Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

From Academic Kids

Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, is a work published in 1658 by Sir Thomas Browne. It was published 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 antiquties found. Browne then gives 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 puzling 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.

Skepticism shows up even at the level of grammar. Note, in particular, how Browne begins these sentences with relative clauses—"who were the proprietaries of these bones," for example—which one would generally expect the main clause of each sentence to answer. Instead, Browne not only leaves us in uncertainty for the length of each relative clause, but makes that uncertainty permanent by refusing to give an answer in the main clause. This is a technique he uses throughout the fifth chapter and, indeed, the entire work. 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.

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, 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.

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