For a while now, Maureenand I have been taking it in turns to read aloud from Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne (1658, Penguin 2005) and have now, alas, come to the end of this extraordinary work. I don’t really know how to do it justice (there is a very accessible description of this notoriously inaccessible book on Wikipedia). The first thing to be said is that it is beautiful, wonderful rich, sonorous, resonant prose absolutely made for reading aloud (despite the fact that his vocabulary, spelling, grammar and punctuation are, to say the least, idiosyncratic). It starts out as a description of burial urns recently unearthed in East Anglia (among many other things it is a pioneering work of archaeology), moves from this to a survey of burial customs in both classical times and the modern world, and ends up as a profound and melancholy meditation on mortality. You are constantly having to make wild surmises about what exactly he is trying to say, his meaning is never crystal clear and at times it is so couched in allusion, classical reference, and the obscurities of his peculiar grammar as to be impenetrable. And yet if you miss the precise point the poetic rhythms of his prose seem to convey their meaning without any doubt. You will come across references to Browne all over the place, in de Quincy and Borges and everywhere in between, and when you read the book you understand why. This is a book that lodges in the mind as something peculiar and special.
First published at Livejournal, 7 February 2006.