Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia: Urn-Burial, or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk (1658), the most esoteric piece of writing I’ve likely ever read to completion, also bears a reputation for one of the more elegant and poetic specimens of prose published in British literature.
When I consider a 350-year-old publication that not only managed to survive the time filter, but still retain the status of hopelessly confusing yet impactful, the temptation becomes nearly irresistible.
The five-chapter essay addresses firstly the discovery of urns in Norfolk of possibly Saxon origin, referencing much British history as far back as the island romanization, to which many of the Urns are said to owe their origin.
Afterwards, for what comprises the majority of the essay:
- An extensive meditation and history of obsequy practices: the burial, the sepulchre, merits of burning among the varied religious groups and sects (ie the ancient Roman, the Hellenistic, the Christian, the Stoic, the Atheist).
- An equally drawn out survey and meditation on the widely ranging ceremonies surrounding death, plus the rites, the superstitions, etc.
- A overall philosophical treatise on life, death, and the afterlife.
For the most part, however, the reading evokes the sensation of death and the macabre (literary themes I readily welcome). And it proceeds thus not in any melancholy or Boethian sense, but rather pragmatically and with certain academic rigour: Browne was, after all, trained in Medicine with an itch for scientific discovery and the unknown.
Hardly, however, does the prose ever sacrifice aesthetic.
Browne supplements the essay with plenty of accompanying notes (many containing Biblical references or the such), though I wouldn’t claim these to aid in any severe extent, not for the casual reader.
I read mainly for the poetic prose. And the experience only reaffirmed my reading heuristic, as so many before it: rhetoric over narrative.
(This entirely contrasts with my recent reading of the first couple of books of Boccaccio’s Decameron, or rather, the late-19th-century and the predominant Russian translation. Despite the immortal tales, in likelihood second only to the 1001 Nights among the Western canon, despite the tales adapted by, and catered to so many subsequent generations of authors, despite all that, I found the translation prose so devoid of even remotely engaging or challenging rhetoric, that it read like plastic: like a neutral, detached piece of Wikipedia writing. Accuse me of exaggeration, but I distinctly perceived this notion throughout.)
Total reversal with the case of the Hydriotaphia: at certain instances I remained nearly clueless as to what I was reading, and yet the rich, Baroque-emblazoned rhetoric combined with the spectral-like cadence drew me on and on. And I’d willingly reread the comparatively short composition.
Do I consider the essay prose substantially elevated over anything else I’d read? My attitude might vary upon successive rereads, but at first iteration (one rather superficial around some parts), I wouldn’t necessarily make the claim.
Much of Poe’s or Dickens writings infuse me with similar regard, among others. But in the case of Browne, you are treated with such a potent, such a concentrated dosage of the subterranean Baroque that it hardly ever waivers in delivering the grandiose impact.
Perhaps I exaggerate and seek to reaffirm the already perpetuated. Nonetheless, I eagerly recommend if your tastes somewhat align with mine. Here’s again a link to an online version.
Questions, comments? Connect.