A very astute reader of Sebald’s work sent me an email recently noting that the final sentence of The Rings of Saturn (1995) bears a striking resemblance to the final sentence of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s book Still Life with Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993). What’s up with this, we both wondered?
And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, so that the soul, as if left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.
Here’s Herbert. describing how a family prepares for the departure of the soul of a recently deceased Dutch merchant in the seventeenth century:
Then they would cover all the mirrors in the house, and turn all the pictures to the walls so the image of a girl writing a letter, of ships in open sea, of peasants dancing under a tall oak, would not stop the one who wanders toward unimaginable worlds from going on his way.