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Friday, July 17, 2015

Sir Thomas Browne

Lady Dorothy Browne (née Mileham) and Sir Thomas Browne
by Joan Carlile, c. 1641 – 1650
National Portrait Gallery, London
(source: wikipedia)
no copyright infringement intended

To say that Sir Thomas Browne was a minor writer with a major style (as Hugh Aldersey-Williams puts it) wouldn't probably be so nice. To say that he was not a thinker of the first rank (like Newton), or even of the second rank (like Hobbes) (you gotcha, the same Hugh Aldersey-Williams) wouldn't be elegant either. To say that he was inclined rather toward isolated marvels than to the general laws - well, that begins to be fair (and it is said by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, to make things straight). Let's say this: he created symphonic prose (ditto), transforming English into an elegant Mandarin tongue. And he coined throughout his grandiose sentences lots of new words (electricity, hallucination, medical, ferocious, deductive - just a few examples).

Wow! English getting a Mandarin dimension! You'd ask what's all this galimatias. Here's how Jim Holt (the author of Why Does World Exists?) puts it: the history of English prose can be seen as a dialectical struggle between two tendencies: plain versus grand; the plain style (Dryden, Swift, Hemingway, The New Yorker) aims at ease and lucidity; it favors simply structured sentences, short words of Saxon origin and a conversational tone; it runs the risk of being flat; by contrast, the grand style (Gibbon, Nabokov, the Time magazine, and of course Sir Thomas Browne) — also called (by Cyril ­Connolly) “mandarin” — aims at rhetorical luxuriance; it is characterized by rolling ­periods decked with balanced subordinate clauses, a polysyllabic Latinate vocabulary, elaborate rhythms, stately epithets, sumptuous metaphors, learned allusions and fanciful turns of phrase; it runs the risk of being ridiculous.

A book dedicated to Browne (In Search of Sir Thomas Browne, and authored by - you betcha - Hugh Aldersey-Williams -  it seems to be a fascinating opus) has a review (written by who else than Jim Holt - if not small our world is definitely circular) in NY Times:

(A Life in Books)



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