Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900 01-01-2002
Hydriotaphia, "The sensible rhetorick of the dead
Byline: Kitzes, Adam H
Publication Date: 01-01-2002
In Philosophy where truth seemes double-faced, there is no man more paradoxicall then my self; but in Divinity I love to keepe the road, and though not in an implicite, yet an humble faith, follow the great wheele of the Church, by which I move, not reserving any proper poles or motion from the epicycle of my own braine.
I love to lose my selfe in a mystery to pursue my reason to an oh altitudo. Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved aenigma's and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurrection.
Thomas Browne's published works are no "well-wrought urns." They are more like the urns he writes about with such interest in Hydriotaphia (1658): subject to corruption, hard to pin down, and seemingly animated by some spectral agent that carries them along an undetermined trajectory. Or perhaps they are closer to the Sphinx-another of Browne's favorite figures-in that they mumble something to us, but what that is nobody can fully make out. He did not always prefer things this way, however. The Epistle to the Reader in Religio Medici suggests that he published his text in order to undo the corruption that his writing had already suffered: "This I confesse about seven yeares past, with some others of affinitie thereto, for my private exercise and satisfaction, I had at leisurable houres composed; which being communicated unto one, it became common unto many, and was by transcription successively corrupted untill it arrived in a most depraved copy at the presse. 112 Nor is his writing entirely inscrutable; far from it, in fact. But to the extent that it does make sense, it verifies a principle at which he ultimately arrives: any act of communication tends to mean what it says less and less over time.
Just what is the relation between this process of decay in language and the paradoxical statements Browne is known to have been so fond of composing? In this essay, I address this question by arguing that, over time, Browne came to regard them as two aspects of a single problem. I also hold that in Hydriotaphia, Browne's attitude toward paradox went through substantial revision-substantial enough to produce real changes in his public persona. His notion of paradox evolves from a rhetorical technique that performatively demonstrates the major precepts of his arguments about reason and nature (as we see it in Religio Medic, to the presence of irresolvable contradictions that lie at the basis of any society united by language. The discovery Browne makes in the Hydriotaphia is that every society is subject to corruption and ruin, not from an external cause but from the material that constitutes it in the first place.
Thus, while Religio Medici may be the most personally revealing testimony Browne gives about his writing, it only tells part of the story. The passages cited at the beginning of this essay characterize Browne's early attitude toward his own writing and thought. Both demonstrate his skepticism about human reasoninevitably, our most basic principles of argument and reason give way to an abyss of complications.3 This is developed further in sections 13-6, where he implies that even the principle that the universe corresponds to a reasonable order can only be taken on faith. He assures us, "Natura nihil agit frustra, is the onely indisputable axiome in Philosophy," without demonstrating the truth of it-a crucial distinction, since the true and the axiomatic are never the same things.4 Instead, he merely asserts it, and the axiom may turn out to be no more than a conventional statement that natural philosophers need to agree upon. Even when he compares God to an excellent artist, he tempers it with conditional phrases: "Now this course of Nature God seldome alters or perverts, but like an excellent Artist hath so contrived his worke, that with the selfe same instrument, without a new creation hee may effect his obscurest designes."? Browne's God is hardly the transcendent clockmaker who steps outside the universe after setting it in motion. Rather, this is a God who may occasionally intervene to touch things up. And how often-seldom? When? How do we know?
Under these circumstances, human reason can only posit but never fully comprehend the order that governs the natural world and that is taken as the expression of God's (artistic) genius. To take his own metaphor from section 16, we can read natural objects as God's hieroglyphics, but we do not necessarily understand what they say.6 Given these conditions, the best recourse would be to accept the authority of already established religious institutions. If human reason can never fully represent the order of the world, the conventional order of the church can provide a reasonable substitute. As he says in section 3 about his sympathy for pilgrims and friars, "for though misplaced in circumstance, there is something in it of devotion."' While their expression may not be correct, their intention is honorable and more or less acceptable given the alternatives.
In Hydriotaphia, where Browne focuses on human ceremonies directly, he pushes this conclusion to an "oh altitudo" of its own. As he understands it there, the very faculty of reason itself stems from the fictional apprehension of a world that resists such an apprehension all along. The fact that we have rational or systematic thought turns out to be based on a verum-factum principle-there is truth because it has been made; without giving shape to the world, without building it, there is no possibility of discussing it in terms of reason. This is nothing like the contemplative attitude he had taken in the Religio Medici, where he suggested that when we say that there is a world, we merely recognize and appreciate an artistic order that precedes us and exists so that we may contemplate it.8 In Hydriotaphia, if a world may be said to exist, it is only because we have the capacity to say "This is the world." No longer is there any assurance that our description of it constitutes some mimetic re-presentation of a pregiven order; if there is any appearance of order in the world, it literally has been dug up from the ground. Thus, when he asserts that "All customes were founded upon some bottome of Reason, so there wanted not grounds for this," we ought to be more than a little suspicious of what he is trying to get across.9 In Hydriotaphia, the bottom of reason is no longer reason itself, but something that has more to do with aesthetics.
In order to explain this idea further it will be helpful to explore how Browne understood the creation of artificial products, specifically funerary urns. Indeed, if Hydriotaphia merits further consideration, it is precisely because in it Browne foregrounds questions about the production of what might be called the rhetorical artifact, and by studying the human-made object he is able to address what compels a society to fashion the world the way it does. What interests Browne about the urns is that their production also is the production of artifacts as rhetorical objects. It is not just that human beings build urns, it is that by building them they create meaningful objects capable of delivering certain messages. But the urns' effectiveness is limited, if not altogether short circuited, by the stages that precede their actual production. Strictly speaking, they are not products of reason. They are the products of preliminary ideas that lie wholly outside of reason, and they are composed of material that never quite does what reason expects of it. Thus Hydriotaphia also discusses the breakdown of their capacity to function as rhetorical objects. Like the earthy substance from which the urns are composed, this capacity too is subject to decay.
Browne's interest in the decay of communication is present from the outset. As early as the dedicatory epistle, he treats the urns as disruptive agents and questions the extent to which they are readable. The immediate occasion for Hydriotaphia is the discovery of forty or fifty urns in a field at Old Walshingham. Right away, Browne wants to treat them as speaking vessels, contrasting them to the great Roman Hippodrome urns, and noting their sad, sepulchral voices-it is almost as though they have addressed him directly and that his essay is a response to their summons. At the very least, as remnants of human artistry, they ought to be saying something.
At the same time though, the urns bear a resemblance to certain statements so violently torn from their original context that, while one may be able to determine what they say, one remains at a loss as to what they might mean. He acknowledges that they have intruded unexpectedly from what he had assumed to be their proper domain. 10 It is this sense of surprise that inspires Browne's essay as much as anything else. As he makes clear, what prompts a response from him is the fact that they have surfaced for at least a second time: "We are coldly drawn unto discourses of Antiquities, who have scarce time before us to comprehend new things, or make out learned Novelties. But seeing they arose as they lay, almost in silence among us, at least in short account suddenly passed over; we were very unwilling they should die again, and be buried twice among us."I They are not significant as historical artifacts, but as testimonies to a kind of repetitiveness in history.
Still, even if they stand for repetition within history, it is a repetition that paradoxically remains unpredictable and erratic. The past intrudes upon him in a way that breaks down our experience of temporality as a well-ordered process. As he makes clear in the opening two paragraphs of his introductory epistle, the course of human events is governed by the unexpected: "But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or whether they are to be scattered? The Reliques of many lie like the ruines of Pompeys, in all parts of the earth; And when they arrive at your hands, these may seem to have wandered far, who in a direct and Meridian Travell, have but few miles of known Earth between your self and the Pole."12 Unlike the historical narrative he had mapped out in his earlier writings, which posited that the world would only last six thousand years, the urns represent a narrative in which events may recur in a peculiarly irregular, perhaps random order.
The implication is that the urns communicate by means of paradox. As the epistle suggests, what makes the urns fascinating is that their double lives refer to at least two historical contexts. While Browne maintains that they do have expressive value, the statements they make are multiple: "We cannot but with these Urnes might have the effect of Theatrical vessels, and great Hippodrome Urnes in Rome; to resound the acclamations and honour due unto you. But these are sad and sepulchral Pitchers, which have no joyful voices; silently expressing old mortality, the ruines of forgotten times, and can only speak with life, how long in this corruptible frame, some parts may be uncorrupted; yet able to out-last bones long unborn, and noblest pyle among us."13 For all his interest in mute voices that speak without being heard, the rest is hardly silence. If anything, it is chatter. Significantly though, what results from this pluralization of "voices" is not only a series of competing discourses about their significance, but also their decay. By conveying not forgotten times, but "The ruines of forgotten times," Browne suggests that in fact the urns are not miraculous vessels that can resurrect the past itself. If the historical object harbors several voices at once, none of what they express ever is wholly decipherable. 14 The fact that they have partially survived the relentless process of corruption only adds to the sense of alienation he feels when confronting their more obscure aspects. For Browne, the urns seem to have an emblematic significance, but that significance turns out to be none other than their inability to function properly as emblems of anything.
Browne makes a similar point in Fragment on Mummies, a text that serves in some ways as a companion piece to Hydriotaphia. The fragment is largely concerned with the difficulty of understanding historical remains. As he suggests, this difficulty arises not because they have been destroyed, but because just enough of them have survived to convey some sense after all. We falter at historical understanding not because the past is wholly nonsensical, but because it does make sense, albeit only in part; while we can comprehend its remnants in part, we have no way of knowing what else lies beyond our grasp. The image of limited familiarity and communicability is underscored by a second image of Time and his sister Oblivion, who sit on the Sphinx and the pyramid, and who stand for the fundamental inaccessibility of the ancient civilization for moderns. The Sphinx prompts Browne to describe a different kind of conversation in the final section, one marked by extreme confusion, and which attributes our sense of history not to memory, but to oblivion itself: "History sinketh beneath her cloud. The traveller as he paceth amazedly through those deserts asketh of her, who buildeth them? and she mumbleth something, but what it is he heareth not."15 For Browne, history, like the bodies and clay pots he writes about in Hydriotaphia, is decomposition. Any aspect of familiarity is tainted by a radical alterity, an effect that makes the apparently familiar all the more deceptive in the end.
This paradox ultimately matters because the other side of Browne's project in Hydriotaphia is to discuss the formation of communities by speculating on the public functions the urns held for the people who built them. The living and dying engage in a number of discursive exchanges with one another, and a great deal of his essay is an elaboration on how these took place. His frequent emphasis on the element of spectacle in several funeral rituals indicates that he recognized a connection between them and other kinds of theatrical performance. This is most explicit in the case of the Indian Brahmin who burned himself alive in Athens and declared "In his last words upon the pyre unto the amazed spectators, Thus I make my se!fe Immortal"16 The Brahmin calls out to the audience with all the awareness that he is being scrutinized by them, almost as though he wanted nothing less than to stage death itself. But the account only makes clearer a theme that can be detected among all the stories that Browne touches upon, namely that death is a scene. While the dying priest throws himself into the fire of immortality, the living convert the event into a performance done for their own benefitor rather, illumination.
Similarly, the purpose behind burial is not to place everything so deep that it cannot be discovered. Unlike "the truth" that lies behind the intellectual obscurities that so fascinate Browne himself, the corpse is placed in such a way that it will show itself, at least every now and again. It very much functions as a public record, and in this sense, the urns, like the stage shows that accompany funeral events, work as a kind of letter to posterity: "Even such as hope to rise again, would not be content with centrall interrment, or so desperately to place their reliques as to lie beyond discovery, and in no way to be seen again; which happy contrivance hath made communication with our forefathers, and left unto our view some parts, which they never beheld themselves." 17 The point to burial is never to dispose of the corpse for eternity, but just the opposite. The body is laid to rest precisely in order to ensure that it will continue to communicate, whether by happy contrivance (as is the case with the Norfolk urns) or a more deliberate method.
In fact, what is most significant about the urns is that they form the basis for a system of symbolization within the culture that produces them. If Browne has been only marginally concerned with the Norfolk urns themselves, he nevertheless is absorbed by their capacity to figure forth. This process of figuration works on several levels. In the opening lines of chapter 2, he alludes in passing to the "Solemnities, Ceremonies, Rites of their Cremation," an indication that the dead are inscribed within a network of symbolic signification. 18 Equally important though, Browne notes that through the activity of producing the urns, or burying the dead, nations involve themselves in the production of figures. As he indicates when describing the differences among the vessels (in the same passage): "Not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described."19 The urns function as figurative representations of the nations that produced them; their presence serves as testimony to the society that has placed them there-although this is not least because so many nations also store other records of their world alongside them. Again, in chapter 2, he discusses the way nations combined such things as combs, plates, and musical instruments with their urns, as though constructing a microcosmic rendition of their culture, and he concludes that "Now that they accustomed to burn or bury with them, things wherein they excelled, delighted, or which were dear unto them, either as farewells unto all pleasure, or vain apprehension that they might use them in the other world, is testified by all Antiquity."zo
All this interest in urns as figures occurs, to be sure, with an eye on the living and their own needs, as much as on the dead and theirs. Toward the end of chapter 3, after an extended meditation on the various uses that the living have for their ancestors' remains, Browne describes the Roman practice of erecting monuments by the main roads. Their function is to serve as "Memorials of themselves, and memento's of mortality into living passengers. . . The sensible Rhetorick of the dead, to exemplarity of good-life, first (my emphasis) admitted the bones of pious men, and Martyrs within Church-wals; which in succeeding ages crept into promiscuous practise."21 Even our material substance can function on a didactic level. Again, we sense that what is of greatest importance is not what they were examples for but the fact that they could have been used as examples at all, as though these ancient activities were close to the origin of the very practice of exemplification, a device that Browne himself very much relies on in his own essay. If he seems to borrow a great deal of terminology from the fields of rhetoric and poetics to describe these various customs, it is because he recognized that the emergence of the two practices somehow went hand in hand with the different methods of burying the dead.
As it turns out then, there are two elements that characterize the human attitude toward death. These are the capacity to recognize in advance a relation to death that is neither directly experienced nor entirely false, and the capacity to fashion the material world into an object that represents that first recognition, and that explains ourselves to ourselves. Incidentally, one can explain the difference between human beings and other animals, such as the ants and bees that he considers at the end of chapter 1, by noting that it is only the former which possess hands capable of building machines that can represent death. The difference then does not consist in the ceremonial element of death (which may turn out to be a function of certain biological features), but in the ability to produce objects that convey another level of significance to this seemingly more primary activity.
In this regard, we can observe that the manufacture of urns amounts to an early form of craftsmanship that even animals who seem to mourn for their dead do not produce, and Browne takes great pains to emphasize it as the activity that defines human beings as such. It is enough to note on a strictly lexical level the number of times he points out that the graves were made, contrived, or developed according to a particular mode, throughout the section where he discusses various nations' funerary customs. On its own this seems like a superfluous detail to note even once. However, Browne points it out several times for a particular reason: the ability to manufacture, to radically reshape the earth as it is originally given, becomes the faculty that defines humanity as such.
This defining element of humanity can also be understood as a poetic faculty. That is to say, it needs to be understood as poiesis, although in a much more radical sense than the one in which Sir Philip Sidney had used the term in the Apology for Poetry. Whereas for Sidney, poetry is considered essentially as a linguistic matter that derives from the Greek term for making things, Browne emphasizes that any human-made object can be used in a process of figuration, whether the object is linguistic or not. However, while an aspect of figuring forth may be extended to all modes of human production, there remains an element of contingency to it. If the craftspeople in Browne's study can be understood as poets, they deliver neither a golden world, nor even a brazen onetheirs is definitely a world of earth. Human artistry at its original state in no way corresponds to the artistry of God, as Browne had given it in Religio Medici. While God, understood as artist, produces a world he has already planned in advance-and planned reasonably-the human simply produces. An object brought forth by technical means may transform the space one lives in, and it may help that space to correspond more closely to the needs of the producer-but none of this is to say that it explains the world as an ordered creation. This would partly account for such profound differences in the funeral ceremonies across different nations. They share a sense of arbitrariness that reminds an observer that any one set of conventions could just as well be otherwise.
In the absence of reason, manufacturing is conditioned by the imagination. The production of urns corresponds to an already imagined relation between life and the source of life. Because of the role imagination plays, Browne can account for the use or avoidance of cremation among nations by discussing the place that fire held within various systems of thought: "The Chaldeans the great Idolators of fire, abhorred the burning of their carcasses, as a pollution of that Deity"; "The Aegyptians were afraid of fire, not as a Deity, but a devouring Element, mercilessly consuming their bodies, and leaving too little of them"; "The Scythians who swore by winde and sword, that is, by life and death, were so farre from burning their bodies, that they declined all internment and made their graves in the ayr."22 As these moments suggest, the motivation for various customs consists of primary beliefs that can be asserted, but not necessarily explained-again, not reason, but "some bottome of Reason." Without these first principles, the funeral ceremonies would not be able to exist. But even with them, the ceremonies still are far from apprehending the truth about the origins of life.
However, it is difficult to say which event precedes the other: an image of an afterworld that demands some response in the form of burial and ritual or the mere occurrence of production that demands some sort of narrative to account for it. It is at this point where Browne's consideration of the urns arrives at a certain limit. On the one hand, he accepts more or less on its own terms the notion that both the monument and the ceremony can function within a community as a rhetoric of exemplarity-the corpse can stand for a larger precept. Hence, in his analysis of the apparent folly in various ceremonies, he repeatedly identifies figures that serve a didactic end: "That they kindled the pyre aversly, or turning their face from it, was an handsome Symbole of unwilling ministration," and further, "Christians which deck their Coffins with Bays have found a more elegant Embleme. For that he seeming dead, will restore it self from the root, and its dry and exuccous leaves resume their verdure again; which if we mistake not, we have also observed in fures."23 The function of the urns is thus twofold: systematically to inscribe the individual corpse within the community's network of rules and regulations, and to maintain a certain continuity among the various members of the community itself, wherein any one member can identify with a larger group by virtue of this customary bond. On the other hand, the superstition and folly that rest at the foundation is not something Browne expects us to take lightly. As he points out repeatedly, the foundation for the symbolic function is itself dependent upon an imaginative apprehension of death-or rather, an apprehension of the unapprehensible. As he writes toward the end of chapter 4, "But all or most apprehensions rested in Opinions of some future being, which ignorantly or coldly beleeved, begat those perverted conceptions, Ceremonies, Sayings, which Christians pity or laugh at."24 This constitutes one of the more profound contradictions central to the formation of civil societies, as their very structure is grounded on a concept that can only be misrepresented.
As it turns out, the verse poets-he mentions Dante and Homer by name, and perhaps one could even add Socrates to this list-provide the most necessary service. While he does not claim to accept their writings as truth and even goes so far as to question the reasons behind their portraits of the afterworld, he also realizes that they convey an image of death that lies beyond the opposition of true and false. In fact, this very attempt at depicting the afterworld repeats what occurs at the moment when the nation is founded: "Nor were only many customes questionable in order to their Obsequies, but also sundry practices, fictions, and conceptions, discordant or obscure, of their state and future beings."25 What exactly is fiction in this case, and what does it have to do with the constant oscillation between reason and superstition that hitherto has been dominant in the work? Why does he bring the term into play? While he does use it just before turning to the poets' conceptions of the afterworld, he nevertheless suggests something more profound than a mere oral or textual narrative.
Instead, fiction implies a perceptual relation to the world that demands the production not only of discursive narratives, but also of mechanical products that would serve as props. What marks the human condition is an awareness of a void that is at once both unforgettable and unknowable-and which we depend upon for life itself, but cannot enter without extinguishing ourselves. The void created by the thought of death operates in a manner similar to the images of fire that occur at the beginning of the treatise, offering us the image of truth that we can behold, even if we can never fully grasp it. Fiction is the condition predicated on the need to explain, or account for ourselves, to ourselves. But even before the explaining starts, the production of fiction has already occurred, to the extent that physical objects are already being built. Put in more graphic terms, it is the recognition of this void space within ourselves that demands some sort of filling in, covering up, or burying. While the act of building urns as figures may represent a desire to fill this void, we end up missing it all the same. Thus Browne identifies the manufacture of urns, and the production of the community that accompanies that process, as the response to a primary fiction. In this sense though, reason never fully separates itself from fiction, since it is fiction itself that serves as the injunction to provide ourselves with reason.
Browne's list of vain follies and superstitious customs, therefore, is not simply an entertaining digression but the study of a process that he perceives as basic to the formation of cultures. By attempting to ascribe a certain value or meaning to their existence, cultures appropriate the material world for personal ends. In the same gesture of appropriation, however, there emerges a disproportion between matter in its originally given state and the figurative value it receives. To put it another way, the natural material is put to a use that exceeds its original function, and while the handmade object receives a figurative meaning, it is an entirely questionable meaning. The moment the corpse obtains a cultural significance by being placed in an urn, it begins to communicate, even to take on the characteristics of a theatrical vessel, as Browne suggests in the opening epistle; however, it does so with a "voice" that is not its own but the ventriloquized voice of those who fashioned it.
At first glance, this disjunction between the object and its cultural value only seems to matter to Browne in cases where the body clearly has been violated. He clearly is disturbed by more perverse activities-activities that convert the bodies into profane instruments. Toward the end of chapter 3 he complains: "To be knav'd out of our graves, to have our sculs made drinkingbowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials."26 The premise is shocking. By turning the skull into the drinking bowl, or the body into soap, one confers a sense of usefulness onto the corpse that neglects the human being's formerly transcendent value.27 In a slightly different sense, one confers a false value when using the body as a symbol within an exchange system, an appropriation which can only be described as an act of violence. In the last chapter, he laments, "Mummie is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms,"28 and in the Fragment on Mummies he gives a fuller and far more acerbic description of the process: "But the common opinion of the virtues of mummy bred great consumption thereof, and princes and great men contended for this strange panacea, wherein Jews dealt largely, manufacturing mummies from dead carcasses, and giving them the names of kings, while specifics were compounded from crosses and gibbet leavings. There wanted not a set of Artificers who counterfeited mummies so accurately, that it needed great skill to distinguish the false from the true."29 The mummy fragments-counterfeit mummy fragments at that-instill a false symbolic value not once but at least twice, if not more.
Still, it is never clear that Browne resolves, or even feels he can resolve, the radical discrepancy between the actual value of the substantial material and its so-called figurative worth within the sphere of human commerce, even when he turns to supposedly more sound instances. These instances turn out to be more sinister than one might have suspected. Certainly, when he discusses the rhetorical function of the virtuous Roman citizen, he confronts this problem, as that body also takes on a function for which it had not been designed and thus undergoes a violation. He returns to it just as emphatically when he describes the Christian emblems, which he does right in the midst of his analysis of the folly and superstition governing human customs. Indeed, he seems to have this problem in mind when he tries to explain "How the bulk of a man should sink into so few pounds of bones and ashes. 30 While he observes that fire can consume all but the lightest of material, the remark draws attention to a radical discrepancy between ourselves and the stuff of which we are composed. In the end, Browne never does resolve the tension between the human tendency to manufacture the useful object and the equally human tendency to convert the once living body into supposedly useful objects as well. It is a disturbing predicament, since an object usually does come alive insofar as it can convey meaning to someone. But by turning corpses into figurative objects and/or instruments, and by ascribing a value onto them, instead we convert them into things that may be characterized by any number of terms-useful, functional, limited, finite, dead.
In the middle of chapter 3, Browne asserts that "The commerce of the living is not to be trrnsferred [sic] unto the dead."3" The immediate context for the remark is a reaction to individuals who plunder graves in order to steal valuables that had been buried alongside the corpse, and who find the most civilized forms of rhetoric to justify their barbarism. We no longer should bury gold coins with the body, as they tend to linger in the earth rather than travel to any world beyond. More important though, the remark appears more or less at the midpoint of the essay, and as the work unfolds the line becomes a thematic center as well: do not incorporate the dead within the enterprises of the living, as it amounts to an abuse of figuration. For once the body is subjected to this process of instrumentation, nothing can be said to remain outside it.
This last concern is crucial, since it indicates a certain desire on his part to retrieve an aspect of the individual human that could remain by definition inalienable-if indeed such a retrieval were possible and not a vain desire that only emerges after it is too late to do anything about it. For after all, even simply to identify the corpse as corpse-to say, as it were, "This is a corpse"-is already to impose a figurative meaning upon it. Even the most benign gesture becomes a violation of the body in the name of a fictional public order. By this consideration I mean to suggest that within Hydriotaphia Browne meant to cast doubt over his own beliefs about the legitimacy of any sort of ceremony as the grounds for a public order. In the remainder of this essay, I would like to discuss how this doubt manifested itself
Browne's political conservatism has been accepted as an established fact. Religio Medici makes clear that in the face of crisis he preferred the traditional authority and ceremonies of the Church of England.32 Critics also have suggested that his writing may have been engaged with political conflicts after all. He challenges the belief in the imminence of the apocalypse-although he bases his concluding remarks about the uselessness of mausoleums upon this belief, he advises that the event will not occur for some time.33 This has been read as a response to more radical positions, such as those of the Fifth Monarchists. Likewise, at some point in his life his fascination with funeral ceremonies probably indicated an opposition to the Puritan rejection of ceremonies, implying that the Interregnum's policy was in some way "abnormal." Achsah Guibbory argues that Browne's emphasis on ceremony contained an oblique attack on the parliamentary prohibitions of funeral rituals. She notes that "to have no rites at all would place humans beneath the animals. The discovered urns remind us of the universality of burial ceremonies, this `universal truth' making it evident that the Puritan abolition of burial rites radically disrupts and violates human practices that go all the way back to the earliest recorded antiquity."34 Nevertheless, she concedes that for Browne this is not enough for him to overlook their "vain, carnal, and ineffective" nature.35 While writing Hydriotaphia, however, Browne seems to have revised his position on both of these matters.
By 1658, Browne seems to have suspended his belief that an eschatological event would ever arrive-such a belief imposes a narrative upon the course of world events that no longer could be sustained except provisionally. Even his contention that the world would end by the year 2000 may have looked like wishful thinking. As Christopher Hill points out, while people did continue to anticipate the apocalypse during the Interregnum and Restoration, the belief was not as widespread as it had been before the Civil War, and its credibility was diminishing. By the Restoration, apocalyptic prophets and enthusiasts largely were being written off as delusional, or afflicted with melancholy.36 To be sure, Browne does refer to the end of the world in Hydriotaphia, as he had done in Religio Medici, and the reference is usually taken to mean that Browne saw the apocalypse as an inevitable event. But in the very language with which he expresses the argument, he suggests certain misgivings about the truth of it: "But in this latter Scene of time we cannot expect such Mummies unto our memories, when ambition may fear the Prophecy of Elias (That the world may last but six thousand years), and Charles the fifth can never hope to live within two Methusela's of Hector. "37 This is hardly unconditional affirmation of Elijah's prophecy, but a gesture of ironic separation. Browne does not indicate whether the phrase "latter Scene of time" should invoke the idea that we are in the final stages of a single, universal performance, or simply one more scene among a seemingly endless series. In the account, it is ambition, rather than Browne himself (who incidentally considered himself an opponent of ambition), that fears Elijah's prophecy. By the same token, ambition feels only fear, not certainty, as if to suggest no more than a nagging sense of doubt. The world may last but six thousand years-then again, it may not. Browne does not refuse the prophecy altogether, and he warns that complete rejection of an afterworld is "The heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man."38 Instead, he examines it as one more vain belief to be added to the list that he had documented earlier. When he proclaims "Happy are they, which live not in that disadvantage of time, when men could say little for futurity, but from reason," it is apparent that he does not include himself within that group.39
The admonition not to build memorials for the dead does not necessarily indicate a preparation for the end of the world then, and in fact the work ends on a very different note, namely a refusal to participate in the rhetoric of burial that he had been analyzing throughout. While Browne had once represented his own publication of Religio Medici as an attempt to save his text (and hence his public persona) from ruin, his writing after Hydriotaphia suggests nothing of the sort. Browne does not offer much commentary on the Restoration, and specifically he does not comment on their ceremonies of execution. During his later years, his writing indicates a desire for increased separation from the political sphere. The final paragraphs of the Hydriotaphia already indicate that he would prefer a life of privacy to one of active participation in public affairs. The work ends by asserting the virtues of private life, reminiscent of a passage from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy which describes "Those excellent Philosophers . . . [who] sequester themselves from the tumultuous world . . . that they might better serve God & follow their studies."40 As Browne's own final beatitude makes clear, "Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who deal so with men in this world, that they are not afraid to meet them in the next, who when they dye, make no commotion among the dead, and are not toucht with that poeticall taunt of Isaiah."41 The difference is that he does end up advancing a manner of living, but one which refuses the world of politics and its culture of death. I do not mean to suggest that Browne completely isolated himself from all civic affairs or from contact with the rest of the world, which is not the case. He accepted a knighthood from Charles II, and as a replacement for somebody else, no less.42 These things aside, he seems to have become more concerned with his domestic affairs and professional work than anything else, ceasing to publish-perhaps refusing to write any more "literary" works for the public eye.
The move is significant since the Restoration government did occasionally make recourse to death as public spectacle. The leaders of the Restoration did not hesitate to make an example out of several leaders of the revolt. Ronald Hutton describes the punishments for several regicides, following the Convention of 1660: "The most important of these men were Cromwell himself, Henry Ireton, who had led the army into Pride's Purge, and John Bradshaw, the President of the regicide court. The Convention resolved to mark the twelfth anniversary of the regicide by having them taken from their tombs in Westminster Abbey and hanged in their shrouds, before their skulls were impaled in Westminster Hall beside some of the trophies of October."43 He continues, noting that the bodies were put on display at Tyburn where they became a kind of entertainment and object of sport. To be sure, Browne did not have the gift of foresight-when he wrote Hydriotaphia, he could not have known that the monarchy would return, much less that it would treat a select number of its enemies with such contempt. The connection is strictly coincidental, but it is an uncanny coincidence all the same. Perhaps that is what makes their faint resemblance to Browne's admonitions in chapter 3 so disturbing after all is said and done.
Browne clearly has civil war on his mind as he writes his epitaph: 'Tabesne cadavera solvat / An rogus haud refert."14 The lines from Lucan's Pharsalia, which serve as the treatise's epitaph, are hardly a reference to the hackneyed belief that omnia vincit mors; they refer to the imperial army's massacre of the republican forces, a massacre so devastating that Lucan writes these lines as an expression of despair. It is difficult not to make a connection between these lines, which seem to capture the failure of political opposition to lead to anything but mass destruction, and the civil war that Browne himself had lived through. If this is the case, then the political significance of Hydriotaphia becomes a bit more clear: by the end, it serves as an indictment of political struggle in favor of the solitary life, a gesture which is often considered to be a sign of the failure of the polis and the faith in rhetoric that the polis is supposed to engender. If Browne's analysis of rhetoric in the Hydriotaphia is correct, then retreat would have to come across as the only possible recourse. And by placing distance between himself and the affairs of his day, by placing himself beyond the conventions and opinions of his society, Browne did his best to live the final years of his life as much as he could in accordance with the position he loved best-para doxon.
I would like to thank Heather Dubrow for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this essay.
I Epigraphs are from Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (Menston UK: Scolar Press, 1970), pp. 11, 17.
2 Browne, Religio Media sig. Av.
3 See Rosalie L. Colie's Paradoxia Epidemics: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966). Coke's book is less concerned with Browne's writings than the title suggests; nevertheless, her work lays out many problems of interpretation that pertain to him.
Browne, Religio Media p. 30. Browne, Religio Media p. 33. Browne, Religio Media p. 32. Browne, Religio Medici pp. 5-6. Browne, Religio Media p. 27.
9 Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or A Briefe Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk, The English Replicas (New York: Payson and Clarke, 1927), p. 5.
10 Browne, Hydriotaphia, sig. A3. " Ibid.
12 Browne, Hydriotaphia, sig. A2-A2v. 13 Browne, Hydriotaphia, si . A2v.
14 It is hardly an accident that he wavers when trying to identify the people who had created the Norfolk urns. Browne encounters this problem in various other cases as well, and the effect can be irresistibly funny: '[T]o what Nation or person belonged that large Urne found at Ashburie (Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 29).
15 Browne, Fragment on Mummies, in The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Browne. ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 4 vols. (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 3:46972, 472.
16 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 7.
17 Browne, Hydriotaphia, pp. 2-3. 11 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 14.
10 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 23.
21 Browne, Hydriotaphia, pp. 46-7. 22 Browne, Hydriotaphia, pp. 7-8. 23 Browne, Hydriotaphia, pp. 55-6. 24 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 66.
25 Browne, Hydriotaphia, pp. 60-1, my emphasis. 26 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 48.
27 See Joan Bennett, Sir Thomas Browne: "A Man ofAchievement in Literature" (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962).
28 Browne, Hydriotaphia, pp. 78-9. 11 Browne, Fragment, pp. 470-1.
30 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 43.
31 Browne, Hydriotaphia, pp. 41-2.
32 See Michael Wilding, Dragon's Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).
33 Browne departs from his contemporaries by pushing the date to around 2000, much further in the future than most contemporaries would have argued (see Wilding, pp. 99-100).
34 Achsah Guibbory, "A rationall of old rites': Sir Thomas Browne's Urn BuriaU and the Conflict over Ceremony," YES 21 (1991): 229-41, 237.
35 Guibbory, p. 240.
31 Christopher Hill, "John Mason and the End of the World," in Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 323-36.
37 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 73. 38 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 67. 39 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 66.
40 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1927), p. 215.
41 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 82.
42 C. A. Patrides, "Above Atlas his Shoulders': An Introduction to Sir Thomas Browne," in Sir Thomas Browne: The Major Works, ed. Patrides (London: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 21-52.
43 Ronald Hutton, The Restoration: A Political and Religious History of England and Wales, 1658-1667 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 134.
44 Browne, Hydriotaphia, p. 84.
Adam H. Kitzes is a doctoral candidate in the department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is completing a dissertation on melancholia and political conflict in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England.
Copyright Studies in English Literature c/o Rice University Winter 2002