Back in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). A reader named Kevin Faulkner took me to task for essentially taking the easy way out and not coming to terms with the work of the 17th century scientist, divine, and mystic. He recommended that I read the companion piece Browne published in the same year, entitled The Garden of Cyrus, or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered with Sundry Observations.
This week, I finally got around to reading The Garden of Cyrus. When confronting such a powerful mind as Browne’s, with his phenomenal erudition, recall, and powers of observation, I must confess to feeling unworthy. Never before has prose risen to such poetic heights, with a level of difficulty that approaches Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The following comes early in the first chapter:
Wherein the decussis is made within a longilaterall square, with opposite angles, acute and obtuse at the intersection; and so upon progression making a Rhombus or lozenge configuration, which seemeth very agreeable unto the originall figure; Answerable whereunto we observe the decussated characters in many consulary Coynes, even even those of Constantine and his Sons, which pretend their character in the Sky; the crucigerous Ensigne carried this figure, not transversely or rectangularly intersected, but in a decussation, after the form of an Andrean or Burgundian cross, which answereth this description.
Now this is in no wise to be considered as light reading. Yet there is a Greco-Roman sense of majesty in which Browne takes the simple shape illustrated above, inspired by the tree planting pattern of Cyrus in ancient Persia, as one of the basic patterns in nature and art. And ultimately in the mind of God.
Browne goes far beyond the lattice-work in nature and botany to a mystical consideration of the shape and of the number five, which it suggests in the Quincunx pattern, with a tree in the center and one at each of the four points in a lozenge-shape surrounding the central tree. As Browne says in his conclusion in Chapter Five (the last chapter, appropriately): “All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven.”
Sir Thomas Browne is not a writer one can read once over lightly. Each of his powerful essays, including his Religio Medici, begs to be accepted as a vade mecum to which the reader will return again and again.
And what does the reader gain? Actually, the erudition and complex latinate vocabulary by itself is not the reason for a further acquaintance: Rather, it is the way in which the towering speculations of the author are in the humble service of his God. For Browne, there is no conflict between science and Christianity. They complement each other at every turn.
Somehow, I feel as if my dreams tonight will be of rhombuses and quincunxes extending into the heavens, from the smallest parts of creation even unto the stars.
If you are even moderately interested in a difficult and rewarding author, I suggest you read his essays, and also look of Kevin Faulkner’s excellent website entitled The Aquarium of Vulcan, which deals rather more substantially with Browne than I am able to at this time.