Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – 3 Sep 2012
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'a welcome complement to these scholarly projects. The text preserves original spelling and notes; a finely wrought, judicious introduction describes Browne's wide-ranging curiosity, his influences, his self-fascination, his faith and doubts. A pocket edition of Browne is good to have not least because his aphoristic style rewards casual reading. Open it at any page and find a surprise.'(London Review of Books)
'Thomas Browne's Religio Medici is one of the most significant literary achievements of the 17th century yet hardly anyone bothers to read it. This edition should change all that.'(The Glasgow Herald)
'Greenblatt and Targoff reveal the humanity, and even the familiarity, behind Browne's work'(Times Literary Supplement)
'A thing of delightful rarity and strangeness'(Irish Times)
'hypnotic prose...like having an audience with Hamlet'(The Independent)
About the Author
SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682) was an English Renaissance author and physician. He wrote about medicine, geography, philosophy, and Christian spirituality.
STEPHEN GREENBLATT is Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Vermont.
RAMIE TARGOFF is professor of English at Brandeis University. She is the author of Common Prayer and John Donne, Body and Soul.
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It is now over fifty years since the American scholar Frank Huntley stressed the inter-relationship between Browne's discourses stating -
'the first essay cannot be read without the second for the two pieces are purposefully antithetical and correlative. The first is death; the second, life. The first is guess-work, the second science. The first is accident; the second its opposite, design. The first is sad; the second filled with garden delights'.
Likewise the literary critic Peter Green also a full fifty years ago, recognised the discourse's intimate relationship to each other -
'the two Discourses can no more be separated than the voices in a fugue: taken together they form one of the deepest, most complex, most symbolically pregnant statements upon the great double theme of mortality and eternity'.
Browne himself never authorized any publication of his 1658 discourses separately in his life-time , this NYRB edition is therefore comparable to the Old Testament without the New Testament, the Iliad without the Odyssey or Dante's Paradiso without Inferno. In Browne's own words-
'That we conjoin these parts of different Subjects, or that this should succeed the other; Your judgement will admit without impute of incongruity; Since the delightful World comes after death, and Paradise succeeds the Grave . Since the verdant state is the Symbol of the Resurrection, and to flourish in the state of Glory, we must first be sown in corruption'.
The reader is being short-changed in this edition and Browne's artistic vision wilfully misrepresented. A golden opportunity missed.
_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.
The writing is incredibly rich. As Woolf describes, "Flowers and trees, spices and gems load the pages with all kinds of colour and substance. The whole is kept fresh by a perpetual movement of rhythm which gives each sentence its relation to the next and yet is of huge and cumulative effect. A bold and prodigious appetite for the drums and tramplings of language is balanced by the most exquisite sense of mysterious affinities between ghosts and roses."
Browne experience of life is spiritual, aesthetic, and aware of the common life of all that exists. He writes, "Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us... For my conversation, it is like the sun's, with all men, and with a friendly aspect to good and bad."
This volume is for those with an unquenchable thirst for words that convey meaning, significance, and mysterious belonging. Equally rewarding either for fans of Parlett's THE Book of Word Games or of Borges' Labyrinths.
Read Thomas Browne in this or any other edition,especially Religio Medici, and luxuriate in the language as much as the sentiment. A truly great writer, though sadly little remembered, who manages to make grandiloquence sing. The above is my encomium, in which I have tried to give a little of the feel of the man.
In “Urne-Buriall,” Browne discusses burial rituals. He talks about the variety of post-death rituals among cultures and religions, and ruminates on the reasons for such them. One theme throughout the essay is mankind’s intrinsic wish to extend his life beyond his death, as illustrated by the practice of burying the dead with objects they could use in the afterlife. There were practical reasons for these rituals as well. For example, Browne talks about how ancient people wanted to be cremated to prevent their enemies from desecrating their corpses. He ponders the vanity of those who believe they can preserve their own lives in the memories of other people, specifically by means of monuments.
Pros: An appealing aspect of “Religion Medici” is Browne’s humility. He lacks the cloistered arrogance of the true believer and yet shuns the conceit of the intellectual. By critically examining religious teaching, he acknowledges the abundant possibilities of man’s reason. By refusing to relinquish his faith, he acknowledges reason’s limits. Besides humility, this essay displays the author’s courage in expressly denouncing several church teachings. Additionally, the essay is optimistic. Throughout, the reader gets the sense of Browne’s lack of despair over man’s ultimate and certain demise, and the fact that this lack of despair derives from Browne's faith that God made man for things higher than this earth. Browne said he didn’t fear hell. Rather, he was driven toward virtue by a desire for heaven.
“Urne-Buriall” shines light on the burial rituals of different cultures and times. The reasons given for these rituals will likely surprise the modern reader, yet appear completely reasonable in their contexts. Besides a treatise on anthropology, the essay is also a philosophical examination on how mankind reacts to his knowledge of death and the emotions that this knowledge evokes.
Cons: Though Browne’s free thinking in “Religio Medici” is interesting, he fails to fully explain why he adheres to some religious teachings but not to others. “Urne-Buriall” suffers from a common characteristic of older writing, which is to rely heavily on allusion. Browne makes many of his points via reference to various historical figures, events, and writings. Therefore, the reader’s erudition must be up to the task or else the point will be missed. Also, Browne’s style in both essays sometimes seems intentionally abstruse. Again, this is likely a product of the time in which the piece was written. One could argue that these faults are not of the author but rather of the reader—point taken. Neither of these pieces are easy reading.