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Sentences like a Funeral Cortège

New Directions has published a new edition of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, or, to use its full title, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk.  Originally published in 1658 in tandem with a work called The Garden of Cyrus or the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered. With Sundry Observations (you won’t learn this from the New Directions volume), Urn Burial was prompted by the discovery of ancient Roman urns buried in a nearby field.  New Directions reprints nearly the whole first chapter of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as a “Preface” to their new edition.

Sebald found in Browne a kindred spirit of a very high order, and when Sebald writes about Browne he seems to be writing about himself as well.  The two writers’ similarities are manifold, from their fascination with nature and mortality to their love of words.  Warranted or not, Sebald seems to have wanted to view Browne as a fellow melancholic.

On every new thing [Sebald writes] there lies already the shadow of annihilation.  For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.  Knowledge of that descent into the dark, for Browne, is inseparable from his belief in the day of resurrection…

Sebald himself seems to have indicated the same hope for resurrection.

Sebald loved Browne’s writing, which can easily be seen as a model for Sebald’s own style.

The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.  In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator.  His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language.  On common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness.  It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation.  The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity.  It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time.  And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness.  What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world.  We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence.

New Directions has released Urn Burial as part of its Pearls series, “favorite ND authors in small format books.”  Each volume comes with an attractive minimalist cover – the early ones all being variations on a rhomboid.  (I confess to being a minimalist freak.)  The Browne volume is supposed to look something like the image below, which I took from New Directions’ website.  Unfortunately, my copy arrived with the yellow already faded to nothingness.  Perhaps appropriately so.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Publishers really need to wise up and publish the 2 Discourses together as was intended by the author. Splitting them up was a trend begun by the Victorians and is an erroneous publishing act which continues.’Urn-Burial’ does not make complete sense unless its counterpart is also read. The unknowingness of the human condition, darkness, death and oblivion of time being ‘answered’ by the scientific certainties, light and life of ‘Cyrus’. Browne makes this quite clear in the intro to ‘Cyrus’ where he explicitly states ‘ that we conjoyn these parts of different subjects, or that this should succeed the other; Your judgment will admit without impute of incongruity’ something Sebald understood well when explained to him. Besides my 1658 edition has the two dedicatory epistles in sequence following each other.

    although Max Sebald had lived in Norwich for several years he had no interest in Browne until ill when he encountered Browne’s skull at the old Norfolk and Norwich hospital. He was a bit of a literary magpie and during the conversations we had he confessed that i was a greater expert of Browne than himself, only I do not have several acclaimed published novels under my belt, nor am I quite the academic artist he was!

    The notion that Browne was a melancholic is also a bit shaky, suggestive that his frequent humour has not been encountered in his works.

    It’s a bit lazy of publishers to lift the few para’s mMx wrote in ‘The Rings of Saturn’ to pass off as an introduction. I am beginning to get tired repeating this information, but that’s not your fault, just the publishers duping everyone from lazy/non-existent research!

    November 25, 2010
    • Kevin, Perhaps it would have been more accurate for me to say that Sebald seems to have wanted Browne to be a fellow melancholic. I have this feeling that Sebald felt that, without the possibility of resurrection, Browne would have been more despairing. I agree with you on the unfortunate separation of the two halves of Browne’s book. I think everyone should seek out the the excellent 1958 Cambridge version of both texts as edited by John Carter.

      November 25, 2010

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