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[The following remarks are extracted from an article in
the Retrospective Review, Vol. I. p. 83.]
“SIR THOMAS BROWNE, in the work before us, hath dared to take the grave itself for his theme. He deals not with death as a shadow, but as a substantial reality. He dwells not on it as the mere cessation of life; he treats it not as a terrible negation; but enters on its discussion as a state with its own solemnities and pomps. Others, who have professed to write on death, have treated merely of dying. They have fearfully described the rending asunder of soul and body, — the last farewell to existence, and the state of the spirit in its range through new and untried scenes of rapture or of
Some have individualized the theme, and written of death in relation only to particular persons or classes who become its victims. Those who regard it more universally and intensely, as Blair and Young, yet look but on its surface. They are conversant only with cypresses, yew trees, and grave-stones,
or hint at superstitions which endow the dead with life, and endue the tomb with something of vitality. Sir Thomas Browne alone treats of death as one subdued to its very essence. He encounters the tyrant, and plucks out the heart of his mystery.' He speaks not of the agonies of dissolution ; but regards the destroyer only when he is laden with his spoils, and the subjects of his victory are at rest. The region of his imagination is that space beneath the surface of the world, where the bones of all generations repose.
His fancy works beneath the ground its way from tomb to tomb, rests on each variety of burial, ennobles the naked clay of the peasant, expands in the sepulchres of kings, and, skimming beneath the deepest caverns of the sea, detects the unvalued jewels in those holes which
did once inhabit.' The language of his essay is weighty, yet tender, such as his theme should inspire. We can imagine nothing graver. His words are sepulchral; his ornaments are flowers of mortality. If his essay were read by Mr. Kemble, it would have appropriate voice, breathed forth in the tenderest of sepulchral tones, with cadences solemn and sweet as the last tremblings of good men's lives.”
“Sir Thomas Browne, by his intense earnestness and vivid solemnity, seems really to endow the grave itself with life. He does not linger in the valley of the shadow of death, but enters within the portals, where the regal destroyer keeps his awful state ; and yet there is nothing, thin, airy, or unsubstantial, nothing ghostly or shocking, in his work. veils, with a reverent touch, the material treasures
of the sepulchre; he describes these with the learning of an antiquary ; moralizes on them with the wisdom of a philosopher ; broods over them with the tenderness of an enthusiast ; and associates with them sweet and congenial images, with the fancy of a poet. He is the laureat of the king of terrors ; and most nobly does he celebrate the earthly magnificence of his kingdom. He discovers consolations not only in the hopes of immortality, but in the dusty and sad ornaments of the tomb. How richly does he speak of the liquors found in old sepulchres, as if death were the chief butler of time, and
preserved patriarchal flavors within his vaults ! ”
“ Sir Thomas Browne ennobles and consecrates whatever he touches. He makes us feel, that magnitude is not necessary to venerableness, for in his works, things which before appeared insignificant, impress us with an awful grandeur. He requires not a vast or gigantic object to stir and affect him. He perceives the high attributes of the smallest things, the antiquity and the consecration which they share with the mightiest, and renders an urn or a pyramid equal to the mind. His power, like that of death, levels distinctions ; for he looks into the soul of things, instead of contemplating merely their external forms. Thus, by showing that the lowliest things have consecrating associations equal to the stateliest, he vindicates to Nature and Time those regalities which we are prone to attribute to stupendous remains of human skill, as if they appertained to them as inherent properties, and were not merely shed on them by hallowing years.
“But Sir Thomas Browne finds matter of deeper speculation in the regions of the grave,
to which we have yet particularly alluded. He derives the nobleness of our nature even from its mortality on earth. In the most opposite ceremonials, he traces the spirit of a higher and more perfect life, Thus he treats the disregard of interment, as evincing a sense that the frame was but the shell of a finer essence, and the solemnities of burial as proving that man, in extending his cares beyond death, displays the instinct of a future being. Every thing with him has a profound and sacred meaning. He embodies the abstractions of humanity in the stateliest forms, elevating even the brevity of existence into a distinct being, and endowing it with venerable attributes. Past and Present, Life and Dissolution, Time and Immortality, seem to meet in his works, as in a fane for festal purpose decked with unrejoicing berries !'"
6 Sir Thomas Browne has been contrasted with Bishop Jeremy Taylor, who like him wrote on death, and delighted to contemplate the symbols of man's decay. But no two things can be more opposite than their modes of treating the sacred theme. Jeremy Taylor broods only over the surface of the subject, and tinges it with roseate hues. He enters not the recesses of the grave, but moralizes at its entrance. While Sir Thomas Browne rakes among the bones for some strange relic in the deep bed of mortality, the most christian of bishops gently gathers the sweet flowers which peep forth on the green above it. The former ransacks antiquity and the hid
den corners of strange learning for his illustrations ; the latter steals the ready smile of some sleeping child, or the modest bloom of a virgin cheek. The imagination of Sir Thomas Browne reflects the faded forms of old, half-forgotten things; that of Jeremy Taylor is overspread with the blushing tints of aerial beauty, like a lake beneath the sweetest sky of evening, in which the very multitude of lovely shadows prevent any one clear and majestic image from appearing unbroken. The first carries us out of ourselves into the grand abstractions of our nature; the last touches the pulses of individual joy, and awakens delicious musings and indistinct emotions of serious delight, such as make a chrysome child to smile.' In the works of Browne, we hear ancestral voices”; in those of Taylor, we listen to the sweet warblings of the angelic choir. Sir Thomas Browne does not shed sweet radiance on the stream of life; but he fathoms its most awful deeps, and thence discovers, that it rises not within the horizon of sense, but hath its source in other worlds, and will continue its mystic windings far beyond the shadows of death, which limit our present vision,”