Appreciations, With An Essay on Style
Walter Horatio Pater

Part 2 out of 4

poems, being, unlike that of the "Lake School," to which in some
respects he belongs, singularly unaffected by any moral, or
professional, or personal effort or ambition,--"written," as he says,
"after the more violent emotions of sorrow, to give him pleasure,
when perhaps nothing else could;" but coming thus, indeed, very close
to his own most intimately personal characteristics, and having a
certain languidly soothing grace or cadence, for its most fixed
quality, from first to last. After some Platonic soliloquy on a
flower opening on a fine day in February, he goes on-- [84]

Dim similitudes
Weaving in mortal strains, I've stolen one hour
From anxious self, life's cruel taskmaster!
And the warm wooings of this sunny day
Tremble along my frame and harmonise
The attempered organ, that even saddest thoughts
Mix with some sweet sensations, like harsh tunes
Played deftly on a sweet-toned instrument.

The expression of two opposed, yet allied, elements of sensibility in
these lines, is very true to Coleridge:--the grievous agitation, the
grievous listlessness, almost never entirely relieved, together with
a certain physical voluptuousness. He has spoken several times of
the scent of the bean-field in the air:--the tropical touches in a
chilly climate; his is a nature that will make the most of these,
which finds a sort of caress in such things. Kubla Khan, the
fragment of a poem actually composed in some certainly not quite
healthy sleep, is perhaps chiefly of interest as showing, by the mode
of its composition, how physical, how much of a diseased or
valetudinarian temperament, in its moments of relief, Coleridge's
happiest gift really was; and side by side with Kubla Khan should be
read, as Coleridge placed it, the Pains of Sleep, to illustrate that
retarding physical burden in his temperament, that "unimpassioned
grief," the source of which lay so near the source of those
pleasures. Connected also with this, and again in contrast with
Wordsworth, is the limited quantity of his poetical performance, as
he himself [85] regrets so eloquently in the lines addressed to
Wordsworth after his recitation of The Prelude. It is like some
exotic plant, just managing to blossom a little in the somewhat un-
english air of Coleridge's own south-western birthplace, but never
quite well there.

In 1798 he joined Wordsworth in the composition of a volume of poems-
-the Lyrical Ballads. What Wordsworth then wrote already vibrates
with that blithe impulse which carried him to final happiness and
self-possession. In Coleridge we feel already that faintness and
obscure dejection which clung like some contagious damp to all his
work. Wordsworth was to be distinguished by a joyful and penetrative
conviction of the existence of certain latent affinities between
nature and the human mind, which reciprocally gild the mind and
nature with a kind of "heavenly alchemy."

My voice proclaims
How exquisitely the individual mind
(And the progressive powers, perhaps, no less
Of the whole species) to the external world
Is fitted; and how exquisitely, too,
The external world is fitted to the mind;
And the creation, by no lower name
Can it be called, which they with blended might

In Wordsworth this took the form of an unbroken dreaming over the
aspects and transitions of nature--a reflective, though altogether
unformulated, analysis of them.

[86] There are in Coleridge's poems expressions of this conviction as
deep as Wordsworth's. But Coleridge could never have abandoned
himself to the dream, the vision, as Wordsworth did, because the
first condition of such abandonment must be an unvexed quietness of
heart. No one can read the Lines composed above Tintern without
feeling how potent the physical element was among the conditions of
Wordsworth's genius--"felt in the blood and felt along the heart."

My whole life I have lived in quiet thought!

The stimulus which most artists require of nature he can renounce.
He leaves the ready-made glory of the Swiss mountains that he may
reflect glory on a mouldering leaf. He loves best to watch the
floating thistledown, because of its hint at an unseen life in the
air. Coleridge's temperament, aei en sphodra orexei,+ with its
faintness, its grieved dejection, could never have been like that.

My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life whose fountains are within.

Wordsworth's flawless temperament, his fine mountain atmosphere of
mind, that calm, sabbatic, mystic, wellbeing which De Quincey, [87] a
little cynically, connected with worldly (that is to say, pecuniary)
good fortune, kept his conviction of a latent intelligence in nature
within the limits of sentiment or instinct, and confined it to those
delicate and subdued shades of expression which alone perfect art
allows. In Coleridge's sadder, more purely intellectual, cast of
genius, what with Wordsworth was sentiment or instinct became a
philosophical idea, or philosophical formula, developed, as much as
possible, after the abstract and metaphysical fashion of the
transcendental schools of Germany.

The period of Coleridge's residence at Nether Stowey, 1797-1798, was
for him the annus mirabilis. Nearly all the chief works by which his
poetic fame will live were then composed or planned. What shapes
itself for criticism as the main phenomenon of Coleridge's poetic
life, is not, as with most true poets, the gradual development of a
poetic gift, determined, enriched, retarded, by the actual
circumstances of the poet's life, but the sudden blossoming, through
one short season, of such a gift already perfect in its kind, which
thereafter deteriorates as suddenly, with something like premature
old age. Connecting this phenomenon with the leading motive of his
prose writings, we might note it as the deterioration of a productive
or creative power into one merely metaphysical or discursive. In his
unambitious conception of his function as a poet, and in the very
limited quantity of his [88] poetical performance, as I have said, he
was a contrast to his friend Wordsworth. That friendship with
Wordsworth, the chief "developing" circumstance of his poetic life,
comprehended a very close intellectual sympathy; and in such
association chiefly, lies whatever truth there may be in the popular
classification of Coleridge as a member of what is called the "Lake
School." Coleridge's philosophical speculations do really turn on
the ideas which underlay Wordsworth's poetical practice. His prose
works are one long explanation of all that is involved in that famous
distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination. Of what is
understood by both writers as the imaginative quality in the use
of poetic figures, we may take some words of Shakespeare as an

My cousin Suffolk,
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast.

The complete infusion here of the figure into the thought, so vividly
realised, that, though birds are not actually mentioned, yet the
sense of their flight, conveyed to us by the single word "abreast,"
comes to be more than half of the thought itself:--this, as the
expression of exalted feeling, is an instance of what Coleridge meant
by Imagination. And this sort of identification of the poet's
thought, of himself, with the image or figure which serves him, is
the secret, sometimes, [89] of a singularly entire realisation of
that image, such as makes these lines of Coleridge, for instance,

Amid the howl of more than wintry storms,
The halcyon hears the voice of vernal hours
Already on the wing.

There are many such figures both in Coleridge's verse and prose. He
has, too, his passages of that sort of impassioned contemplation on
the permanent and elementary conditions of nature and humanity, which
Wordsworth held to be the essence of a poet; as it would be his
proper function to awaken such contemplation in other men--those
"moments," as Coleridge says, addressing him--

Moments awful,
Now in thy inner life, and now abroad,
When power streamed from thee, and thy soul received
The light reflected, as a light bestowed.

The entire poem from which these lines are taken, "composed on the
night after Wordsworth's recitation of a poem on the growth of an
individual mind," is, in its high-pitched strain of meditation, and
in the combined justice and elevation of its philosophical

high and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted;

wholly sympathetic with The Prelude which it celebrates, and of
which the subject is, in effect, the generation of the spirit of
the "Lake poetry." [90] The Lines to Joseph Cottle have the same
philosophically imaginative character; the Ode to Dejection being
Coleridge's most sustained effort of this kind.

It is in a highly sensitive apprehension of the aspects of external
nature that Coleridge identifies himself most closely with one of the
main tendencies of the "Lake School"; a tendency instinctive, and no
mere matter of theory, in him as in Wordsworth. That record of the

green light
Which lingers in the west,

and again, of

the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green,

which Byron found ludicrously untrue, but which surely needs no
defence, is a characteristic example of a singular watchfulness for
the minute fact and expression of natural scenery pervading all he
wrote--a closeness to the exact physiognomy of nature, having
something to do with that idealistic philosophy which sees in the
external world no mere concurrence of mechanical agencies, but an
animated body, informed and made expressive, like the body of man, by
an indwelling intelligence. It was a tendency, doubtless, in the
air, for Shelley too is affected by it, and Turner, with the school
of landscape which followed him. "I had found," Coleridge tells us,


That outward forms, the loftiest, still receive
Their finer influence from the world within;
Fair ciphers of vague import, where the eye
Traces no spot, in which the heart may read
History and prophecy:...

and this induces in him no indifference to actual colour and form and
process, but such minute realism as this--

The thin grey cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull;

or this, which has a touch of "romantic" weirdness--

Nought was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe

or this--

There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky

or this, with a weirdness, again, like that of some wild French

Lo! the new-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light
(With swimming phantom light o'erspread,
But rimmed and circled with a silver thread)
I see the old moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming on of rain and squally blast.

He has a like imaginative apprehension of the silent and unseen
processes of nature, its "ministries" [92] of dew and frost, for
instance; as when he writes, in April--

A balmy night! and though the stars be dim,
Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
That gladden the green earth, and we shall find
A pleasure in the dimness of the stars.

Of such imaginative treatment of landscape there is no better
instance than the description of The Dell, in Fears in Solitude--

A green and silent spot amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O'er stiller place
No singing skylark ever poised himself--
But the dell,
Bathed by the mist is fresh and delicate
As vernal cornfield, or the unripe flax
When, through its half-transparent stalks, at eve,
The level sunshine glimmers with green light:--

The gust that roared and died away
To the distant tree--

heard and only heard
In this low dell, bowed not the delicate grass.

This curious insistence of the mind on one particular spot, till it
seems to attain actual expression and a sort of soul in it--a mood so
characteristic of the "Lake School"--occurs in an earnest political
poem, "written in April 1798, during the alarm of an invasion"; and
that silent dell is the background against which the tumultuous fears
of the poet are in strong relief, while the quiet sense of the place,
maintained all through them, gives a true poetic unity to the piece.
Good political poetry--[93] political poetry that shall be
permanently moving--can, perhaps, only be written on motives which,
for those they concern, have ceased to be open questions, and are
really beyond argument; while Coleridge's political poems are for the
most part on open questions. For although it was a great part of his
intellectual ambition to subject political questions to the action of
the fundamental ideas of his philosophy, he was nevertheless an
ardent partisan, first on one side, then on the other, of the actual
politics proper to the end of the last and the beginning of the
present century, where there is still room for much difference of
opinion. Yet The Destiny of Nations, though formless as a whole, and
unfinished, presents many traces of his most elevated manner of
speculation, cast into that sort of imaginative philosophical
expression, in which, in effect, the language itself is inseparable
from, or essentially a part of, the thought. France, an Ode, begins
with a famous apostrophe to Liberty--

Ye Clouds! that far above me float and pause,
Whose pathless march no mortal may control!
Ye Ocean-waves! that wheresoe'er ye roll,
Yield homage only to eternal laws!
Ye Woods! that listen to the night-bird's singing,
Midway the smooth and perilous slope reclined,
Save when your own imperious branches swinging,
Have made a solemn music of the wind!
Where like a man beloved of God,
Through glooms which never woodman trod,
How oft, pursuing fancies holy,


My moonlight way o'er flowering weeds I wound,
Inspired, beyond the guess of folly,
By each rude shape and wild unconquerable sound!
O ye loud Waves! and O ye Forests high!
And O ye Clouds that far above me soar'd!

Thou rising Sun! thou blue rejoicing Sky!
Yea, everything that is and will be free!
Bear witness for me, wheresoe'er ye be,
With what deep worship I have still adored
The spirit of divinest liberty.

And the whole ode, though, after Coleridge's way, not quite equal to
that exordium, is an example of strong national sentiment, partly in
indignant reaction against his own earlier sympathy with the French
Republic, inspiring a composition which, in spite of some turgid
lines, really justifies itself as poetry, and has that true unity of
effect which the ode requires. Liberty, after all his hopes of young
France, is only to be found in nature:--

Thou speedest on thy subtle pinions,
The guide of homeless winds, and playmate of the waves!

In his changes of political sentiment, Coleridge was associated with
the "Lake School"; and there is yet one other very different sort of
sentiment in which he is one with that school, yet all himself, his
sympathy, namely, with the animal world. That was a sentiment
connected at once with the love of outward nature in himself and in
the "Lake School," and its assertion of the natural affections in
their simplicity; with the homeliness and pity, consequent upon [95]
that assertion. The Lines to a Young Ass, tethered--

Where the close-eaten grass is scarcely seen,
While sweet around her waves the tempting green,

which had seemed merely whimsical in their day, indicate a vein of
interest constant in Coleridge's poems, and at its height in his
greatest poems--in Christabel, where it has its effect, as it were
antipathetically, in the vivid realisation of the serpentine element
in Geraldine's nature; and in The Ancient Mariner, whose fate is
interwoven with that of the wonderful bird, at whose blessing of the
water-snakes the curse for the death of the albatross passes away,
and where the moral of the love of all creatures, as a sort of
religious duty, is definitely expressed.

Christabel, though not printed till 1816, was written mainly in the
year 1797: The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner was printed as a
contribution to the Lyrical Ballads in 1798; and these two poems
belong to the great year of Coleridge's poetic production, his
twenty-fifth year. In poetic quality, above all in that most poetic
of all qualities, a keen sense of, and delight in beauty, the
infection of which lays hold upon the reader, they are quite out of
proportion to all his other compositions. The form in both is that
of the ballad, with some of its terminology, and some also of its
quaint conceits. They connect themselves with that revival of ballad
literature, of which Percy's Relics, and, in another [96] way,
Macpherson's Ossian are monuments, and which afterwards so powerfully
affected Scott--

Young-eyed poesy
All deftly masked as hoar antiquity.

The Ancient Mariner, as also, in its measure, Christabel, is a
"romantic" poem, impressing us by bold invention, and appealing to
that taste for the supernatural, that longing for le frisson, a
shudder, to which the "romantic" school in Germany, and its
derivations in England and France, directly ministered. In
Coleridge, personally, this taste had been encouraged by his odd and
out-of-the-way reading in the old-fashioned literature of the
marvellous--books like Purchas's Pilgrims, early voyages like
Hakluyt's, old naturalists and visionary moralists, like Thomas
Burnet, from whom he quotes the motto of "The Ancient Mariner, Facile
credo, plures esse naturas invisibiles quam visibiles in rerum
universitate, etc." Fancies of the strange things which may very
well happen, even in broad daylight, to men shut up alone in ships
far off on the sea, seem to have occurred to the human mind in all
ages with a peculiar readiness, and often have about them, from the
story of the stealing of Dionysus downwards, the fascination of a
certain dreamy grace, which distinguishes them from other kinds of
marvellous inventions. This sort of fascination The Ancient Mariner
brings to its highest degree: it is the delicacy, the dreamy [97]
grace, in his presentation of the marvellous, which makes Coleridge's
work so remarkable. The too palpable intruders from a spiritual
world in almost all ghost literature, in Scott and Shakespeare even,
have a kind of crudity or coarseness. Coleridge's power is in the
very fineness with which, as by some really ghostly finger, he brings
home to our inmost sense his inventions, daring as they are--the
skeleton ship, the polar spirit, the inspiriting of the dead corpses
of the ship's crew. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner has the
plausibility, the perfect adaptation to reason and the general aspect
of life, which belongs to the marvellous, when actually presented as
part of a credible experience in our dreams. Doubtless, the mere
experience of the opium-eater, the habit he must almost necessarily
fall into of noting the more elusive phenomena of dreams, had
something to do with that: in its essence, however, it is connected
with a more purely intellectual circumstance in the development of
Coleridge's poetic gift. Some one once asked William Blake, to whom
Coleridge has many resemblances, when either is at his best (that
whole episode of the re-inspiriting of the ship's crew in The Ancient
Mariner being comparable to Blake's well-known design of the "Morning
Stars singing together") whether he had ever seen a ghost, and was
surprised when the famous seer, who ought, one might think, to have
seen so many, answered frankly, "Only [98] once!" His "spirits," at
once more delicate, and so much more real, than any ghost--the
burden, as they were the privilege, of his temperament--like it, were
an integral element in his everyday life. And the difference of mood
expressed in that question and its answer, is indicative of a change
of temper in regard to the supernatural which has passed over the
whole modern mind, and of which the true measure is the influence of
the writings of Swedenborg. What that change is we may see if we
compare the vision by which Swedenborg was "called," as he thought,
to his work, with the ghost which called Hamlet, or the spells of
Marlowe's Faust with those of Goethe's. The modern mind, so minutely
self-scrutinising, if it is to be affected at all by a sense of the
supernatural, needs to be more finely touched than was possible in
the older, romantic presentment of it. The spectral object, so
crude, so impossible, has become plausible, as

The blot upon the brain,
That will show itself without;

and is understood to be but a condition of one's own mind, for which,
according to the scepticism, latent at least, in so much of our
modern philosophy, the so-called real things themselves are but
spectra after all.

It is this finer, more delicately marvellous supernaturalism, fruit
of his more delicate [99] psychology, that Coleridge infuses into
romantic adventure, itself also then a new or revived thing in
English literature; and with a fineness of weird effect in The
Ancient Mariner, unknown in those older, more simple, romantic
legends and ballads. It is a flower of medieval or later German
romance, growing up in the peculiarly compounded atmosphere of modern
psychological speculation, and putting forth in it wholly new
qualities. The quaint prose commentary, which runs side by side with
the verse of The Ancient Mariner, illustrates this--a composition of
quite a different shade of beauty and merit from that of the verse
which it accompanies, connecting this, the chief poem of Coleridge,
with his philosophy, and emphasising therein that psychological
interest of which I have spoken, its curious soul-lore.

Completeness, the perfectly rounded wholeness and unity of the
impression it leaves on the mind of a reader who fairly gives himself
to it--that, too, is one of the characteristics of a really excellent
work, in the poetic as in every other kind of art; and by this
completeness, The Ancient Mariner certainly gains upon Christabel--a
completeness, entire as that of Wordsworth's Leech-gatherer, or
Keats's Saint Agnes' Eve, each typical in its way of such wholeness
or entirety of effect on a careful reader. It is Coleridge's one
great complete work, the one really finished thing, in a life of many
beginnings. Christabel remained a fragment. In The Ancient Mariner
[100] this unity is secured in part by the skill with which the
incidents of the marriage-feast are made to break in dreamily from
time to time upon the main story. And then, how pleasantly, how
reassuringly, the whole nightmare story itself is made to end, among
the clear fresh sounds and lights of the bay, where it began, with

The moon-light steeped in silentness,
The steady weather-cock.

So different from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner in regard to this
completeness of effect, Christabel illustrates the same complexion of
motives, a like intellectual situation. Here, too, the work is of a
kind peculiar to one who touches the characteristic motives of the
old romantic ballad, with a spirit made subtle and fine by modern
reflection; as we feel, I think, in such passages as--

But though my slumber had gone by,
This dream it would not pass away--
It seems to live upon mine eye;


For she, belike, hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep;

and again--

With such perplexity of mind
As dreams too lively leave behind.

And that gift of handling the finer passages of human feeling, at
once with power and delicacy, which was another result of his finer
psychology, [101] of his exquisitely refined habit of self-
reflection, is illustrated by a passage on Friendship in the Second

Alas! they had been friends in youth;
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain.
And thus it chanced, as I divine,
With Roland and Sir Leoline.
Each spake words of high disdain
And insult to his heart's best brother
They parted--ne'er to meet again!
But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining--
They stood aloof the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now flows between;
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.

I suppose these lines leave almost every reader with a quickened
sense of the beauty and compass of human feeling; and it is the sense
of such richness and beauty which, in spite of his "dejection," in
spite of that burden of his morbid lassitude, accompanies Coleridge
himself through life. A warm poetic joy in everything beautiful,
whether it be a moral sentiment, like the friendship of Roland and
Leoline, or only the flakes of falling light from the water-snakes--
this joy, visiting him, now and again, after sickly dreams, in sleep
or waking, as a relief not to be forgotten, [102] and with such a
power of felicitous expression that the infection of it passes
irresistibly to the reader--such is the predominant element in the
matter of his poetry, as cadence is the predominant quality of its
form. "We bless thee for our creation!" he might have said, in his
later period of definite religious assent, "because the world is so
beautiful: the world of ideas--living spirits, detached from the
divine nature itself, to inform and lift the heavy mass of material
things; the world of man, above all in his melodious and intelligible
speech; the world of living creatures and natural scenery; the world
of dreams." What he really did say, by way of A Tombless Epitaph, is
true enough of himself--

Sickness, 'tis true,
Whole years of weary days, besieged him close,
Even to the gates and inlets of his life!
But it is true, no less, that strenuous, firm,
And with a natural gladness, he maintained
The citadel unconquered, and in joy
Was strong to follow the delightful Muse.
For not a hidden path, that to the shades
Of the beloved Parnassian forest leads,
Lurked undiscovered by him; not a rill
There issues from the fount of Hippocrene,
But he had traced it upward to its source,
Through open glade, dark glen, and secret dell,
Knew the gay wild flowers on its banks, and culled
Its med'cinable herbs. Yea, oft alone,
Piercing the long-neglected holy cave,
The haunt obscure of old Philosophy,
He bade with lifted torch its starry walls
Sparkle, as erst they sparkled to the flame


Of odorous lamps tended by saint and sage.
O framed for calmer times and nobler hearts!
O studious Poet, eloquent for truth!
Philosopher! contemning wealth and death,
Yet docile, childlike, full of Life and Love.

The student of empirical science asks, Are absolute principles
attainable? What are the limits of knowledge? The answer he
receives from science itself is not ambiguous. What the moralist
asks is, Shall we gain or lose by surrendering human life to the
relative spirit? Experience answers that the dominant tendency of
life is to turn ascertained truth into a dead letter, to make us all
the phlegmatic servants of routine. The relative spirit, by its
constant dwelling on the more fugitive conditions or circumstances of
things, breaking through a thousand rough and brutal classifications,
and giving elasticity to inflexible principles, begets an
intellectual finesse of which the ethical result is a delicate and
tender justice in the criticism of human life. Who would gain more
than Coleridge by criticism in such a spirit? We know how his life
has appeared when judged by absolute standards. We see him trying to
apprehend the "absolute," to stereotype forms of faith and
philosophy, to attain, as he says, "fixed principles" in politics,
morals, and religion, to fix one mode of life as the essence of life,
refusing to see the parts as parts only; and all the time his own
pathetic history pleads for a more [104] elastic moral philosophy
than his, and cries out against every formula less living and
flexible than life itself.

"From his childhood he hungered for eternity." There, after all, is
the incontestable claim of Coleridge. The perfect flower of any
elementary type of life must always be precious to humanity, and
Coleridge is a true flower of the ennuyé, of the type of René. More
than Childe Harold, more than Werther, more than René himself,
Coleridge, by what he did, what he was, and what he failed to do,
represents that inexhaustible discontent, languor, and homesickness,
that endless regret, the chords of which ring all through our modern
literature. It is to the romantic element in literature that those
qualities belong. One day, perhaps, we may come to forget the
distant horizon, with full knowledge of the situation, to be content
with "what is here and now"; and herein is the essence of classical
feeling. But by us of the present moment, certainly--by us for whom
the Greek spirit, with its engaging naturalness, simple, chastened,
debonair, tryphês, habrotêtos, khlidês, kharitôn, himerou, pothou
patêr+, is itself the Sangrail of an endless pilgrimage, Coleridge,
with his passion for the absolute, for something fixed where all is
moving, his faintness, his broken memory, his intellectual disquiet,
may still be ranked among the interpreters of one of the constituent
elements of our life.

1865, 1880.


65. *The latter part of this paper, like that on Dante Gabriel
Rossetti, was contributed to Mr. T. H. Ward's English Poets.

68. +Transliteration: ousia akhrômatos, askhêmatistos, anaphês.
Translation: "the colorless, utterly formless, intangible essence."
Phaedrus 247C.

80. +The two passages are not indented in the original; they are in
smaller typeface that makes for difficult reading.

86. +Transliteration: aei en sphodra orexei. Translation: "always
greatly yearning."

104. +Transliteration: tryphês, habrotêtos, khlidês, kharitôn,
himerou, pothou patêr. Translation: "Of daintiness, delicacy,
luxury, graces, father of desire."


[105] THOSE English critics who at the beginning of the present
century introduced from Germany, together with some other subtleties
of thought transplanted hither not without advantage, the distinction
between the Fancy and the Imagination, made much also of the cognate
distinction between Wit and Humour, between that unreal and
transitory mirth, which is as the crackling of thorns under the pot,
and the laughter which blends with tears and even with the
sublimities of the imagination, and which, in its most exquisite
motives, is one with pity--the laughter of the comedies of
Shakespeare, hardly less expressive than his moods of seriousness or
solemnity, of that deeply stirred soul of sympathy in him, as flowing
from which both tears and laughter are alike genuine and contagious.

This distinction between wit and humour, Coleridge and other kindred
critics applied, with much effect, in their studies of some of our
older English writers. And as the distinction between imagination
and fancy, made popular by Wordsworth, [106] found its best
justification in certain essential differences of stuff in
Wordsworth's own writings, so this other critical distinction,
between wit and humour, finds a sort of visible interpretation and
instance in the character and writings of Charles Lamb;--one who
lived more consistently than most writers among subtle literary
theories, and whose remains are still full of curious interest for
the student of literature as a fine art.

The author of the English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century,
coming to the humourists of the nineteenth, would have found, as is
true preeminently of Thackeray himself, the springs of pity in them
deepened by the deeper subjectivity, the intenser and closer living
with itself, which is characteristic of the temper of the later
generation; and therewith, the mirth also, from the amalgam of which
with pity humour proceeds, has become, in Charles Dickens, for
example, freer and more boisterous.

To this more high-pitched feeling, since predominant in our
literature, the writings of Charles Lamb, whose life occupies the
last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the
nineteenth, are a transition; and such union of grave, of terrible
even, with gay, we may note in the circumstances of his life, as
reflected thence into his work. We catch the aroma of a singular,
homely sweetness about his first years, spent on Thames' side, amid
the red [107] bricks and terraced gardens, with their rich historical
memories of old-fashioned legal London. Just above the poorer class,
deprived, as he says, of the "sweet food of academic institution," he
is fortunate enough to be reared in the classical languages at an
ancient school, where he becomes the companion of Coleridge, as at a
later period he was his enthusiastic disciple. So far, the years go
by with less than the usual share of boyish difficulties; protected,
one fancies, seeing what he was afterwards, by some attraction of
temper in the quaint child, small and delicate, with a certain Jewish
expression in his clear, brown complexion, eyes not precisely of the
same colour, and a slow walk adding to the staidness of his figure;
and whose infirmity of speech, increased by agitation, is partly

And the cheerfulness of all this, of the mere aspect of Lamb's quiet
subsequent life also, might make the more superficial reader think of
him as in himself something slight, and of his mirth as cheaply
bought. Yet we know that beneath this blithe surface there was
something of the fateful domestic horror, of the beautiful heroism
and devotedness too, of old Greek tragedy. His sister Mary, ten
years his senior, in a sudden paroxysm of madness, caused the death
of her mother, and was brought to trial for what an overstrained
justice might have construed as the greatest of crimes. She was
[108] released on the brother's pledging himself to watch over her;
and to this sister, from the age of twenty-one, Charles Lamb
sacrificed himself, "seeking thenceforth," says his earliest
biographer, "no connexion which could interfere with her supremacy in
his affections, or impair his ability to sustain and comfort her."
The "feverish, romantic tie of love," he cast away in exchange for
the "charities of home." Only, from time to time, the madness
returned, affecting him too, once; and we see the brother and sister
voluntarily yielding to restraint. In estimating the humour of Elia,
we must no more forget the strong undercurrent of this great
misfortune and pity, than one could forget it in his actual story.
So he becomes the best critic, almost the discoverer, of Webster, a
dramatist of genius so sombre, so heavily coloured, so macabre.
Rosamund Grey, written in his twenty-third year, a story with
something bitter and exaggerated, an almost insane fixedness of gloom
perceptible in it, strikes clearly this note in his work.

For himself, and from his own point of view, the exercise of his
gift, of his literary art, came to gild or sweeten a life of
monotonous labour, and seemed, as far as regarded others, no very
important thing; availing to give them a little pleasure, and inform
them a little, chiefly in a retrospective manner, but in no way
concerned with the turning of the tides of the great world. And yet
this very modesty, this unambitious [109] way of conceiving his work,
has impressed upon it a certain exceptional enduringness. For of the
remarkable English writers contemporary with Lamb, many were greatly
preoccupied with ideas of practice--religious, moral, political--
ideas which have since, in some sense or other, entered permanently
into the general consciousness; and, these having no longer any
stimulus for a generation provided with a different stock of ideas,
the writings of those who spent so much of themselves in their
propagation have lost, with posterity, something of what they gained
by them in immediate influence. Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley even-
-sharing so largely in the unrest of their own age, and made
personally more interesting thereby, yet, of their actual work,
surrender more to the mere course of time than some of those who may
have seemed to exercise themselves hardly at all in great matters, to
have been little serious, or a little indifferent, regarding them.

Of this number of the disinterested servants of literature, smaller
in England than in France, Charles Lamb is one. In the making of
prose he realises the principle of art for its own sake, as
completely as Keats in the making of verse. And, working ever close
to the concrete, to the details, great or small, of actual things,
books, persons, and with no part of them blurred to his vision by the
intervention of mere abstract theories, he has reached an enduring
moral effect [l10] also, in a sort of boundless sympathy.
Unoccupied, as he might seem, with great matters, he is in immediate
contact with what is real, especially in its caressing littleness,
that littleness in which there is much of the whole woeful heart of
things, and meets it more than half-way with a perfect understanding
of it. What sudden, unexpected touches of pathos in him!--bearing
witness how the sorrow of humanity, the Weltschmerz, the constant
aching of its wounds, is ever present with him: but what a gift also
for the enjoyment of life in its subtleties, of enjoyment actually
refined by the need of some thoughtful economies and making the most
of things! Little arts of happiness he is ready to teach to others.
The quaint remarks of children which another would scarcely have
heard, he preserves--little flies in the priceless amber of his Attic
wit--and has his "Praise of chimney-sweepers" (as William Blake has
written, with so much natural pathos, the Chimney-sweeper's Song)
valuing carefully their white teeth, and fine enjoyment of white
sheets in stolen sleep at Arundel Castle, as he tells the story,
anticipating something of the mood of our deep humourists of the last
generation. His simple mother-pity for those who suffer by accident,
or unkindness of nature, blindness for instance, or fateful disease
of mind like his sister's, has something primitive in its largeness;
and on behalf of ill-used animals he is early in composing a Pity's

[111] And if, in deeper or more superficial sense, the dead do care
at all for their name and fame, then how must the souls of
Shakespeare and Webster have been stirred, after so long converse
with things that stopped their ears, whether above or below the soil,
at his exquisite appreciations of them; the souls of Titian and of
Hogarth too; for, what has not been observed so generally as the
excellence of his literary criticism, Charles Lamb is a fine critic
of painting also. It was as loyal, self-forgetful work for others,
for Shakespeare's self first, for instance, and then for
Shakespeare's readers, that that too was done: he has the true
scholar's way of forgetting himself in his subject. For though
"defrauded," as we saw, in his young years, "of the sweet food of
academic institution," he is yet essentially a scholar, and all his
work mainly retrospective, as I said; his own sorrows, affections,
perceptions, being alone real to him of the present. "I cannot make
these present times," he says once, "present to me."

Above all, he becomes not merely an expositor, permanently valuable,
but for Englishmen almost the discoverer of the old English drama.
"The book is such as I am glad there should be," he modestly says of
the Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of
Shakespeare; to which, however, he adds in a series of notes the very
quintessence of criticism, the choicest savour and perfume of
Elizabethan poetry being [112] sorted, and stored here, with a sort
of delicate intellectual epicureanism, which has had the effect of
winning for these, then almost forgotten, poets, one generation after
another of enthusiastic students. Could he but have known how fresh
a source of culture he was evoking there for other generations,
through all those years in which, a little wistfully, he would harp
on the limitation of his time by business, and sigh for a better
fortune in regard to literary opportunities!

To feel strongly the charm of an old poet or moralist, the literary
charm of Burton, for instance, or Quarles, or The Duchess of
Newcastle; and then to interpret that charm, to convey it to others--
he seeming to himself but to hand on to others, in mere humble
ministration, that of which for them he is really the creator--this
is the way of his criticism; cast off in a stray letter often, or
passing note, or lightest essay or conversation. It is in such a
letter, for instance, that we come upon a singularly penetrative
estimate of the genius and writings of Defoe.

Tracking, with an attention always alert, the whole process of their
production to its starting-point in the deep places of the mind, he
seems to realise the but half-conscious intuitions of Hogarth or
Shakespeare, and develops the great ruling unities which have swayed
their actual work; or "puts up," and takes, the one morsel of good
stuff in an old, forgotten writer. Even [113] in what he says
casually there comes an aroma of old English; noticeable echoes, in
chance turn and phrase, of the great masters of style, the old
masters. Godwin, seeing in quotation a passage from John Woodvil,
takes it for a choice fragment of an old dramatist, and goes to Lamb
to assist him in finding the author. His power of delicate imitation
in prose and verse reaches the length of a fine mimicry even, as in
those last essays of Elia on Popular Fallacies, with their gentle
reproduction or caricature of Sir Thomas Browne, showing, the more
completely, his mastery, by disinterested study, of those elements of
the man which were the real source of style in that great, solemn
master of old English, who, ready to say what he has to say with
fearless homeliness, yet continually overawes one with touches of a
strange utterance from worlds afar. For it is with the delicacies of
fine literature especially, its gradations of expression, its fine
judgment, its pure sense of words, of vocabulary--things, alas! dying
out in the English literature of the present, together with the
appreciation of them in our literature of the past--that his literary
mission is chiefly concerned. And yet, delicate, refining, daintily
epicurean, as he may seem, when he writes of giants, such as Hogarth
or Shakespeare, though often but in a stray note, you catch the sense
of veneration with which those great names in past literature and art
brooded over his intelligence, his undiminished [114] impressibility
by the great effects in them. Reading, commenting on Shakespeare, he
is like a man who walks alone under a grand stormy sky, and among
unwonted tricks of light, when powerful spirits might seem to be
abroad upon the air; and the grim humour of Hogarth, as he analyses
it, rises into a kind of spectral grotesque; while he too knows the
secret of fine, significant touches like theirs.

There are traits, customs, characteristics of houses and dress,
surviving morsels of old life, such as Hogarth has transferred so
vividly into The Rake's Progress, or Marriage à la Mode, concerning
which we well understand how, common, uninteresting, or even
worthless in themselves, they have come to please us at last as
things picturesque, being set in relief against the modes of our
different age. Customs, stiff to us, stiff dresses, stiff furniture-
-types of cast-off fashions, left by accident, and which no one ever
meant to preserve--we contemplate with more than good-nature, as
having in them the veritable accent of a time, not altogether to be
replaced by its more solemn and self-conscious deposits; like those
tricks of individuality which we find quite tolerable in persons,
because they convey to us the secret of lifelike expression, and with
regard to which we are all to some extent humourists. But it is part
of the privilege of the genuine humourist to anticipate this pensive
mood with regard to the ways and things [115] of his own day; to look
upon the tricks in manner of the life about him with that same
refined, purged sort of vision, which will come naturally to those of
a later generation, in observing whatever may have survived by chance
of its mere external habit. Seeing things always by the light of an
understanding more entire than is possible for ordinary minds, of the
whole mechanism of humanity, and seeing also the manner, the outward
mode or fashion, always in strict connexion with the spiritual
condition which determined it, a humourist such as Charles Lamb
anticipates the enchantment of distance; and the characteristics of
places, ranks, habits of life, are transfigured for him, even now and
in advance of time, by poetic light; justifying what some might
condemn as mere sentimentality, in the effort to hand on unbroken the
tradition of such fashion or accent. "The praise of beggars," "the
cries of London," the traits of actors just grown "old," the spots in
"town" where the country, its fresh green and fresh water, still
lingered on, one after another, amidst the bustle; the quaint,
dimmed, just played-out farces, he had relished so much, coming
partly through them to understand the earlier English theatre as a
thing once really alive; those fountains and sun-dials of old
gardens, of which he entertains such dainty discourse:--he feels the
poetry of these things, as the poetry of things old indeed, but
surviving [116] as an actual part of the life of the present; and as
something quite different from the poetry of things flatly gone from
us and antique, which come back to us, if at all, as entire
strangers, like Scott's old Scotch-border personages, their oaths and
armour. Such gift of appreciation depends, as I said, on the
habitual apprehension of men's life as a whole--its organic
wholeness, as extending even to the least things in it--of its
outward manner in connexion with its inward temper; and it involves a
fine perception of the congruities, the musical accordance between
humanity and its environment of custom, society, personal
intercourse; as if all this, with its meetings, partings, ceremonies,
gesture, tones of speech, were some delicate instrument on which an
expert performer is playing.

These are some of the characteristics of Elia, one essentially an
essayist, and of the true family of Montaigne, "never judging," as he
says, "system-wise of things, but fastening on particulars;" saying
all things as it were on chance occasion only, and by way of pastime,
yet succeeding thus, "glimpse-wise," in catching and recording more
frequently than others "the gayest, happiest attitude of things;" a
casual writer for dreamy readers, yet always giving the reader so
much more than he seemed to propose. There is something of the
follower of George Fox about him, and the Quaker's belief in the
inward light coming to one passive, [117] to the mere wayfarer, who
will be sure at all events to lose no light which falls by the way--
glimpses, suggestions, delightful half-apprehensions, profound
thoughts of old philosophers, hints of the innermost reason in
things, the full knowledge of which is held in reserve; all the
varied stuff, that is, of which genuine essays are made.

And with him, as with Montaigne, the desire of self-portraiture is,
below all more superficial tendencies, the real motive in writing at
all--a desire closely connected with that intimacy, that modern
subjectivity, which may be called the Montaignesque element in
literature. What he designs is to give you himself, to acquaint you
with his likeness; but must do this, if at all, indirectly, being
indeed always more or less reserved, for himself and his friends;
friendship counting for so much in his life, that he is jealous of
anything that might jar or disturb it, even to the length of a sort
of insincerity, to which he assigns its quaint "praise"; this lover
of stage plays significantly welcoming a little touch of the
artificiality of play to sweeten the intercourse of actual life.

And, in effect, a very delicate and expressive portrait of him does
put itself together for the duly meditative reader. In indirect
touches of his own work, scraps of faded old letters, what others
remembered of his talk, the man's likeness emerges; what he laughed
and wept at, [118] his sudden elevations, and longings after absent
friends, his fine casuistries of affection and devices to jog
sometimes, as he says, the lazy happiness of perfect love, his solemn
moments of higher discourse with the young, as they came across him
on occasion, and went along a little way with him, the sudden,
surprised apprehension of beauties in old literature, revealing anew
the deep soul of poetry in things, and withal the pure spirit of fun,
having its way again; laughter, that most short-lived of all things
(some of Shakespeare's even being grown hollow) wearing well with
him. Much of all this comes out through his letters, which may be
regarded as a department of his essays. He is an old-fashioned
letter-writer, the essence of the old fashion of letter-writing
lying, as with true essay-writing, in the dexterous availing oneself
of accident and circumstance, in the prosecution of deeper lines of
observation; although, just as with the record of his conversation,
one loses something, in losing the actual tones of the stammerer,
still graceful in his halting, as he halted also in composition,
composing slowly and by fits, "like a Flemish painter," as he tells
us, so "it is to be regretted," says the editor of his letters, "that
in the printed letters the reader will lose the curious varieties of
writing with which the originals abound, and which are scrupulously
adapted to the subject."

Also, he was a true "collector," delighting [119] in the personal
finding of a thing, in the colour an old book or print gets for him
by the little accidents which attest previous ownership. Wither's
Emblems, "that old book and quaint," long-desired, when he finds it
at last, he values none the less because a child had coloured the
plates with his paints. A lover of household warmth everywhere, of
that tempered atmosphere which our various habitations get by men's
living within them, he "sticks to his favourite books as he did to
his friends," and loved the "town," with a jealous eye for all its
characteristics, "old houses" coming to have souls for him. The
yearning for mere warmth against him in another, makes him content,
all through life, with pure brotherliness, "the most kindly and
natural species of love," as he says, in place of the passion of
love. Brother and sister, sitting thus side by side, have, of
course, their anticipations how one of them must sit at last in the
faint sun alone, and set us speculating, as we read, as to precisely
what amount of melancholy really accompanied for him the approach of
old age, so steadily foreseen; make us note also, with pleasure, his
successive wakings up to cheerful realities, out of a too curious
musing over what is gone and what remains, of life. In his subtle
capacity for enjoying the more refined points of earth, of human
relationship, he could throw the gleam of poetry or humour on what
seemed common or threadbare; has a care for the [120] sighs, and the
weary, humdrum preoccupations of very weak people, down to their
little pathetic "gentilities," even; while, in the purely human
temper, he can write of death, almost like Shakespeare.

And that care, through all his enthusiasm of discovery, for what is
accustomed, in literature, connected thus with his close clinging to
home and the earth, was congruous also with that love for the
accustomed in religion, which we may notice in him. He is one of the
last votaries of that old-world sentiment, based on the feelings of
hope and awe, which may be described as the religion of men of
letters (as Sir Thomas Browne has his Religion of the Physician)
religion as understood by the soberer men of letters in the last
century, Addison, Gray, and Johnson; by Jane Austen and Thackeray,
later. A high way of feeling developed largely by constant
intercourse with the great things of literature, and extended in its
turn to those matters greater still, this religion lives, in the main
retrospectively, in a system of received sentiments and beliefs;
received, like those great things of literature and art, in the first
instance, on the authority of a long tradition, in the course of
which they have linked themselves in a thousand complex ways to the
conditions of human life, and no more questioned now than the feeling
one keeps by one of the greatness--say! of Shakespeare. For Charles
Lamb, such form of religion becomes [121] the solemn background on
which the nearer and more exciting objects of his immediate
experience relieve themselves, borrowing from it an expression of
calm; its necessary atmosphere being indeed a profound quiet, that
quiet which has in it a kind of sacramental efficacy, working, we
might say, on the principle of the opus operatum, almost without any
co-operation of one's own, towards the assertion of the higher self.
And, in truth, to men of Lamb's delicately attuned temperament mere
physical stillness has its full value; such natures seeming to long
for it sometimes, as for no merely negative thing, with a sort of
mystical sensuality.

The writings of Charles Lamb are an excellent illustration of the
value of reserve in literature. Below his quiet, his quaintness, his
humour, and what may seem the slightness, the occasional or
accidental character of his work, there lies, as I said at starting,
as in his life, a genuinely tragic element. The gloom, reflected at
its darkest in those hard shadows of Rosamund Grey, is always there,
though not always realised either for himself or his readers, and
restrained always in utterance. It gives to those lighter matters on
the surface of life and literature among which he for the most part
moved, a wonderful force of expression, as if at any moment these
slight words and fancies might pierce very far into the deeper soul
of things. In his writing, as in his [122] life, that quiet is not
the low-flying of one from the first drowsy by choice, and needing
the prick of some strong passion or worldly ambition, to stimulate
him into all the energy of which he is capable; but rather the
reaction of nature, after an escape from fate, dark and insane as in
old Greek tragedy, following upon which the sense of mere relief
becomes a kind of passion, as with one who, having narrowly escaped
earthquake or shipwreck, finds a thing for grateful tears in just
sitting quiet at home, under the wall, till the end of days.

He felt the genius of places; and I sometimes think he resembles the
places he knew and liked best, and where his lot fell--London, sixty-
five years ago, with Covent Garden and the old theatres, and the
Temple gardens still unspoiled, Thames gliding down, and beyond to
north and south the fields at Enfield or Hampton, to which, "with
their living trees," the thoughts wander "from the hard wood of the
desk"--fields fresher, and coming nearer to town then, but in one of
which the present writer remembers, on a brooding early summer's day,
to have heard the cuckoo for the first time. Here, the surface of
things is certainly humdrum, the streets dingy, the green places,
where the child goes a-maying, tame enough. But nowhere are things
more apt to respond to the brighter weather, nowhere is there so much
difference between rain and sunshine, nowhere do the [123] clouds
roll together more grandly; those quaint suburban pastorals gathering
a certain quality of grandeur from the background of the great city,
with its weighty atmosphere, and portent of storm in the rapid light
on dome and bleached stone steeples.



[124] ENGLISH prose literature towards the end of the seventeenth
century, in the hands of Dryden and Locke, was becoming, as that of
France had become at an earlier date, a matter of design and skilled
practice, highly conscious of itself as an art, and, above all,
correct. Up to that time it had been, on the whole, singularly
informal and unprofessional, and by no means the literature of the
"man of letters," as we understand him. Certain great instances
there had been of literary structure or architecture--The
Ecclesiastical Polity, The Leviathan--but for the most part that
earlier prose literature is eminently occasional, closely determined
by the eager practical aims of contemporary politics and theology, or
else due to a man's own native instinct to speak because he cannot
help speaking. Hardly aware of the habit, he likes talking to
himself; and when he writes (still in undress) he does but take the
"friendly reader" into his confidence. The type of this literature,
obviously, is not Locke or Gibbon, but, above all others, Sir Thomas
[125] Browne; as Jean Paul is a good instance of it in German
literature, always in its developments so much later than the
English; and as the best instance of it in French literature, in the
century preceding Browne, is Montaigne, from whom indeed, in a great
measure, all those tentative writers, or essayists, derive.

It was a result, perhaps, of the individualism and liberty of
personal development, which, even for a Roman Catholic, were effects
of the Reformation, that there was so much in Montaigne of the
"subjective," as people say, of the singularities of personal
character. Browne, too, bookish as he really is claims to give his
readers a matter, "not picked from the leaves of any author, but bred
amongst the weeds and tares" of his own brain. The faults of such
literature are what we all recognise in it: unevenness, alike in
thought and style; lack of design; and caprice--the lack of
authority; after the full play of which, there is so much to refresh
one in the reasonable transparency of Hooker, representing thus early
the tradition of a classical clearness in English literature,
anticipated by Latimer and More, and to be fulfilled afterwards in
Butler and Hume. But then, in recompense for that looseness and
whim, in Sir Thomas Browne for instance, we have in those "quaint"
writers, as they themselves understood the term (coint, adorned, but
adorned with all the curious ornaments of their own predilection,
provincial [126] or archaic, certainly unfamiliar, and selected
without reference to the taste or usages of other people) the charm
of an absolute sincerity, with all the ingenuous and racy effect of
what is circumstantial and peculiar in their growth.

The whole creation is a mystery and particularly that of man.
At the blast of His mouth were the rest of the creatures made,
and at His bare word they started out of nothing. But in the
frame of man He played the sensible operator, and seemed not
so much to create as to make him. When He had separated the
materials of other creatures, there consequently resulted a
form and soul: but having raised the walls of man, He was
driven to a second and harder creation--of a substance like
Himself, an incorruptible and immortal soul.

There, we have the manner of Sir Thomas Browne, in exact expression
of his mind!--minute and curious in its thinking; but with an effect,
on the sudden, of a real sublimity or depth. His style is certainly
an unequal one. It has the monumental aim which charmed, and perhaps
influenced, Johnson--a dignity that can be attained only in such
mental calm as follows long and learned pondering on the high
subjects Browne loves to deal with. It has its garrulity, its
various levels of painstaking, its mannerism, pleasant of its kind or
tolerable, together with much, to us intolerable, but of which he was
capable on a lazy summer afternoon down at Norwich. And all is so
oddly mixed, showing, in its entire ignorance of self, how much he,
and the sort of literature he represents, really stood in need of
technique, [127] of a formed taste in literature, of a literary

And yet perhaps we could hardly wish the result different, in him,
any more than in the books of Burton and Fuller, or some other
similar writers of that age--mental abodes, we might liken, after
their own manner, to the little old private houses of some historic
town grouped about its grand public structures, which, when they have
survived at all, posterity is loth to part with. For, in their
absolute sincerity, not only do these authors clearly exhibit
themselves ("the unique peculiarity of the writer's mind," being, as
Johnson says of Browne, "faithfully reflected in the form and matter
of his work") but, even more than mere professionally instructed
writers, they belong to, and reflect, the age they lived in. In
essentials, of course, even Browne is by no means so unique among his
contemporaries, and so singular, as he looks. And then, as the very
condition of their work, there is an entire absence of personal
restraint in dealing with the public, whose humours they come at last
in a great measure to reproduce. To speak more properly, they have
no sense of a "public" to deal with, at all--only a full confidence
in the "friendly reader," as they love to call him. Hence their
amazing pleasantry, their indulgence in their own conceits; but hence
also those unpremeditated wildflowers of speech we should [128] never
have the good luck to find in any more formal kind of literature.

It is, in truth, to the literary purpose of the humourist, in the
old-fashioned sense of the term, that this method of writing
naturally allies itself--of the humourist to whom all the world is
but a spectacle in which nothing is really alien from himself, who
has hardly a sense of the distinction between great and little among
things that are at all, and whose half-pitying, half-amused sympathy
is called out especially by the seemingly small interests and traits
of character in the things or the people around him. Certainly, in
an age stirred by great causes, like the age of Browne in England, of
Montaigne in France, that is not a type to which one would wish to
reduce all men of letters. Still, in an age apt also to become
severe, or even cruel (its eager interest in those great causes
turning sour on occasion) the character of the humourist may well
find its proper influence, through that serene power, and the leisure
it has for conceiving second thoughts, on the tendencies, conscious
or unconscious, of the fierce wills around it. Something of such a
humourist was Browne--not callous to men and their fortunes;
certainly not without opinions of his own about them; and yet,
undisturbed by the civil war, by the fall, and then the restoration,
of the monarchy, through that long quiet life (ending at last on the
day [129] himself had predicted, as if at the moment he had willed)
in which "all existence," as he says, "had been but food for

Johnson, in beginning his Life of Browne, remarks that Browne "seems
to have had the fortune, common among men of letters, of raising
little curiosity after their private life." Whether or not, with the
example of Johnson himself before us, we can think just that, it is
certain that Browne's works are of a kind to directly stimulate
curiosity about himself--about himself, as being manifestly so large
a part of those works; and as a matter of fact we know a great deal
about his life, uneventful as in truth it was. To himself, indeed,
his life at Norwich, as he gives us to understand, seemed wonderful
enough. "Of these wonders," says Johnson, "the view that can now be
taken of his life offers no appearance." But "we carry with us," as
Browne writes, "the wonders we seek without us," and we may note on
the other hand, a circumstance which his daughter, Mrs. Lyttleton,
tells us of his childhood: "His father used to open his breast when
he was asleep, and kiss it in prayers over him, as 'tis said of
Origen's father, that the Holy Ghost would take possession there."
It was perhaps because the son inherited an aptitude for a like
profound kindling of sentiment in the taking of his life, that,
uneventful as it was, [130] commonplace as it seemed to Johnson, to
Browne himself it was so full of wonders, and so stimulates the
curiosity of his more careful reader of to-day. "What influence,"
says Johnson again, "learning has had on its possessors may be
doubtful." Well! the influence of his great learning, of his
constant research on Browne, was its imaginative influence--that it
completed his outfit as a poetic visionary, stirring all the strange
"conceit" of his nature to its depths.

Browne himself dwells, in connexion with the first publication
(extorted by circumstance) of the Religio Medici, on the natural
"inactivity of his disposition"; and he does, as I have said, pass
very quietly through an exciting time. Born in the year of the
Gunpowder Plot, he was not, in truth, one of those clear and
clarifying souls which, in an age alike of practical and mental
confusion, can anticipate and lay down the bases of reconstruction,
like Bacon or Hooker. His mind has much of the perplexity which was
part of the atmosphere of the time. Not that he is without his own
definite opinions on events. For him, Cromwell is a usurper, the
death of Charles an abominable murder. In spite of what is but an
affectation, perhaps, of the sceptical mood, he is a Churchman too;
one of those who entered fully into the Anglican position, so full of
sympathy with those ceremonies and observances [131] which "misguided
zeal terms superstition," that there were some Roman Catholics who
thought that nothing but custom and education kept him from their
communion. At the Restoration he rejoices to see the return of the
comely Anglican order in old episcopal Norwich, with its ancient
churches; the antiquity, in particular, of the English Church being,
characteristically, one of the things he most valued in it,
vindicating it, when occasion came, against the "unjust scandal" of
those who made that Church a creation of Henry the Eighth. As to
Romanists--he makes no scruple to "enter their churches in defect of
ours." He cannot laugh at, but rather pities, "the fruitless
journeys of pilgrims--for there is something in it of devotion." He
could never "hear the Ave Mary! bell without an oraison." At a
solemn procession he has "wept abundantly." How English, in truth,
all this really is! It reminds one how some of the most popular of
English writers, in many a half-conscious expression, have witnessed
to a susceptibility in the English mind itself, in spite of the
Reformation, to what is affecting in religious ceremony. Only, in
religion as in politics, Browne had no turn for disputes; was
suspicious of them, indeed; knowing, as he says with true acumen,
that "a man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and
yet be forced to surrender," even in controversies not [132]
necessarily maladroit--an image in which we may trace a little
contemporary colouring.

The Enquiries into Vulgar Errors appeared in the year 1646; a year
which found him very hard on "the vulgar." His suspicion, in the
abstract, of what Bacon calls Idola Fori, the Idols of the Market-
place, takes a special emphasis from the course of events about him:
"being erroneous in their single numbers, once huddled together, they
will be error itself." And yet, congruously with a dreamy sweetness
of character we may find expressed in his very features, he seems not
greatly concerned at the temporary suppression of the institutions he
values so much. He seems to possess some inward Platonic reality of
them--church or monarchy--to hold by in idea, quite beyond the reach
of Roundhead or unworthy Cavalier. In the power of what is inward
and inviolable in his religion, he can still take note: "In my
solitary and retired imagination (neque enim cum porticus aut me
lectulus accepit, desum mihi) I remember I am not alone, and
therefore forget not to contemplate Him and His attributes who is
ever with me."

His father, a merchant of London, with some claims to ancient
descent, left him early in possession of ample means. Educated at
Winchester and Oxford, he visited Ireland, France, and Italy; and in
the year 1633, at the age of twenty-eight, became Doctor of Medicine
at Leyden. Three years later he established himself as a physician
[133] at Norwich for the remainder of his life, having married a
lady, described as beautiful and attractive, and affectionate also,
as we may judge from her letters and postscripts to those of her
husband, in an orthography of a homeliness amazing even for that age.
Dorothy Browne bore him ten children, six of whom he survived.

Their house at Norwich, even then an old one it would seem, must have
grown, through long years of acquisition, into an odd cabinet of
antiquities--antiquities properly so called; his old Roman, or
Romanised British urns, from Walsingham or Brampton, for instance,
and those natural objects which he studied somewhat in the temper of
a curiosity-hunter or antiquary. In one of the old churchyards of
Norwich he makes the first discovery of adipocere, of which grim
substance "a portion still remains with him." For his multifarious
experiments he must have had his laboratory. The old window-
stanchions had become magnetic, proving, as he thinks, that iron
"acquires verticity" from long lying in one position. Once we find
him re-tiling the place. It was then, perhaps, that he made the
observation that bricks and tiles also acquire "magnetic alliciency"-
-one's whole house, one might fancy; as indeed, he holds the earth
itself to be a vast lodestone.

The very faults of his literary work, its desultoriness, the time it
costs his readers, that [134] slow Latinity which Johnson imitated
from him, those lengthy leisurely terminations which busy posterity
will abbreviate, all breathe of the long quiet of the place. Yet he
is by no means indolent. Besides wide book-learning, experimental
research at home, and indefatigable observation in the open air, he
prosecutes the ordinary duties of a physician; contrasting himself
indeed with other students, "whose quiet and unmolested doors afford
no such distractions." To most persons of mind sensitive as his, his
chosen studies would have seemed full of melancholy, turning always,
as they did, upon death and decay. It is well, perhaps, that life
should be something of a "meditation upon death": but to many,
certainly, Browne's would have seemed too like a lifelong following
of one's own funeral. A museum is seldom a cheerful place--oftenest
induces the feeling that nothing could ever have been young; and to
Browne the whole world is a museum; all the grace and beauty it has
being of a somewhat mortified kind. Only, for him (poetic dream, or
philosophic apprehension, it was this which never failed to evoke his
wonderful genius for exquisitely impassioned speech) over all those
ugly anatomical preparations, as though over miraculous saintly
relics, there was the perpetual flicker of a surviving spiritual
ardency, one day to reassert itself--stranger far than any fancied
odylic gravelights!

[135] When Browne settled at Norwich, being then about thirty-six
years old, he had already completed the Religio Medici; a desultory
collection of observations designed for himself only and a few
friends, at all events with no purpose of immediate publication. It
had been lying by him for seven years, circulating privately in his
own extraordinarily perplexed manuscript, or in manuscript copies,
when, in 1642, an incorrect printed version from one of those copies,
"much corrupted by transcription at various hands," appeared
anonymously. Browne, decided royalist as he was in spite of seeming
indifference, connects this circumstance with the unscrupulous use of
the press for political purposes, and especially against the king, at
that time. Just here a romantic figure comes on the scene. Son of
the unfortunate young Everard Digby who perished on the scaffold for
some half-hearted participation in the Gunpowder Plot, Kenelm Digby,
brought up in the reformed religion, had returned in manhood to the
religion of his father. In his intellectual composition he had, in
common with Browne, a scientific interest, oddly tinged with both
poetry and scepticism: he had also a strong sympathy with religious
reaction, and a more than sentimental love for a seemingly vanishing
age of faith, which he, for one, would not think of as vanishing. A
copy of that surreptitious edition of the Religio Medici found him a
prisoner on suspicion of a too active [136] royalism, and with much
time on his hands.

The Roman Catholic, although, secure in his definite orthodoxy, he
finds himself indifferent on many points (on the reality of
witchcraft, for instance) concerning which Browne's more timid,
personally grounded faith might indulge no scepticism, forced
himself, nevertheless, to detect a vein of rationalism in a book
which on the whole much attracted him, and hastily put forth his
"animadversions" upon it. Browne, with all his distaste for
controversy, thus found himself committed to a dispute, and his reply
came with the correct edition of the Religio Medici published at last
with his name. There have been many efforts to formulate the
"religion of the layman," which might be rightly understood, perhaps,
as something more than what is called "natural," yet less than
ecclesiastical, or "professional" religion. Though its habitual mode
of conceiving experience is on a different plane, yet it would
recognise the legitimacy of the traditional religious interpretation
of that experience, generally and by implication; only, with a marked
reserve as to religious particulars, both of thought and language,
out of a real reverence or awe, as proper only for a special place.
Such is the lay religion, as we may find it in Addison, in Gray, in
Thackeray; and there is something of a concession--a concession, on
second thoughts--about it. Browne's Religio Medici is designed as
the expression of a mind [137] more difficult of belief than that of
the mere "layman," as above described; it is meant for the religion
of the man of science. Actually, it is something less to the point,
in any balancing of the religious against the worldly view of things,
than the religion of the layman, as just now defined. For Browne, in
spite of his profession of boisterous doubt, has no real
difficulties, and his religion, certainly, nothing of the character
of a concession. He holds that there has never existed an atheist.
Not that he is credulous; but that his religion is only the
correlative of himself, his peculiar character and education, a
religion of manifold association. For him, the wonders of religion,
its supernatural events or agencies, are almost natural facts or
processes. "Even in this material fabric, the spirits walk as freely
exempt from the affection of time, place and motion, as beyond the
extremest circumference." Had not Divine interference designed to
raise the dead, nature herself is in act to do it--to lead out the
"incinerated soul" from the retreats of her dark laboratory.
Certainly Browne has not, like Pascal, made the "great resolution,"
by the apprehension that it is just in the contrast of the moral
world to the world with which science deals that religion finds its
proper basis. It is from the homelessness of the world which science
analyses so victoriously, its dark unspirituality, wherein the soul
he is conscious of seems such a [138] stranger, that Pascal "turns
again to his rest," in the conception of a world of wholly reasonable
and moral agencies. For Browne, on the contrary, the light is full,
design everywhere obvious, its conclusion easy to draw, all small and
great things marked clearly with the signature of the "Word." The
adhesion, the difficult adhesion, of men such as Pascal, is an
immense contribution to religious controversy; the concession, again,
of a man like Addison, of great significance there. But in the
adhesion of Browne, in spite of his crusade against "vulgar errors,"
there is no real significance. The Religio Medici is a contribution,
not to faith, but to piety; a refinement and correction, such as
piety often stands in need of; a help, not so much to religious
belief in a world of doubt, as to the maintenance of the religious
mood amid the interests of a secular calling.

From about this time Browne's letters afford a pretty clear view of
his life as it passed in the house at Norwich. Many of these letters
represent him in correspondence with the singular men who shared his
own half poetic, half scientific turn of mind, with that
impressibility towards what one might call the thaumaturgic elements
in nature which has often made men dupes, and which is certainly an
element in the somewhat atrabiliar mental complexion of that age in
England. He corresponds seriously with William Lily, the astrologer;
is acquainted [139] with Dr. Dee, who had some connexion with
Norwich, and has "often heard him affirm, sometimes with oaths, that
he had seen transmutation of pewter dishes and flagons into silver
(at least) which the goldsmiths at Prague bought of him." Browne is
certainly an honest investigator; but it is still with a faint hope
of something like that upon fitting occasion, and on the alert always
for surprises in nature (as if nature had a rhetoric, at times, to
deliver to us, like those sudden and surprising flowers of his own
poetic style) that he listens to her everyday talk so attentively.
Of strange animals, strange cures, and the like, his correspondence
is full. The very errors he combats are, of course, the curiosities
of error--those fascinating, irresistible, popular, errors, which
various kinds of people have insisted on gliding into because they
like them. Even his heresies were old ones--the very fossils of
capricious opinion.

It is as an industrious local naturalist that Browne comes before us
first, full of the fantastic minute life in the fens and "Broads"
around Norwich, its various sea and marsh birds. He is something of
a vivisectionist also, and we may not be surprised at it, perhaps, in
an age which, for the propagation of truth, was ready to cut off
men's ears. He finds one day "a Scarabaus capricornus odoratus,"
which he takes "to be mentioned by Monfetus, folio 150. He saith,
'Nucem moschatam et cinnamomum vere spirat'--[140] but to me it smelt
like roses, santalum, and ambergris." "Musca tuliparum moschata,"
again, "is a small bee-like fly of an excellent fragrant odour, which
I have often found at the bottom of the flowers of tulips." Is this
within the experience of modern entomologists?

The Garden of Cyrus, though it ends indeed with a passage of
wonderful felicity, certainly emphasises (to say the least) the
defects of Browne's literary good qualities. His chimeric fancy
carries him here into a kind of frivolousness, as if he felt almost
too safe with his public, and were himself not quite serious, or
dealing fairly with it; and in a writer such as Browne levity must of
necessity be a little ponderous. Still, like one of those stiff
gardens, half-way between the medieval garden and the true "English"
garden of Temple or Walpole, actually to be seen in the background of
some of the conventional portraits of that day, the fantasies of this
indescribable exposition of the mysteries of the quincunx form part
of the complete portrait of Browne himself; and it is in connexion
with it that, once or twice, the quaintly delightful pen of Evelyn
comes into the correspondence--in connexion with the "hortulane
pleasure." "Norwich," he writes to Browne, "is a place, I
understand, much addicted to the flowery part." Professing himself a
believer in the operation "of the air and genius of gardens upon
human spirits, towards virtue and sanctity," he is all for [141]
natural gardens as against "those which appear like gardens of paste-
board and march-pane, and smell more of paint than of flowers and
verdure." Browne is in communication also with Ashmole and Dugdale,
the famous antiquaries; to the latter of whom, who had written a work
on the history of the embanking of fens, he communicates the
discovery of certain coins, on a piece of ground "in the nature of an
island in the fens."

Far more interesting certainly than those curious scientific letters
is Browne's "domestic correspondence." Dobson, Charles the First's
"English Tintoret," would seem to have painted a life-sized picture
of Sir Thomas Browne and his family, after the manner of those big,
urbane, family groups, then coming into fashion with the Dutch
Masters. Of such a portrait nothing is now known. But in these old-
fashioned, affectionate letters, transmitted often, in those
troublous times, with so much difficulty, we have what is almost as
graphic--a numerous group, in which, although so many of Browne's
children died young, he was happy; with Dorothy Browne, occasionally
adding her charming, ill-spelt postscripts to her husband's letters;
the religious daughter who goes to daily prayers after the
Restoration, which brought Browne the honour of knighthood; and,
above all, two Toms, son and grandson of Sir Thomas, the latter being
the son of Dr. Edward Browne, [142] now become distinguished as a
physician in London (he attended John, Earl of Rochester, in his last
illness at Woodstock) and his childish existence as he lives away
from his proper home in London, in the old house at Norwich, two
hundred years ago, we see like a thing of to-day.

At first the two brothers, Edward and Thomas (the elder) are together
in everything. Then Edward goes abroad for his studies, and Thomas,
quite early, into the navy, where he certainly develops into a
wonderfully gallant figure; passing away, however, from the
correspondence, it is uncertain how, before he was of full age. From
the first he is understood to be a lad of parts. "If you practise to
write, you will have a good pen and style:" and a delightful, boyish
journal of his remains, describing a tour the two brothers made in
September 1662 among the Derbyshire hills. "I received your two last
letters," he writes to his father from aboard the Marie Rose, "and
give you many thanks for the discourse you sent me out of Vossius: De
motu marium et ventorum. It seemed very hard to me at first; but I
have now beaten it, and I wish I had the book." His father is
pleased to think that he is "like to proceed not only a good
navigator, but a good scholar": and he finds the much exacting, old
classical prescription for the character of the brave man fulfilled
in him. On 16th July 1666 the young man writes--still from the Marie

[143] If it were possible to get an opportunity to send as often
as I am desirous to write, you should hear more often from me,
being now so near the grand action, from which I would by no means
be absent. I extremely long for that thundering day: wherein I
hope you shall hear we have behaved ourselves like men, and to
the honour of our country. I thank you for your directions for
my ears against the noise of the guns, but I have found that I
could endure it; nor is it so intolerable as most conceive;
especially when men are earnest, and intent upon their business,
unto whom muskets sound but like pop-guns. It is impossible
to express unto another how a smart sea-fight elevates the spirits
of a man, and makes him despise all dangers. In and after all
sea-fights, I have been very thirsty.

He died, as I said, early in life. We only hear of him later in
connexion with a trait of character observed in Tom the grandson,
whose winning ways, and tricks of bodily and mental growth, are duly
recorded in these letters: the reader will, I hope, pardon the
following extracts from them:--

Little Tom is lively.... Frank is fayne sometimes to play him
asleep with a fiddle. When we send away our letters he scribbles
a paper and will have it sent to his sister, and saith she doth
not know how many fine things there are in Norwich.... He
delights his grandfather when he comes home.

Tom gives you many thanks for his clothes (from London). He
has appeared very fine this King's day with them.

Tom presents his duty. A gentleman at our election asked Tom
who hee was for? and he answered, "For all four." The gentleman
replied that he answered like a physician's son.

Tom would have his grandmother, his aunt Betty, and Frank,
valentines: but hee conditioned with them that they should give
him nothing of any kind that hee had ever had or seen before.

[144] "Tom is just now gone to see two bears which are to be
shown." "Tom, his duty. He is begging books and reading of
them." "The players are at the Red Lion hard by; and Tom goes
sometimes to see a play."

And then one day he stirs old memories--

The fairings were welcome to Tom. He finds about the house
divers things that were your brother's (the late Edward's),
and Betty sometimes tells him stories about him, so that he
was importunate with her to write his life in a quarter of
a sheet of paper, and read it unto him, and will have still
more added.

Just as I am writing (learnedly about a comet, 7th January
1680-81) Tom comes and tells me the blazing star is in the
yard, and calls me to see it. It was but dim, and the sky
not clear.... I am very sensible of this sharp weather.+

He seems to have come to no good end, riding forth one stormy night.
Requiescat in pace!

Of this long, leisurely existence the chief events were Browne's rare
literary publications; some of his writings indeed having been left
unprinted till after his death; while in the circumstances of the
issue of every one of them there is something accidental, as if the
world might have missed it altogether. Even the Discourse of Vulgar
Errors, the longest and most elaborate of his works, is entirely
discursive and occasional, coming to an end with no natural
conclusion, but only because the writer chose to leave off just
there; and few probably have been the readers of the book as a
consecutive whole. At times indeed we seem to have in it observations
only, or notes, preliminary to some more orderly composition. Dip
into it: read, for [145] instance, the chapter "Of the Ring-finger,"
or the chapters "Of the Long Life of the Deer," and on the "Pictures
of Mermaids, Unicorns, and some Others," and the part will certainly
seem more than the whole. Try to read it through, and you will soon
feel cloyed;--miss very likely, its real worth to the fancy, the
literary fancy (which finds its pleasure in inventive word and
phrase) and become dull to the really vivid beauties of a book so
lengthy, but with no real evolution. Though there are words,
phrases, constructions innumerable, which remind one how much the
work initiated in France by Madame de Rambouillet--work, done for
England, we may think perhaps imperfectly, in the next century by
Johnson and others--was really needed; yet the capacities of Browne's
manner of writing, coming as it did so directly from the man, are
felt even in his treatment of matters of science. As with Buffon,
his full, ardent, sympathetic vocabulary, the poetry of his language,
a poetry inherent in its elementary particles--the word, the epithet-
-helps to keep his eye, and the eye of the reader, on the object
before it, and conduces directly to the purpose of the naturalist,
the observer. But, only one half observation, its other half
consisting of very out-of-the-way book-lore, this work displays
Browne still in the character of the antiquary, as that age
understood him. He is a kind of Elias Ashmole, but dealing with
natural objects; which are for him, in the first [146] place, and
apart from the remote religious hints and intimations they carry with
them, curiosities. He seems to have no true sense of natural law, as
Bacon understood it; nor even of that immanent reason in the natural
world, which the Platonic tradition supposes. "Things are really
true," he says, "as they correspond unto God's conception; and have
so much verity as they hold of conformity unto that intellect, in
whose idea they had their first determinations." But, actually, what
he is busy in the record of, are matters more or less of the nature
of caprices; as if things, after all, were significant of their
higher verity only at random, and in a sort of surprises, like music
in old instruments suddenly touched into sound by a wandering finger,
among the lumber of people's houses. Nature, "the art of God," as he
says, varying a little a phrase used also by Hobbes, in a work
printed later--Nature, he seems to protest, is only a little less
magical, its processes only a little less in the way of alchemy, than
you had supposed. We feel that, as with that disturbed age in
England generally (and it is here that he, with it, is so
interesting, curious, old-world, and unlike ourselves) his supposed
experience might at any moment be broken in upon by a hundred forms
of a natural magic, only not quite so marvellous as that older sort
of magic, or alchemy, he is at so much pains to expose; and the large
promises of which, its large words too, he still regretfully enjoys.

[147] And yet the Discourse of Vulgar Errors, seeming, as it often
does, to be a serious refutation of fairy tales--arguing, for
instance, against the literal truth of the poetic statement that "The
pigeon hath no gall," and such questions as "Whether men weigh
heavier dead than alive?" being characteristic questions--is
designed, with much ambition, under its pedantic Greek title
Pseudodoxia Epidemica, as a criticism, a cathartic, an instrument for
the clarifying of the intellect. He begins from "that first error in
Paradise," wondering much at "man's deceivability in his
perfection,"--"at such gross deceit." He enters in this connexion,
with a kind of poetry of scholasticism which may interest the student
of Paradise Lost, into what we may call the intellectual and moral
by-play of the situation of the first man and woman in Paradise, with
strange queries about it. Did Adam, for instance, already know of
the fall of the Angels? Did he really believe in death, till Abel
died? It is from Julius Scaliger that he takes his motto, to the
effect that the true knowledge of things must be had from things
themselves, not from books; and he seems as seriously concerned as
Bacon to dissipate the crude impressions of a false "common sense,"
of false science, and a fictitious authority. Inverting, oddly,
Plato's theory that all learning is but reminiscence, he reflects
with a sigh how much of oblivion must needs be involved in the
getting of any true knowledge. "Men that [148] adore times past,
consider not that those times were once present (that is, as our own
are) and ourselves unto those to come, as they unto us at present."
That, surely, coming from one both by temperament and habit so great
an antiquary, has the touch of something like an influence in the
atmosphere of the time. That there was any actual connexion between
Browne's work and Bacon's is but a surmise. Yet we almost seem to
hear Bacon when Browne discourses on the "use of doubts, and the
advantages which might be derived from drawing up a calendar of
doubts, falsehoods, and popular errors;" and, as from Bacon, one gets
the impression that men really have been very much the prisoners of
their own crude or pedantic terms, notions, associations; that they
have been very indolent in testing very simple matters--with a
wonderful kind of "supinity," as he calls it. In Browne's chapter on
the "Sources of Error," again, we may trace much resemblance to
Bacon's striking doctrine of the Idola, the "shams" men fall down and
worship. Taking source respectively, from the "common infirmity of
human nature," from the "erroneous disposition of the people," from
"confident adherence to authority," the errors which Browne chooses
to deal with may be registered as identical with Bacon's Idola
Tribus, Fori, Theatri; the idols of our common human nature; of the
vulgar, when they get together; and of the learned, when they get

[149] But of the fourth species of error noted by Bacon, the Idola
Specus, the Idols of the Cave, that whole tribe of illusions, which
are "bred amongst the weeds and tares of one's own brain," Browne
tells us nothing by way of criticism; was himself, rather, a lively
example of their operation. Throw those illusions, those "idols,"
into concrete or personal form, suppose them introduced among the
other forces of an active intellect, and you have Sir Thomas Browne
himself. The sceptical inquirer who rises from his cathartic, his
purging of error, a believer in the supernatural character of pagan
oracles, and a cruel judge of supposed witches, must still need as
much as ever that elementary conception of the right method and the
just limitations of knowledge, by power of which he should not just
strain out a single error here or there, but make a final precipitate
of fallacy.

And yet if the temperament had been deducted from Browne's work--that
inherent and strongly marked way of deciding things, which has guided
with so surprising effect the musings of the Letter to a Friend, and
the Urn-Burial--we should probably have remembered him little. Pity!
some may think, for himself at least, that he had not lived earlier,
and still believed in the mandrake, for instance; its fondness for
places of execution, and its human cries "on eradication, with hazard
of life to them that pull it up." "In philosophy," he observes,
meaning to contrast [150] his free-thinking in that department with
his orthodoxy in religion--in philosophy, "where truth seems double-
faced, there is no man more paradoxical than myself:" which is true,
we may think, in a further sense than he meant, and that it was the
"paradoxical" that he actually preferred. Happy, at all events, he
still remained--undisturbed and happy--in a hundred native
prepossessions, some certainly valueless, some of them perhaps
invaluable. And while one feels that no real logic of fallacies has
been achieved by him, one feels still more how little the
construction of that branch of logical inquiry really helps men's
minds; fallacy, like truth itself, being a matter so dependent on
innate gift of apprehension, so extra-logical and personal; the
original perception counting for almost everything, the mere
inference for so little! Yes! "A man may be in as just possession
of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender," even in
controversies not necessarily maladroit.

The really stirring poetry of science is not in guesses, or facile
divinations about it, but in its larger ascertained truths--the order
of infinite space, the slow method and vast results of infinite time.
For Browne, however, the sense of poetry which so overmasters his
scientific procedure, depends chiefly on its vaguer possibilities;
the empirical philosophy, even after Bacon, being still dominated by
a temper, resultant from the general unsettlement of men's [151]
minds at the Reformation, which may be summed up in the famous
question of Montaigne--Que sçais-je? The cold-blooded method of
observation and experiment was creeping but slowly over the domain of
science; and such unreclaimed portions of it as the phenomena of
magnetism had an immense fascination for men like Browne and Digby.
Here, in those parts of natural philosophy "but yet in discovery,"
"the America and untravelled parts of truth," lay for them the true
prospect of science, like the new world itself to a geographical
discoverer such as Raleigh. And welcome as one of the minute hints
of that country far ahead of them, the strange bird, or floating
fragment of unfamiliar vegetation, which met those early navigators,
there was a certain fantastic experiment, in which, as was alleged,
Paracelsus had been lucky. For Browne and others it became the
crucial type of the kind of agency in nature which, as they
conceived, it was the proper function of science to reveal in larger
operation. "The subject of my last letter," says Dr. Henry Power,
then a student, writing to Browne in 1648, the last year of Charles
the First, "being so high and noble a piece of chemistry, invites me
once more to request an experimental eviction of it from yourself;
and I hope you will not chide my importunity in this petition, or be
angry at my so frequent knockings at your door to obtain a grant of
so great and admirable a [152] mystery." What the enthusiastic young
student expected from Browne, so high and noble a piece of chemistry,
was the "re-individualling of an incinerated plant"--a violet,
turning to freshness, and smelling sweet again, out of its ashes,
under some genially fitted conditions of the chemic art.

Palingenesis, resurrection, effected by orderly prescription--the
"re-individualling" of an "incinerated organism"--is a subject which
affords us a natural transition to the little book of the
Hydriotaphia, or Treatise of Urn-Burial--about fifty or sixty pages--
which, together with a very singular letter not printed till after
Browne's death, is perhaps, after all, the best justification of
Browne's literary reputation, as it were his own curiously figured
urn, and treasure-place of immortal memory.

In its first presentation to the public this letter was connected
with Browne's Christian Morals; but its proper and sympathetic
collocation would be rather with the Urn-Burial, of which it is a
kind of prelude, or strikes the keynote. He is writing in a very
complex situation--to a friend, upon occasion of the death of a
common friend. The deceased apparently had been little known to
Browne himself till his recent visits, while the intimate friend to
whom he is writing had been absent at the time; and the leading
motive of Browne's letter is the deep impression he has received
during those visits, of a sort of [153] physical beauty in the coming
of death, with which he still surprises and moves his reader. There
had been, in this case, a tardiness and reluctancy in the
circumstances of dissolution, which had permitted him, in the
character of a physician, as it were to assist at the spiritualising
of the bodily frame by natural process; a wonderful new type of a
kind of mortified grace being evolved by the way. The spiritual body
had anticipated the formal moment of death; the alert soul, in that
tardy decay, changing its vesture gradually, and as if piece by
piece. The infinite future had invaded this life perceptibly to the
senses, like the ocean felt far inland up a tidal river. Nowhere,
perhaps, is the attitude of questioning awe on the threshold of
another life displayed with the expressiveness of this unique morsel
of literature; though there is something of the same kind, in another
than the literary medium, in the delicate monumental sculpture of the
early Tuscan School, as also in many of the designs of William Blake,
often, though unconsciously, much in sympathy with those
unsophisticated Italian workmen. With him, as with them, and with
the writer of the Letter to a Friend upon the occasion of the death
of his intimate Friend,--so strangely! the visible function of death
is but to refine, to detach from aught that is vulgar. And this
elfin letter, really an impromptu epistle to a friend, affords the
best possible light on the general temper of the man [154] who could
be moved by the accidental discovery of those old urns at Walsingham-
-funeral relics of "Romans, or Britons Romanised which had learned
Roman customs"--to the composition of that wonderful book the
Hydriotaphia. He had drawn up a short account of the circumstance at
the moment; but it was after ten years' brooding that he put forth
the finished treatise, dedicated to an eminent collector of ancient
coins and other rarities, with congratulations that he "can daily
command the view of so many imperial faces," and (by way of
frontispiece) with one of the urns, "drawn with a coal taken out of
it and found among the burnt bones." The discovery had resuscitated
for him a whole world of latent observation, from life, from out-of-
the-way reading, from the natural world, and fused into a
composition, which with all its quaintness we may well pronounce
classical, all the heterogeneous elements of that singular mind. The
desire to "record these risen ashes and not to let them be buried
twice among us," had set free, in his manner of conceiving things,
something not wholly analysable, something that may be properly
called genius, which shapes his use of common words to stronger and
deeper senses, in a way unusual in prose writing. Let the reader,
for instance, trace his peculiarly sensitive use of the epithets thin
and dark, both here and in the Letter to a Friend.

Upon what a grand note he can begin and end [155] chapter or
paragraph! "When the funeral pyre was out, and the last valediction
over:" "And a large part of the earth is still in the urn unto us."
Dealing with a very vague range of feelings, it is his skill to
associate them to very definite objects. Like the Soul, in Blake's
design, "exploring the recesses of the tomb," he carries a light, the
light of the poetic faith which he cannot put off him, into those
dark places, "the abode of worms and pismires," peering round with a
boundless curiosity and no fear; noting the various casuistical
considerations of men's last form of self-love; all those whims of
humanity as a "student of perpetuity," the mortuary customs of all
nations, which, from their very closeness to our human nature, arouse
in most minds only a strong feeling of distaste. There is something
congruous with the impassive piety of the man in his waiting on
accident from without to take start for the work, which, of all his
work, is most truly touched by the "divine spark." Delightsome as
its eloquence is actually found to be, that eloquence is attained out
of a certain difficulty and halting crabbedness of expression; the
wretched punctuation of the piece being not the only cause of its
impressing the reader with the notion that he is but dealing with a
collection of notes for a more finished composition, and of a
different kind; perhaps a purely erudite treatise on its subject,
with detachment of all personal colour now adhering [156] to it. Out
of an atmosphere of all-pervading oddity and quaintness--the
quaintness of mind which reflects that this disclosing of the urns of
the ancients hath "left unto our view some parts which they never
beheld themselves"--arises a work really ample and grand, nay!
classical, as I said, by virtue of the effectiveness with which it
fixes a type in literature; as, indeed, at its best, romantic
literature (and Browne is genuinely romantic) in every period attains
classical quality, giving true measure of the very limited value of
those well-worn critical distinctions. And though the Urn-Burial
certainly has much of the character of a poem, yet one is never
allowed to forget that it was designed, candidly, as a scientific
treatise on one department of ancient "culture" (as much so as
Guichard's curious old French book on Divers Manners of Burial) and
was the fruit of much labour, in the way especially of industrious
selection from remote and difficult writers; there being then few or
no handbooks, or anything like our modern shortcuts to varied
knowledge. Quite unaffectedly, a curious learning saturates, with a
kind of grey and aged colour most apt and congruous with the subject-
matter, all the thoughts that arise in him. His great store of
reading, so freely displayed, he uses almost as poetically as Milton;
like him, profiting often by the mere sonorous effect of some heroic
or ancient name, which he can adapt to that same sort of learned
sweetness of [157] cadence with which so many of his single sentences
are made to fall upon the ear.

Pope Gregory, that great religious poet, requested by certain eminent
persons to send them some of those relics he sought for so devoutly
in all the lurking-places of old Rome, took up, it is said, a portion
of common earth, and delivered it to the messengers; and, on their
expressing surprise at such a gift, pressed the earth together in his
hand, whereupon the sacred blood of the Martyrs was beheld flowing
out between his fingers. The veneration of relics became a part of
Christian (as some may think it a part of natural) religion. All
over Rome we may count how much devotion in fine art is owing to it;
and, through all ugliness or superstition, its intention still speaks
clearly to serious minds. The poor dead bones, ghastly and
forbidding:--we know what Shakespeare would have felt about them.--
"Beat not the bones of the buried: when he breathed, he was a man!"
And it is with something of a similar feeling that Browne is full, on
the common and general ground of humanity; an awe-stricken sympathy
with those, whose bones "lie at the mercies of the living," strong
enough to unite all his various chords of feeling into a single
strain of impressive and genuine poetry. His real interest is in
what may be called the curiosities of our common humanity. As
another might be moved at the sight of Alexander's bones, or Saint
Edmund's, or Saint Cecilia's, [158] so he is full of a fine poetical
excitement at such lowly relics as the earth hides almost everywhere
beneath our feet. But it is hardly fair to take our leave amid these
grievous images of so happy a writer as Sir Thomas Browne; so great a
lover of the open air, under which much of his life was passed. His
work, late one night, draws to a natural close:--"To keep our eyes
open longer," he bethinks himself suddenly, "were but to act our
Antipodes. The huntsmen are up in America! "

What a fund of open-air cheerfulness, there! in turning to sleep.
Still, even when we are dealing with a writer in whom mere style
counts for so much as with Browne, it is impossible to ignore his
matter; and it is with religion he is really occupied from first to
last, hardly less than Richard Hooker. And his religion, too, after
all, was a religion of cheerfulness: he has no great consciousness of
evil in things, and is no fighter. His religion, if one may say so,
was all profit to him; among other ways, in securing an absolute
staidness and placidity of temper, for the intellectual work which
was the proper business of his life. His contributions to
"evidence," in the Religio Medici, for instance, hardly tell, because
he writes out of view of a really philosophical criticism. What does
tell in him, in this direction, is the witness he brings to men's
instinct of survival--the "intimations of immortality," as Wordsworth
terms them, which [159] were natural with him in surprising force.
As was said of Jean Paul, his special subject was the immortality of
the soul; with an assurance as personal, as fresh and original, as it
was, on the one hand, in those old half-civilised people who had
deposited the urns; on the other hand, in the cynical French poet of
the nineteenth century, who did not think, but knew, that his soul
was imperishable. He lived in an age in which that philosophy made a
great stride which ends with Hume; and his lesson, if we may be
pardoned for taking away a "lesson" from so ethical a writer, is the
force of men's temperaments in the management of opinion, their own
or that of others;--that it is not merely different degrees of bare
intellectual power which cause men to approach in different degrees
to this or that intellectual programme. Could he have foreseen the
mature result of that mechanical analysis which Bacon had applied to
nature, and Hobbes to the mind of man, there is no reason to think
that he would have surrendered his own chosen hypothesis concerning
them. He represents, in an age, the intellectual powers of which
tend strongly to agnosticism, that class of minds to which the
supernatural view of things is still credible. The non-mechanical
theory of nature has had its grave adherents since: to the non-
mechanical theory of man--that he is in contact with a moral order on
a different plane from the [160] mechanical order--thousands, of the
most various types and degrees of intellectual power, always adhere;
a fact worth the consideration of all ingenuous thinkers, if (as is
certainly the case with colour, music, number, for instance) there
may be whole regions of fact, the recognition of which belongs to one
and not to another, which people may possess in various degrees; for
the knowledge of which, therefore, one person is dependent upon
another; and in relation to which the appropriate means of cognition
must lie among the elements of what we call individual temperament,
so that what looks like a pre-judgment may be really a legitimate
apprehension. "Men are what they are," and are not wholly at the
mercy of formal conclusions from their formally limited premises.
Browne passes his whole life in observation and inquiry: he is a
genuine investigator, with every opportunity: the mind of the age all
around him seems passively yielding to an almost foregone
intellectual result, to a philosophy of disillusion. But he thinks
all that a prejudice; and not from any want of intellectual power
certainly, but from some inward consideration, some afterthought,
from the antecedent gravitation of his own general character--or,
will you say? from that unprecipitated infusion of fallacy in him--he
fails to draw, unlike almost all the rest of the world, the
conclusion ready to hand.



144. +In the original, this quotation, like several above it, is not
indented; it is in smaller type. Return.


[161] Love's Labours Lost is one of the earliest of Shakespeare's
dramas, and has many of the peculiarities of his poems, which are
also the work of his earlier life. The opening speech of the king on
the immortality of fame--on the triumph of fame over death--and the
nobler parts of Biron, display something of the monumental style of
Shakespeare's Sonnets, and are not without their concerts of thought
and expression. This connexion of Love's Labours Lost with
Shakespeare's poems is further enforced by the actual insertion in it
of three sonnets and a faultless song; which, in accordance with his
practice in other plays, are inwoven into the argument of the piece
and, like the golden ornaments of a fair woman, give it a peculiar
air of distinction. There is merriment in it also, with choice
illustrations of both wit and humour; a laughter, often exquisite,
ringing, if faintly, yet as genuine laughter still, though sometimes
sinking into mere burlesque, which has not lasted quite so well. And
Shakespeare [162] brings a serious effect out of the trifling of his
characters. A dainty love-making is interchanged with the more
cumbrous play: below the many artifices of Biron's amorous speeches
we may trace sometimes the "unutterable longing;" and the lines in
which Katherine describes the blighting through love of her younger
sister are one of the most touching things in older literature.*
Again, how many echoes seem awakened by those strange words, actually
said in jest! "The sweet war-man (Hector of Troy) is dead and
rotten; sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the buried: when he
breathed, he was a man!"--words which may remind us of Shakespeare's
own epitaph. In the last scene, an ingenious turn is given to the
action, so that the piece does not conclude after the manner of other

Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill:

and Shakespeare strikes a passionate note across it at last, in the
entrance of the messenger, who announces to the princess that the
king her father is suddenly dead.

The merely dramatic interest of the piece is slight enough; only just
sufficient, indeed, to form the vehicle of its wit and poetry. The
scene--a park of the King of Navarre--is unaltered throughout; and
the unity of the [163] play is not so much the unity of a drama as
that of a series of pictorial groups, in which the same figures
reappear, in different combinations but on the same background. It
is as if Shakespeare had intended to bind together, by some inventive
conceit, the devices of an ancient tapestry, and give voices to its
figures. On one side, a fair palace; on the other, the tents of the
Princess of France, who has come on an embassy from her father to the
King of Navarre; in the midst, a wide space of smooth grass.

The same personages are combined over and over again into a series of
gallant scenes--the princess, the three masked ladies, the quaint,
pedantic king; one of those amiable kings men have never loved
enough, whose serious occupation with the things of the mind seems,
by contrast with the more usual forms of kingship, like frivolity or
play. Some of the figures are grotesque merely, and all the male
ones at least, a little fantastic. Certain objects reappearing from
scene to scene--love-letters crammed with verses to the margin, and
lovers' toys--hint obscurely at some story of intrigue. Between
these groups, on a smaller scale, come the slighter and more homely
episodes, with Sir Nathaniel the curate, the country-maid Jaquenetta,
Moth or Mote the elfin-page, with Hiems and Ver, who recite "the
dialogue that the two learned men have compiled in praise of the owl
and the cuckoo." The ladies are [164] lodged in tents, because the
king, like the princess of the modern poet's fancy, has taken a vow

to make his court a little Academe,

and for three years' space no woman may come within a mile of it; and
the play shows how this artificial attempt was broken through. For
the king and his three fellow-scholars are of course soon forsworn,
and turn to writing sonnets, each to his chosen lady. These fellow-
scholars of the king--"quaint votaries of science" at first,
afterwards "affection's men-at-arms"--three youthful knights,
gallant, amorous, chivalrous, but also a little affected, sporting
always a curious foppery of language, are, throughout, the leading


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