The Thomas Browne Affair

Last year I wrote about Kenneth Leighton’s Symphony No. 3, Laudes Musicae. As the Latin title suggests, it’s a work which sets words in praise of music, and in the first movement the tenor soloist sings a section of prose by the 17th-century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne. This passage is a defence of music launched against the music-sceptical Puritans of Browne’s time, in which he draws on Pythagorean ideas of cosmic order and harmony. But he also suggests that more mysterious forces are at work:

there is something in it of Divinity more than the eare discovers. It is an Hieroglyphicall and shadowed lesson of the whole world […] 

I recently finished reading Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ 2015 book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century. It’s an engaging trip through the life and ideas of a man of huge learning and boundless curiosity. As a fellow writer and Norwich resident – where Browne spent most of his life – Aldersey-Williams evidently feels a strong affinity for his subject, and offers reflections on Browne’s legacy for modern times.

Browne was a physician by trade, but he wrote on a startling variety of topics. The passage above is a short section from his essay Religion Medici (‘Religion of a physician’) which wrestles with questions of science and faith. But he also compiled an encylcopedia of popular errors (Psuedodoxia Epidemica), catalogued the natural history of Norfolk, meditated on death and burial rites (Urn Burial), and speculated to esoteric length on the mystical significance of the quincunx pattern (The Garden of Cyrus).

Aldersey-Williams’s book is somewhat idiosyncratic, mirroring Browne’s eclectic interests. ‘He is in many ways gloriously irrelevant’, he writes, an emblem of an intellectual age before the emergence of the ‘two cultures’ views of arts and sciences, a bifurcation which has ‘bedevilled British education and academia’. Browne moved effortlessly between these worlds, sometimes in the same sentence. ‘The civility of Browne’s day that allowed natural philosophers to engage in dialogue with other scholars of all kinds has been superseded by a grammar largely private to science,’ he notes with regret. He showed humility in the face of mystery, which the author contrasts to the often shrill and self-righteous rationalism emanating from some modern celebrity atheists and science communicators.

Though Browne has not accrued the modern fame of a Newton, he has a disparate but loyal following that sees him pop up in surprising places – I recently found a reference to him while reading the short stories of Borges, for example. As a scientist with mystical tendencies and the ability to turn a memorable phrase, his broad fan-base is understandable, because you can discover him from so many angles. He also seems a likeable character, and a beacon of tolerance for his time, even if he sometimes got things wrong. Most troublingly, Browne’s willingness to consider the possibility of demonic possession when he was called as an expert to a Suffolk witchcraft trial may have helped – or at least not prevented – two accused women being hanged. This period is fascinating, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

A while ago, I picked up Basil Willey’s 1934 book The Seventeenth-Century Background in a charity shop. It has a superb chapter on Browne, and his ‘marvelling temper’. He likens him to a ‘Janus’:

Perhaps no writer is more truly representative of the double-faced age in which he lived, an age half scientific and half magical, half sceptical and half credulous […]

Willey identifies Browne as a ‘metaphysical’: one who moved freely between spheres of thought and feeling, never ‘finally committed’ to one place. The description of music as ‘an Hieroglyphicall and shadowed lesson of the whole world’ is typical of his fondness for the ‘reduplicated phrase’ – an generous linguistic habit in which a classical or hifalutin word (Hieroglyphicall) is balanced against a more familiar one (shadowed).

Willey muses that ‘it is more than likely that Browne was sensitive to the Janus-like quality of the English language itself, half Latin and half Saxon’. His ear for language was no doubt a factor in perhaps his most tangible and impressive legacy: the coinage of a large number of words that we use every day. Among them are ‘hallucination’, ‘medical’, ‘electricity’, ‘deductive’, and ‘ferocious’. Aldersey-Williams sprinkles informative asides about these words along the way of his book, in sometimes lengthy footnotes.

The composer William Alwyn (1905-85) was a lifelong reader of Browne. He named his Symphony no. 5 Hydriotaphia, after his Urn-Burial. This single movement piece is marked with four quotations from that meditation on death, a work that contains some of Browne’s most enduring prose, and which occasionally earns him spots on ‘famous sayings’ internet pages.

‘Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us’ inspires the opening section of the symphony. But at the music’s end, ‘man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave’.

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne In The 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams is published by Granta. I bought it on Hive, which supports booksellers rather than sending billionaires into space, and comes with free UK delivery too. 

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