Page images


[Edinburgh Review for 1836.]

THE name of Sir Thomas Browne is one of considerable importance in the history of English literature. His writings made a strong impression in his own time, and they still command, among all who turn for inspiration and delight to our earlier authors, a vivid admiration. Johnson has been his biographer; Coleridge and Hazlitt his critics: but we are yet without any dispassionate estimate of his works; or any clear analysis of the texture and character of his mind. The hard sense of Johnson was not calculated to enter into the visionary and ecstatic enthusiasm of the Knight of Norwich; nor did his critical canons furnish him with an adequate rule whereby to test a philosophy that had nothing of the severity of logic, or a style which did not derive its singular beauties from the methodical correctness of its arrangement, or the regular cadence of its periods. Johnson never once appears to be alive to the poetry of Browne, whether as exhibited in his diction or his thoughts. He never examines, much less accounts for, the startling phenomena of an intellect that reconciled so many extremes-in some things so devout, in others so sceptical. The sturdy rejector of vulgar errors was yet the credulous believer in witchcraft; and the philosopher, who "had of the earth such a minute and exact geographical knowledge, as if he had been by Divine Providence ordained surveyor-general of the

VOL. II.-2


whole terrestrial orb,"* could pause amidst his gravest chapters to notice the old story in Ælian about Æschylus and the eagle, as an argument against the system of Copernicus. Johnson acknowledges Browne to have been a very eminent man; but it is principally to his erudition that the homage is rendered. Of his style the author of Rassalas says, "It strikes, but does not please .. His tropes are harsh, and his combinations uncouth." The Doctor allows that he has "great excellences," as well as "great faults." But what these excellences are, is very unsatisfactorily explained by antitheses applied principally to mere diction; or praises like the following:"His innovations are sometimes pleasing, and his temerities happy." And when the Doctor very sensibly observes that "it is on his own writings that Browne is to depend for the esteem of posterity," we are scarcely prepared for this saving sentence-"of which he will not easily be deprived while learning shall have any reverence among men.' Learning Browne certainly hadlearning vast and varied. But his learning forms a very small part of his claims upon the attention of posterity; and, had he only that merit to depend upon, we suspect that Mr. Wilkin would not have employed nearly twelve years of his life on the present edition of Browne's works, nor ourselves have willingly devoted twelve pages to his memory. A reader even superficially acquainted with Sir Thomas Browne, will be amused to perceive the uneasy pains with which the grave lexicographer endeavours to tame down the wild and eccentric subject upon which he has fallen, to his own level of probable motives and ordinary conduct. He is convinced that the first surreptitious edition of the Religio Medici "was conveyed to the press by a distant hand,"

*Some Minutes for the Life of Sir Thomas Browne. By John Whitefoot, M. A., reprinted in Johnson's Life.

"It is no small disparagement unto baldness, if it be true what is related by Elian concerning Eschylus, whose bald pate was mistaken for a rock, and so was brained by a tortoise which an eagle let fall on it. Some men, critically disposed, would from hence confute the opinion of Copernicus, never conceiving how the motion of the earth below should not wave him from a knock perpendicularly directed from a body in the air above."-Browne's Works, Vol. III. p. 365.

so that the circulation of a false copy might be an excuse for publishing the true; and then gently moralizes upon a fraud which he himself invents, as "inimical to the confidence which makes the happiness of society." Undoubtedly, the stratagem supposed by Johnson has been practised by some authors; but one more egregiously foreign to the majestic self-esteem of Browne, or more contradicted by all internal evidence, could not well have occurred to the ingenuity of conjecture. When, in the spirit of his gorgeous and Platonic mysticism, Browne asserts that "his life has been a miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not history, but a piece of poetry," Johnson can only observe, that “ a man may visit France and Italy, reside at Montpellier and Padua, and at last take his degree at Leyden, without any thing miraculous." He fairly confesses that he believes there is no hope of guessing rightly at the signification of this arrogant boast; and then proceeds himself to guess that it is but the conclusion at which every human being, if he had leisure and disposition to recollect his thoughts and actions, might arrive.

If Johnson, from want of sympathy with the Abstract and the Visionary, gives no satisfactory analysis of Browne as an author and a man, Coleridge and Hazlitt, unfitted for the task by a fault precisely the reverse, do not appear to us to supply the deficiency. Hazlitt him-' self has disposed of the remarks of his eloquent contemporary with concise and summary justice. But when he favours us with his own definitions, it is not Browne criticised, but Browne imitated. Deep calleth unto deep. The Obscure of the author is elucidated by the Unintelligible of the commentator. What can we possibly learn of Browne by being told that "the antipodes are next door neighbours to him, and doomsday is not far off;" "that nature is too little for the grasp of his style—that it is as if his books had dropped from the clouds, or Friar Bacon's head could speak."* If the "romantic prettinesses" of Coleridge had not thrown much light upon the subject, certainly no better success has attended the cloudy metaphors and colossal conceits of Hazlitt.

* Hazlitt's Lectures on Dramatic Literature, p. 293.

We had hoped that an edition professing to contain so complete a collection of the works of so singular an author-an edition which, as already mentioned, occupied the labours of the editor for near twelve years-would have supplied the want of which we complain;-filled up an important gap in historical criticism;--and presented the general reader with a clear and elaborate view of the merits and peculiarities of one, nor the least, of those gigantic writers, who conducted the progress of language and of mind through that memorable interval which, commencing with the solemn and imperial pomp of Bacon, closed with the stern simplicity of Locke. This task has not, however, been included in the designs of the editor. He has attached, indeed, to the biography by Johnson a supplementary memoir, which exhibits great research and care, and furnishes us with some novel information. But what we principally desired is still wanting. We confess we do not very greatly care whether the Christian name of Browne's father-in-law was Sir Ralph or Sir Thomas; nor are we highly interested in the information afforded to the worthy editor by "Augustus Brigstocke, Esq., of Blaenpant, county Cardigan," that "Anne, sixth daughter of Sir Edward Browne (eldest son of Sir Thomas,) had no children.” These, and other matters of genealogical knowledge, furnished to us by the industry of the editor, we think might have been advantageously exchanged for an enlightened criticism of the author's works, and a searching and candid appreciation of his intellectual character; assisted by such evidence as may be collected from his own correspondence, and the testimony of his contemporaries. But to this negative complaint, not of what he has done, but what he has omitted, we confine our animadversions on Mr. Wilkin's execution of his pleasing duty. He has enriched this edition not only with some of Browne's miscellaneous essays hitherto unpublished, but with a mass of interesting and valuable correspondence; and in this he has provided many materials for the task, which too modestly he has declined himself to accomplish.

Thomas Browne, descended from an ancient family in Cheshire, was born in 1605, educated at Winchester and

« PreviousContinue »