Wednesday 24 October 2018

Sir Thomas Browne as Melville's Crack'd Angel

A talk delivered at Dragon Hall
for Sir Thomas Browne's birthday (1)

G K Chesterton, who regarded Sir Thomas Browne as a mystic, thinks of him not so much as “a man who reverences large things … as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon.” To which he adds: “Little things please great minds.” 

There are indeed delightful passages in Browne on the most apparently minor phenomena such as this personal favourite of mine from his notes on Bubbles:

“That the last circumference of the universe is butt the bubble of the chaos & pellicle arising from the grosser foundation of the first matter, containing all the higher & diaphanous bodies under it, is noe affirmation of myne;  Butt that bubbles on watery & fluid bodies are butt the thinne parts of ayre, or a diaphanous texture of water, arising about the ayre & holding awhile from eruption. They are most lasting & large in viscous humidities wherin the surface will bee best extended without dissolving the continuity, as in bladders blown out of soap. Wine & spirituous bodies make bubbles, butt (not) long lasting, the spirit veering thorough & dissolving the investiture. Aqua fortis upon concussion makes fewe & soone vanishing, the acrimonious effluvium suddenly rending them. Some grosse and windy urines make many & lasting, wch may bee taken away or hindred by vinegar of juice of lemon; & therefore the greatest bubbles are made in fatt viscous decoctions as in the manufacture of soape & sugar, wherin there is nothing more remarkable then that experiment wherin not many graynes of butter cast upon (a) copper of boyling sugar presently strikes down the ebullitions & makes a subsidence of the bubbling liquor. Boyling is literally nothing butt bubbling; any liquor attenuated by decoction sends forth its evaporous & attenuated parts wA talk deliveredch elevate the surface of the liquor into bubbles.”

What Chesterton so admired in mystics, the revering of small things as emblems of the great, is certainly in evidence here. After all there are few things smaller than a bubble. Nevertheless I very much doubt that Browne was a mystic in any common religious sense. The case I would like to make is that he is not so much a mystic as a scholar poet for whom juxtaposition offers a taste of the miraculous. 

The rapid journey in the passage from Bubbles; from the universe down to vinegar juice and to windy urines, is balanced, in Browne’s phrase on, “thinne parts of ayre”. Those thin parts of air produce, for me, the magical elements of a poetry that shifts with perfect naturalness from one mode of discourse to another. It does so by way of an orotundity that is fully intent on its object while, at the same time, developing inventive personal ways of describing phenomena. That manner of proceeding establishes a fascinating voice that persists beyond the subject itself while remaining deeply implicit in the subject - a voice that, in its comprehensiveness and rapidly moving associations, exercises a powerful spell.