Saturday, October 19, 2013

`Vigorous, But Rugged'

In 1756, twelve years after writing his “Life of Mr Richard Savage” and more than twenty years before he published his biographical masterpiece, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, Dr. Johnson edited a second edition of Christian Morals, to which he appended his “Life of Sir Thomas Browne.” As biography in the modern scholarly sense, the essay is thin and often speculative. As a meditation on writing and the writing life, and as an example of Johnson’s vigor as a writer of prose, it’s splendid. Around 1634, he tells us, Browne wrote his first and still most popular book, Religio Medici, “only for his own exercise and entertainment.” This moves Johnson to digress on the bottomless theme of authorial vanity: 

“It, indeed, contains many passages, which, relating merely to his own person, can be of no great importance to the publick: but when it was written, it happened to him as to others, he was too much pleased with his performance, not to think that it might please others as much; he, therefore, communicated it to his friends, and receiving, I suppose, that exuberant applause with which every man repays the grant of perusing a manuscript, he was not very diligent to obstruct his own praise by recalling his papers, but suffered them to wander from hand to hand, till at last, without his own consent, they were, in MDCXLII, given to a printer.” 

Despite the sustained popularity of Religio Medici, a text noteworthy for its “novelty of paradoxes, the dignity of sentiment, the quick succession of images, the multitude of abstruse allusions, the subtilty of disquisition, and the strength of language,” Johnson notes: “What is much read will be much criticised.” Explaining Browne’s decision to publish his second books, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, in 1646, Johnson says: “Browne having now entered the world as an author, and experienced the delights of praise and molestations of censure, probably found his dread of the publick eye diminished; and, therefore, was not long before he trusted his name to the criticks a second time.” 

The curious and obscure moved Browne to eloquence. He sees significance where others see only novelty. After Bronze Age burial urns were unearthed in Norfolk, Browne meditated on funeral customs and mortality in Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial (1658). In Chapter 4 he writes, with unaccustomed directness and without ornament: “It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature.” Johnson generalizes from Browne’s choice of subject matter, without forgetting a writer’s vanity: 

Some of the most pleasing performances have been produced by learning and genius exercised upon subjects of little importance. It seems to have been, in all ages, the pride of wit, to shew how it could exalt the low, and amplify the little. To speak not inadequately of things really and naturally great, is a task not only difficult but disagreeable; because the writer is degraded in his own eyes by standing in comparison with his subject, to which he can hope to add nothing from his imagination: but it is a perpetual triumph of fancy to expand a scanty theme, to raise glittering ideas from obscure properties, and to produce to the world an object of wonder to which nature had contributed little. To this ambition, perhaps, we owe the Frogs of Homer, the Gnat and the Bees of Virgil, the Butterfly of Spenser, the Shadow of Wowerus, and the Quincunx of Browne.”

Johnson’s verdict on Browne is mixed but ultimately favorable. Of his prose style, he renders what sounds suspiciously like a self-judgment: “It is vigorous, but rugged; it is learned, but pedantick; it is deep, but obscure; it strikes, but does not please; it commands, but does not allure: his tropes are harsh, and his combinations uncouth.” 

In his Dictionary, Johnson cites Browne 161 times. Only Shakespeare, the Bible and six other writers (Addison, Arbuthnot, Bacon, Milton, Pope, Swift) are quoted more often. Amid all the baroque and Latinate words, Johnson cites him for kitten. Browne was born on this date, Oct. 19, in 1605, in London, and died on the same date in 1682 in Norwich.

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