Virginia Woolf on Sir Thomas Browne

From "The Elizabethan Lumber Room". The Common Reader (1925)

But the publicity of the stage and the perpetual presence of a second person were hostile to that growing consciousness of one's self, that brooding in solitude over the mysteries of the soul, which, as the years went by, sought expression and found a champion in the sublime genius of Sir Thomas Browne. His immense egotism has paved the way for all psychological novelists, autobiographers, confession-mongers, and dealers in the curious shades of our private life. He it was who first turned from the contacts of men with men to their lonely life within. 'The world that I regard is myself; it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.' All was mystery and darkness as the first explorer walked the catacombs swinging his lanthorn. 'I feel sometimes a hell within myself; Lucifer keeps his court in my breast; Legion is revived in me.' In these solitudes there were no guides and no companions. 'I am in the ark to all the world, and my nearest friends behold me but in a cloud.' The strangest thoughts and imaginings have play with him as he goes about his work, outwardly the most sober of mankind and esteemed the greatest physician in Norwich. He has wished for death. He has doubted all things. What if we are asleep in this world and the conceits of life are as mere dreams? The tavern music, the Ave Mary bell, the broken pot that the workman has dug out of the field — at the sight and sound of them he stops dead, as if transfixed by the astonishing vista that opens before his imagination. 'We carry with us the wonders we seek without us; there is all Africa and her prodigies in us.' A halo of wonder encircles everything that he sees; he turns his light gradually upon the flowers and insects and grasses at his feet so as to disturb nothing in the mysterious processes of their existence. With the same awe, mixed with a sublime complacency, he records the discovery of his own qualities and attainments. He was charitable and brave and averse from nothing. He was full of feeling for others and merciless upon himself. 'For my conversation, it is like the sun's with all men, and with a friendly aspect to good and bad.' He knows six languages, the laws, the customs and policies of several states, the names of all the constellations and most of the plants of his country, and yet, so sweeping is his imagination, so large the horizon in which he sees this little figure walking that 'methinks I do not know so many as when I did but know a hundred, and had scarcely ever simpled further than Cheapside'.

He is the first of the autobiographers. Swooping and soaring at the highest altitudes he stoops suddenly with loving particularity upon the details of his own body. His height was moderate, he tells us, his eyes large and luminous; his skin dark but constantly suffused with blushes. He dressed very plainly. He seldom laughed. He collected coins, kept maggots in boxes, dissected the lungs of frogs, braved the stench of the spermaceti whale, tolerated Jews, had a good word for the deformity of the toad, and combined a scientific and sceptical attitude towards most things with an unfortunate belief in witches. In short, as we say when we cannot help laughing at the oddities of people we admire most, he was a character, and the first to make us feel that the most sublime speculations of the human imagination are issued from a particular man, whom we can love. In the midst of the solemnities of the Urn Burial we smile when he remarks that afflictions induce callosities. The smile broadens to laughter as we mouth out the splendid pomposities, the astonishing conjectures of the Religio Medici. Whatever he writes is stamped with his own idiosyncrasy, and we first became conscious of impurities which hereafter stain literature with so many freakish colours that, however hard we try, make it difficult to be certain whether we are looking at a man or his writing. Now we are in the presence of sublime imagination; now rambling through one of the finest lumber rooms in the world — a chamber stuffed from floor to ceiling with ivory, old iron, broken pots, urns, unicorns' horns, and magic glasses full of emerald lights and blue mystery.


From Woolf's Essay "Sir Thomas Browne", a review of the Golden Cockerel edition of the Works of Sir Thomas Browne, published in Times Literary Supplement (1923)

The 'great revival of interest in the work of Sir Thomas Browne' which the publishers discover would, one might have hoped, have justified a less limited edition and a lower price. But why fly in the face of facts? Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those who do are of the salt of the Earth.

For the desire to read, like all the other desires which distract our unhappy souls, is capable of analysis. It may be for good books, for bad books, or for indifferent books. But it is always despotic in its demands, and when it appears, at whatever hour of day or night, we must rise and slink off at its heels, only allowing ourselves to ask, as we desert the responsibilities and privileges of active life, one very important question — Why? Why, that is, this sudden passion for Pepys or Rimbaud? Why turn the house upside down to discover Macaulay's Life and Letters? Why will nothing do except Beckford's Thoughts on Hunting? Why demand first Disraeli's novels and then Dr Bentley's biography? The answer to all these questions, were they forthcoming, would be valuable, for it is when we are thus beckoned and compelled by the force of a book's character as a whole that the reader is most capable of speaking the truth about it if he has the mind. What then is the desire that makes us turn instinctively to Sir Thomas Browne? It is the desire to be steeped in imagination. But that is only a snapshot outline of a state of mind which , even as we stand fumbling at the bookcase, can be developed a little more clearly. Locked up in Urn Burial there is a quality of imagination which distinguishes it completely from its companions — as chance has it — The Old Wives' Tale and A Man of Property. In them the imagination is always occupying itself with particular facts; in him with universal ideas. Their turn will come when we want to look a little more sharply at the passing moment; his when the passing moment is a vanity and a weariness. Then while most fiction, the nine volumes of M. Proust for example, makes us more aware of ourselves as individuals, Urn Burial is a temple which we can only enter by leaving our muddy boots on the threshold. Here it is all a question not of you and me, or him and her, but of human fate and death, of the immensity of the past, of the strangeness which surrounds us on every side. Here, as in no other English prose except the Bible the reader is not left to read alone in his armchair but is made one of a congregation. But here, too, there is a difference; for while the Bible has a gospel to impart, who can be quite sure what Sir Thomas Browne himself believed? The last chapters of Urn Burial beat up on wings of extraordinary sweep and power, yet towards what goal?

But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. ... Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion snares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us.... The Ægyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms.1

Decidedly that is the voice of a strange preacher, of a man filled with doubts and subtleties and suddenly swept away by surprising imaginations. But it is not for the asperities of dogma that we go to Sir Thomas Browne. The words quoted above will revive the old amazement. It is as if from the street we stepped into a cathedral where the organ goes plunging and soaring and indulging in vast and elephantine gambols of awful yet grotesque sublimity. The sound booms and quivers and dies away. But splendour of sound is only one of his attributes. There is, too, his power of bringing the remote and incongruous astonishingly together. A piece of an old boat is cheek by jowl with the funeral pyre of Patroclus.2 Vast inquiries sweeping in immense circles of ambiguity and doubt are clenched by short sentences rapped out with solemn authority. "Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us."3 The great names of antiquity march in astonishing procession; 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.4 But these dissections are futile enough, and indeed by drawing attention to the technical side of Sir Thomas's art do him some disservice. In books as in people, graces and charms are delightful for the moment but become insipid unless they are felt to be part of some general energy or quality of character. To grasp that is to know them well, but to dally with charms and graces, to appraise them more and more exquisitely, is to be always at the first stage of acquaintance, superficial, polite, and ultimately bored. It is easy to detach the fine passages from their context, but in Urn Burial this character, this quality of the whole, though it expresses itself with all the charm of all the Muses, is yet of a very exalted kind. It is a difficult book to read, it is a book not always to be read with pleasure, and those who get most from it are the well-born souls.

But then, unfortunately, we are not all made entirely of salt. We cannot breathe in these exalted regions for long. We have to admit that we have bodies as well as minds, and the books which cater for both and let one relieve the fatigues of the other are the books that have the longest lease of life. The soul may be exalted in Urn Burial; the body is refreshed in Religio Medici. There we can take our ease and trifle and laugh. There we can indulge in the delicious amusement of feeling, like some psychological spider, from phrase to phrase over the mind and person of Sir Thomas Browne. For the first to talk of himself broaches the subject with immense gusto. I am charitable; I am brave; I am averse from nothing; I am full of feeling for others; I am merciless upon myself; I know six languages, the names of all the constellations, and most of the plants of my country. "For my conversation, it is like the sun's, with all men, and with a friendly aspect to good and bad." ... We smile in the midst of the solemnities of Urn Burial when he remarks, "Afflictions induce callosities". The smile broadens to laughter as we mouth out the splendid pomposities, the astonishing conjectures, of Religio Medici. Yet it is from the crest of some grotesque flight of fancy that he launches himself upon one of those sentences which yawn like a chasm cut in the earth at our feet. "We carry with us the wonders we seek without us: there is all Africa and her prodigies in us."5 For the imagination which has gone such strange journeys among the dead is still exalted when it swings its lantern over the obscurities of the soul. He is in the dark to all the world; he has longed for death; there is a hell within him; who knows whether we may not be asleep in this world, and the conceits of life be but dreams? Steeped in such glooms, his imagination falls with a peculiar tenderness upon the common facts of human life. He turns it gradually upon the flowers and insects and grasses at his feet, so as to disturb nothing in the mysterious processes of their existence. There is a halo of wonder round everything that he sees. He that considers the thicket in the head of a teazle "in the house of the solitary maggot may find the Seraglio of Solomon".6 The tavern music, the Ave Mary bell, the broken urn that the workman has dug out of the field plunge him into the depths of wonder and lead him, as he stands fixed in amazement, to extraordinary flights of speculation as to what we are, where we go, and the meaning of all things. To read Sir Thomas Browne again is always to be filled with astonishment, to remember the surprises, the despondencies, the unlimited curiosities of youth.


1 From Hydriotaphia V, greatly abridged (and modernized in the original essay).

2 Ibid. III.

3 Ibid. V.

4 Although you would not necessarily guess it since the work isn't mentioned by name these sentences refer to The Garden of Cyrus, a work whose construction is an absolute marvel on every level. In particular, read Chapter III, the heart of the quincunx. The ghosts of roses are mentioned in Chapter V, where Browne closes up the work and ties it to Hydriotaphia. My own feeling is that Cyrus-Garden may well be the best of Browne's works, especially if read alongside its companion, but it is certainly the most difficult of his works, difficult both to read and to talk about. There is no way to extract morsels that give anything of the feeling of the work; as pretty as they may be, their real meaning depends on their attachment to their neighbours. In that, Cyrus-Garden is one of the most, if not the most, self-referential works of literature and perhaps of any art.

5 Religio Medici part I, section 15, recalling the famous statement of Pliny the Elder concerning the marvels of Africa.

6 Cyrus-Garden chapter III, to which a Browne manuscript adds the note "From there being a single Maggot found almost in every head."


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