first encountered the writings of Sir Thomas Browne in a quotation that turns out to be one of his many famous ones: "But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying." It stuck in my head, and even though I told myself from this one sentence that Browne was someone I wanted to read more, that was decades ago, and the reading never happened until now. New York Review Books has published a new volume containing his two most famous works. _Religio Medici_ ("The Faith of a Doctor") is from 1643 and _Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall_ ("hydriotaphia" is one of Browne's many coinages, and means the deposition of bodily ashes in urns) is from 1658. Browne has shown up in my reading before I got to hear from him in his originals. "What Song the Syrens sang," he wrote in _Urne-Buriall_, "or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions, are not beyond all conjecture." If you have read Poe's "Murder in the Rue Morgue," you encountered this as the epigraph. It is also one of the things Stephen thinks about in Ulysses. If you are familiar with Moby Dick, you have encountered Melville's quotations of Browne, for he wrote about whales (among countless other things); Melville must have loved Browne's antiquated language and tendency to coin new, often strange words (though some, like "hallucination," have become standard). This edition is edited by the husband-and-wife scholar team of Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff, who have clarified Latin or obscure English phrases, provided notes and a glossary, and given an introduction, with a brief biography and appreciation. I can't compare other editions, but for this newcomer to the reading of Browne's original works, I here felt very comfortable looking into the thoughts of an idiosyncratic mind from a distant time.
_Religio Medici_ starts with a surprise. "For my religion," writes Browne, "though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world I have none at all, as the generall scandall of my profession..." It seems that in his day, doctors were often thought of as atheists, and Browne's work sets his own record of belief straight. He is, however, a creature of his time. He sees that astrology works, but attributes its working to God's arranging it so, saying, "... if to be born under Mercury disposeth us to be witty, under Jupiter to be wealthy, I doe not owe a knee unto these, but unto that mercifull hand that hath disposed and ordered my indifferent and uncertaine nativity unto such benevolous aspects." _Religio Medici_ is for a large part Browne's justification of his brand of Christianity, and would be tedious for those of us of a different persuasion, where it not for bright sparks of prose. _Urne-Buriall_ is different; naturally Browne's enthusiastic ideas about religion keep crowding in, but not for justification. _Urne-Buriall_ was inspired by a cache of funerary urns that was dug up in Norfolk around 1655. It is an examination of ancient and modern burial practices, which allows the melancholic antiquarian Browne to meditate on that end which awaits us all. Browne accepts that grief is necessary, and paired with that is some hope of earthly endurance; every culture carefully deals with the dead in its own way, and puts up monuments. But they often get it wrong, he says: "But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pitty the founder of the Pyramids?" Those monuments, "Pyramids, Arches, Obelisks, were but the irregularities of vainglory, and wilde enormities of ancient magnanimity." Most people don't get such remembrances and make no difference: "The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been."
Browne wrote, "But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?" He didn't know how right he would be in his own case. His skull was dug up from its Norwich churchyard in the nineteenth century, and stolen by a sexton; only in the twentieth century did it make it back. He would not have cared. He wrote, "At my death I meane to take a totall adieu of the world, not caring for a Monument, History, or Epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found any where." It didn't turn out that way; if he truly wanted the oblivion he writes about so movingly, he should not have written so movingly about the oblivion.