A Different Brown: A Poem not by Sir Thomas

OVER the past few months I have received a number of queries (and even more searches of my site) about "a poem by Sir Thomas Browne". The poem is by another Brown, of another century: T(homas) E(dward) Brown. A kind correspondent has pointed out to me the source of this error:

Ms. L'Engle does, indeed, quote [the poem] in one of her earlier works, Meet the Austins, 1960. Whether she confused the two writers or reproduced some other collector's mistake, I do not know.

Another correspondent says that the poem is quoted in "A Ring of Endless Light". I have not checked to see whether it is quoted in both, nor have I checked to see is Ms. L'Engle mis-attributes the poem in either or both.

This poem, which appears with various misspellings and misquotations, is the following.

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — "This is not dead," —
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — "This is enow
Unto itself — 'Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."

The poem is in fact "Indwelling", published in Old John and Other Poems (1893); it was first published anonymously in 1875 in the serial Plain Talk under the title "No Room". You may find a few of Brown's other poems at Poems of T.E.Brown, a site in development (but inaccessible the last time I checked), and a lot of them at Poems of T.E. Brown, a site nearly complete.

If you are interested in knowing how to track down such information on your own, you may find the following of some interest.

We are given a poem, and an author, but nowhere else can we connect the two. We look up the putative author, and find that he is a seventeenth-century author best known for an idiosyncratic prose style. This immediately alerts us to the possibility of a mistake. And then, a number of internal clues are sufficient to make it clear that this poem is probably not by Browne, or a seventeenth-century author: the word enow is used in the singular. In the seventeenth century it was still newly enough obsolete that most writers would have felt uncomfortable writing that, even to get the rhyme. (Browne never uses the word.) Consider "thyself": until the eighteenth century it was not commonly spelt as one word, although it was not unheard of. Browne usually writes "thy self". Consider "replete", a word that Browne does not use. Consider "shrewd", a word Browne uses but once in all his major works; look in a good dictionary with a historical bias, like the OED, to see why. (A good overview of the word's evolving and multifaceted meanings will also greatly enrich your reading of this poem.) And, on a more subtle note, look at "activity" as well; Browne almost never uses it in this sense, but nearly always in the sense of "the quality of something that enables it to perform an action", so that, say, a magnet's activity is not attraction, but what enables the attraction, and the "activity" of a person is not his moving about doing things, but his ability so to do. "Dishabited", never a common word, is not to my knowledge ever used by Browne.

Other evidence internal to the poem (particularly an un-seventeenth-century unwillingness to draw out the imagery, and quality of the meter which is somewhat reminiscent of the hymnal) indicates that it is probably no earlier than the late 18th century, and more likely from the 19th.

We'll assume (because we have to start somewhere) that the name is close to correct, but has somehow gone slightly astray. So here we are, looking for a "T(homas) Brown(e)", a poet active, in the nineteenth century or the early part of the twentieth, writing in English. We visit one of the numerous on-line catalogues of major university libraries. And we find ourselves pretty much limited to "T(homas) E(dward) Brown". (There were a couple of other Thomas Brown(e)s, but one of them published under the name "Boldrewood" and the rest are probably out of the question for other reasons — having published only blank verse, or only one poem, and so on.) This is looking more and more promising, because we remember that, while T.E. Brown published a large number of poems in "dialect", he is best remembered today for his poem "My Garden" (the one that begins "A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!" and spawned a thousand parodies). We therefore look about us and find a volume of his poetry; and what ho! there it is.

Here is an example of the real Sir Thomas Browne's poetry, from Religio Medici (it's not good, but he wasn't a particularly accomplished poet, and it's better than most of his stuff):

Search while thou wilt, and let thy reason goe
To ransome truth even to the Abysse below.
Rally the scattered causes, and that line
Which nature twists be able to untwine.
It is thy Makers will, for unto none
But unto reason can he ere be knowne.
The Devills doe know thee, but those damned meteours
Build not thy glory, but confound thy creatures.
Teach my endeavours so thy workes to read,
That learning them, in thee I may proceed.
Give thou my reason that instructive flight,
Whose weary wings may on thy hands still light.
Teach me to soare aloft, yet ever so,
When neare the Sunne, to stoope againe below.
Thus shall my humble feathers safely hover,
And though neere earth, more then the heavens discover.
And then at last, when holmeward I shall drive
Rich with the spoyles of nature to my hive,
There will I sit, like that industrious flye,
Buzzing thy prayses, which shall never die
Till death abrupts them, and succeeding glory
Bid me goe on in a more lasting story.


This page is maintained at the University of Chicago by James Eason, who welcomes comments, criticism, and suggestions.