‘Hydriotaphia’ – Thomas Browne

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Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia

Thomas Browne’s
book, Hydriotaphia, was published in 1658. It was inspired
by the discovery of a number of prehistoric burial urns in Norfolk,
and is a long meditation on death, immortality and the afterlife,
and the vanity of mankind: it is a mixture of philosophical, religious
and historical writing.

This passage
is from the fifth and final book of Hydriotaphia.

This might be
a style of writing very different from anything you are used to, but
if you have difficulty with any of the classical words and names,
try looking them up in an encyclopedia or on the internet.

Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia

Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be
content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register
of God, not in the record of man. Twenty seven Names make up the first
story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century.
The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night
of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Equinox?
Every house addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands
one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans
could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest Sunne
sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore
it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our lights
in ashes. Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento’s,
and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity
is a dream and folly of expectation.

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. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows
destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions
induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon
us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant
of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision
in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes,
and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances,
our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions. A great part
of Antiquity contented their hopes of subsistency with a transmigration
of their souls. A good way to continue their memories, while having
the advantage of plurall successions, they could not but act something
remarkable in such variety of beings, and enjoying the fame of their
passed selves, make accumulations of glory unto their last durations.
Others rather then be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing,
were content to recede into the common being, and make one particle
of the publick soul of all things, which was no more then to return
unto their unknown and divine Originall again. Egyptian ingenuity
was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in sweet consistences,
to attend the return of their souls. But all was vanity, feeding the
winde, and folly. The Egyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time
hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become Merchandise,
Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms.

In vain do individuals hope for Immortality, or any
patent from oblivion, in preservations below the Moon: Men have been
deceived even in their flatteries above the Sun, and studied conceits
to perpetuate their names in heaven. The various Cosmography of that
part hath already varied the names of contrived constellations; Nimrod
is lost in Orion, and Osyris in the Dogge-starre. While we look for
incorruption in the heavens, we finde they are but like the Earth;
Durable in their main bodies, alterable in their parts: whereof beside
Comets and new Stars, perspectives begin to tell tales. And the spots
that wander about the Sun, with Phaetons favour, would make clear

There is nothing strictly immortall, but immortality;
whatever hath no beginning may be confident of no end. All others
have a dependent being, and within the reach of destruction, which
is the peculiar of that necessary essence that cannot destroy it self;
And the highest strain of omnipotency to be so powerfully constituted,
as not to suffer even from the power of it self. But the sufficiency
of Christian Immortality frustrates all earthly glory, and the quality
of either state after death, makes a folly of posthumous memory. God
who can only destroy our souls, and hath assured our resurrection,
either of our bodies or names hath directly promised no duration.
Wherein there is so much chance that the boldest Expectants have found
unhappy frustration; and to hold long subsistence, seems but a scape
in oblivion. But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous
in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre,
nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun
within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too
little after death, while men vainly affected precious pyres, and
to burn like Sardanapalus, but the wisedom of funerall Laws found
the folly of prodigall blazes, and reduced undoing fires, unto the
rule of sober obsequies, wherein few could be so mean as not to provide
wood, pitch, a mourner, and an Urne.

Further Reading

Thomas Browne was born in 1605 and died in 1682. He worked as a doctor of medicine as well as writing a number of works with religious and scientific themes. Hydriotaphia was published in 1658.

Other works by Browne explore similar themes in a similar style: The Garden of Cyrus, which was published alongside Hydriotaphia, is an exploration of the appearance of patterns in the natural world, and their significance, and Religio Medici (‘The Religion of a Doctor’) is an attempt to reconcile religious and scientific thought.

This period in English literary history saw the development and flourishing of the essay form, and also an interest in science (known as ‘natural philosophy’). Francis Bacon wrote shortly before Browne, and his Essays are shorter than Browne’s works, but they are considered to be some of the earliest and most innovative English writings in that form. The French writer Montaigne was also very influential at the time. His essays were translated into English by John Florio, and read by Shakespeare, among many others.

If you enjoy Thomas Browne’s writings, you might also enjoy the novels of W.G.Sebald, a German writer who lived and worked in England until his death in 2001. His writing displays an open interest in Browne, and his contemplative, knowledgable writing style is also indebted to Browne’s.