Hydriotaphia

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, is a work by Sir Thomas Browne, published in 1658 as the first part of a two-part work that concludes with The Garden of Cyrus.

Its nominal subject was the discovery of a Bronze Age urn burial in Norfolk. The discovery of these remains prompts Browne to deliver, first, a careful description of the antiquities found, and then a careful survey of most of the burial and funerary customs, ancient and current, of which his era was aware.

The most famous part of the work, though, is the fifth chapter, where Browne quite explicitly turns to discuss man's struggles with mortality, and the uncertainty of his fate and fame in this world and the next, to produce an extended funerary meditation tinged with melancholia. The changes wrought by time and eternity, the fleetingness of mortal fame, and our feeble attempts to cope with the certainty of death are Browne's subjects. Yet, at the same time, Browne can be tersely witty, mocking human vainglory: "Time hath spared the epitaph of Adrian's horse, confounded that of himself."

A piece of exquisite baroque prose that George Saintsbury called "the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world," Hydriotaphia displays an astonishing command of English prose rhythm and diction. The following is a sample, representative both in its beauty and its inscrutability. Browne rhetorically asks:

What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entered the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism.

Brown's skepticism shows up even at the level of his sentence structure. Note, in particular, how Browne begins these sentences with questions—"who were the proprietaries of these bones," for example—which one would generally expect to see answered in the rest of the sentence. Instead, Browne leaves us in uncertainty for the length of these clauses, and makes that uncertainty permanent by withholding answer. This is a technique he uses throughout the fifth chapter and, indeed, the entire work. The structure of suspended questions is similar to the "Digression of Air" in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, but with the opposite intention—Burton to evoke the anticipation of scientific discovery; Browne to enforce the tragic powerlessness of history.

Perhaps this was part of what led Virginia Woolf to comment:

...while the Bible has a gospel to impart, who can be quite sure what Sir Thomas Browne himself believed? The last chapters of Urn Burial beat up on wings of extraordinary sweep and power, yet towards what goal?... Decidedly [Browne's] is the voice of a strange preacher, of a man filled with doubts and subtleties and suddenly swept away by surprising imaginations.

Influence

Browne deeply influenced Thomas de Quincey, who said of this work,

What a melodious ascent as of a prelude to some impassioned requiem breathing from the pomps of earth, and from the sanctities of the grave! What a fluctus decumanus of rhetoric! Time expounded, not by generations or centuries, but by the vast periods of conquests and dynasties: by cycles of Pharaohs and Ptolemies, Antiochi and Arsacides!

The Urn Burial has also been admired by Charles Lamb, Samuel Johnson, John Cowper Powys, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of it that it "smells in every word of the sepulchre." Which was, of course, the exact effect Browne wished.

English composer William Alwyn wrote his Symphony No. 5, subtitled Hydriotaphia, in memory of Thomas Browne.

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