Monday, 2 April 2007

Gold of abstruse imagination

Sir Thomas Browne, The Camelot Classics, Ed: Ernest Rhys 1886
Introduction by John Addington Symonds, page xxvix

Sir Thomas Browne's brain was like a crucible for reducing heterogeneous and various experience to the potable gold of abstruse imagination. The world he mostly thought of was the world of his own mind; the material globe he used at times for his recreation. When he affronts Death, his "abject conceit of this common way of existence, this retaining to the sun and elements." The gorgeous tombs and sculptured urns of princes make him exclaim in scorn, that "to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration." When he casts his eyes backward over years gone by, he sighs because "it is too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs." Between the world of facts and the world of dreams he sees no difference, except that perhaps the sleeping is more real than the waking.

"There is an equal delusion in both, and the one doth but seem to be an emblem or picture of the other; we are somewhat more than ourselves in our sleep, and the slumber of the body seems to be but the waking of the soul." In measuring himself, he takes the universe for his standard: "The earth is a point, not only in respect of the heavens above us, but of that heavenly or celestial part within us... That surface that tells the heavens it hath an end, cannot persuade me I have any." Although with obvious sincerity and feeling candour he assures us that he has no taint of pride, yet he stands thus haughtily upon the pedestal of human dignity: "There is surely a piece of divinity in us; something that was before the elements, and owes no homage unto the sun."

We need not wonder why a thinker of this stamp, to whom mystery was as the breath of his intellectual nostrils, and the apprehension of the divine in man and nature as his daily food, should have written: " Now for my life, it is a miracle of thiry years, which, to relate, were not a history , but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common ears like a fable." We need not speculate with Dr. Johnson what there could have been in the young physician's unevenrful career to justify this "solomn assertion." Extremes meet, and Walt Whitman's "ever recurring miracle of the grass" tallies Sir Thomas Browne's enthusiastic comtemplation of his manhood -

"To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every inch of space is a miracle,
Every spear of grass - the frames, limbs, organ, of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles."

This is the utterence of a mind cast in the same mystical, yet sanely realistic, mould as Sir Thomas Browne's. Only Browne retained something of exclusiveness, something derived from the past age of feudalism, a tincture of that humanistic conception of man's worth, which implied contempt for the illiterate vulgar. Browne was emphatically a mental aristocrat; and this perhaps may be transmitted to the reader as the surest key-word to his writngs.

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