From Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (Part 2, section 12 or pg.84 of my single volume Selected Writings from Univ. of Chicago Press):
There is surely a neerer apprehension of any thing that delights us in our dreames than in our waked senses; without this I were unhappy, for my awaked judgement discontents mee, ever whispering unto me, that I am from my friend, but my friendly dreames in the night requite me, and make me thinke I am within his armes. I thanke God for my happy dreames, as I doe for my good rest, for there is a satisfaction in them unto reasonable desires, and such as can be content with a fit of happinesse; and surely it is not a melancholy conceite to thinke we are all asleepe in this world, and that the conceits of this life are as meere dreames to those of the next, as the Phantasmes of the night, to the conceite of the day. There is an equall delusion in both, and the one doth but seeme to bee the embleme or picture of the other; wee are somewhat more than our selves in our sleepes, and the slumber of the body seemes to bee but the waking of the soule. It is the ligation of sense, but the liberty of reason, and our awaking conceptions doe not match the fancies of our sleepes.
I was catching up this afternoon on this year’s In Our Time episodes and finally got to the Sir Thomas Browne hour. One of the panelists, after praising Browne’s densely latinate syntax and flow, reads the below excerpt from Hydriotaphia as an illustration:
But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pity the founder of the Pyramids? Herostratus lives that burnt the Temple of Diana, he is almost lost that built it; Time hath spared the Epitaph of Adrians horse, confounded that of himself. In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equall durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamenon, without the favour of the everlasting Register: Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, then any that stand remembred in the known account of time? the first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuselahs long life had been his only Chronicle.
All the panelists can be heard lighting up with praise and Melvyn Bragg’s response is only “And this was received well?”
Like father like daughter (who resented/hated but unconsciously/unavoidably mirrored much of him). Yesterday was Sir Leslie Stephen on Thomas Browne, today Virginia Woolf from her essay The Elizabethan Lumber Room in The Common Reader:
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.
It is odd she so forgets Montaigne – whom she admires in similar terms elsewhere.
From Sir Leslie Stephen’s essay on Sir Thomas Browne in Hours in a Library (first essay in vol. 2 of my 4 vol. edition – a different one is on Gutenberg):
A mind endowed with an insatiable curiosity as to all things knowable and unknowable; an imagination which tinges with poetical hues the vast accumulation of incoherent facts thus stored in a capacious memory; and a strangely vivid humour that is always detecting the quaintest analogies, and, as it were, striking light from the most unexpected collocations of uncompromising materials: such talents are by themselves enough to provide a man with work for life, and to make all his work delightful. To them, moreover, we must add a disposition absolutely incapable of controversial bitterness; ‘a constitution,’ as he says of himself, ‘so general that it consorts and sympathises with all things;’ an absence of all antipathies to loathsome objects in nature, for all theological systems; an admiration even of our natural enemies, the French, the Spaniards, the Italians, and the Dutch; a love of all climates, of all countries; and, in short, an utter incapacity to ‘absolutely detest or hate any essence except the devil.’ … A man so endowed … is admirably qualified to discover one great secret of human happiness. No man was ever better prepared to keep not only one, but a whole stableful of hobbies, nor more certain to ride them so as to amuse himself, without loss of temper or dignity, and without rude collisions against his neighbours. That happy art is given to few, and thanks to his skill in it, Sir Thomas reminds us strongly of the two illustrious brothers Shandy combined in one person. To the exquisite kindliness and simplicity of Uncle Toby he unites the omnivorous intellectual appetite and the humorous pedantry of the head of the family.