Monday, October 19, 2015

`He Had Uncommon Sentiments'

Many readers know Dr. Johnson’s Life of Savage (1744), if only for the scandalous reputation of his subject and the unlikelihood of Johnson having befriended and commemorated such a man. (They might also know Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage by Richard Holmes.) Even more know his Lives of the Poets (1779-81), or at least its “greatest hits” devoted to Milton, Dryden and Pope. Fewer know his Life of Sir Thomas Browne (1756), his biography of the author of Religio Medici, The Garden of Cyrus and other gems of English prose. Among writers most often cited by the Oxford English Dictionary, Browne ranks seventieth. He is cited 775 times for the first usage of words, and not all are obscure or strictly medical or scientific. Browne gave us, among other things: approximate, carnivorous, coma, computer, electricity, exhaustion, generator, gymnastic, hallucination, holocaust, jocularity, literary, locomotion, prairie, precocious, pubescent, therapeutic, suicide, ulterior, ultimate and veterinarian. Here is Johnson the lexicographer on Browne the writer: 

“His style is, indeed, a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. He must, however, be confessed to have augmented our philosophical diction; and, in defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express, in many words, that idea for which any language could supply a single term.” 

Johnson’s prose is many things but seldom exotically virtuosic. His sensibility is flexible and generous, and understands that Browne was not merely showing off or trying to mystify his readers. Browne lived a century before Johnson, in an age when English was less fixed and more absorbent. The language, in fact, may have attained a sort of stylistic pinnacle in the seventeenth century. Often Johnson is caricatured as a reactionary, linguistically and otherwise. Boswell, for instance, reports him saying of Laurence Sterne: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” But here is Johnson on Browne’s linguistic exuberance: 

“But his innovations are sometimes pleasing, and his temerities happy he has many verba ardentia, forcible expressions, which he would never have found, but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and flights which would never have been reached, but by one who had very little fear of the shame of falling.” 

And yet Browne’s prose can be plain and direct, quintessentially English in another sense. Take the epigraph Conrad gave to his 1913 novel Chance, from Religio Medici: “Those that hold that all things are governed by fortune had not erred, had they not persisted there.” Browne was born on this date, Oct. 19, in 1605. He is one of those human curiosities who died on his birthday, in 1682. We trust he would have appreciated the rare convergence.

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