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Having thus gone through the work which forms the subject of the present article, the reader may possibly inquire the reason of our enlarging upon a topic which is by no means new. It was not, assuredly, because prejudices are more potent now than heretofore-a great many old ones have been worn away, and but a few new ones have sprung up—nor was it any prejudice in favour of the subject-our apology (if apology be necessary) must rest upon the work itself. The boldness and manliness of the sentiments, and the general tone of the work, struck us as something so novel in a French writer of that time, (without, however, forgetting the class of writers with whom the author was contemporary) that our admiration was irresistibly engaged—we sympathised in the indignant throbs of his heart at the degradation and miseries of his species, and his anxiety for the general happiness; and we admired him for his honest and unrepressed hatred of oppression, in all its shapes. The work before us is distinguished by a mild, candid, benevolent, and philosophical spirit. The author's reasoning is precise and forcible, and sometimes rapid and brilliant, and his conclusions are in general just. When he touches upon despotic government, or the mummeries of 'superstition, he becomes warm and energetic, and sometimes bursts out into eloquent declamation, but there is little of the violence of party, or the rancour of sect, to be found in this essay: his arguments are strong, without bitterness, and full of humanity and social kindness. The spirit of his style carries us pleasantly along with the subject, and though somewhat redundant, it is perspicuous. He had seen little of the world; and Fontenelle said of him, “C'est le nigaud le plus spirituel et l'homme d'esprit le plus nigaud que je connoisse.”
ART. VII. Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial; or, a Discourse of the
Sepulchral "Urns lately found in Norfolk. By Thomas Browne, Dr. of Physic. London, printed för Charles Brome, 1686.
There are few writers who have taken for their especial themes, death and the grave. Still fewer are they who have done justice to these subjects, so sublime and fearful. The poets and philosophers, indeed, all make no small use of the last solemn period to earthly enjoyments and hopes. It not only deepens the speculations of sages, and sheds a melancholy hue over the images of tragic poets, but heightens the feeling breathed forth in gay and festive songs. The fragility of delight is one of its most bewitching attributes. We desire to grasp earnestly, that which is soon to pass away for ever. We feel as if we could make up in intensity for that which is wanting in duration, and live whole ages in a few short hours. All the affections of the human heart are rendered more august and sacred, by the mortality of the frame which is their present abode. This ever counteracts their tendency to cling to material objects, to grow to the delights of sense, and to lose their noblest and most disinterested qualities in the feeling of full satisfaction in those things which form but their temporary resting places, and refreshments in this palpable yet shifting scene. • Destined to an eternity on earth, they might harden into a selfishness which would debase their essence. But when he who feels them recognizes his own mortality and their eternal nature —when he knows that all sensual gratifications must perish, but that they shall endure-he nurtures them for their high and supernal destiny. In the spirit of immortality, he cherishes sentiments of devotion and self-sacrifice, learns to live beyond himself, and, denied the immediate range of those regions in which hereafter he will be a free traveller, seeks fit walk for his spirit among the ranks of humanity, and claims deep kindred with those who are journeying through earth with the same hopes and foretastes. Death imparts its most intense interest to life. It preserves to the spiritual part of man its own high prerogatives. Our sense of the majesty of the soul arises from its contrast with the perishableness of our mortal nature. We do reverence to that within us which is eternal. We find no perfection, no completeness, in pleasure, except when the feeling of eternity blends with and consecrates the joy. Thus the delights of innocent and deep-hearted love are the sweetest we can know in this world ; because its fleeting enjoyments are heightened by sentiments which cannot die; because there are some pulses of rapture in its delights, which death cannot bid to pause; because it unites the spirit of both worlds, the delicacies of earth, with the pure and far-reaching emotions of Heaven. Frequent use, therefore, hath been made of the mortality of man by poets and sages. They have delighted to shew the superiority of the soul over its mortal destiny. They have consecrated this world by representing it as the vestibule of one which shall endure for ever. They have taught us to listen to echoes from beyond the grave, and have shed over our earthly path “ glimpses which may make us less forlorn.” But they have, for the most part, regarded death only as the barrier between the shadows of this world, and the invisible realities of another. They have not taken the awful subject as the sole or chief ground of their contemplations. They have rather sought to soften it away—to represent it as a general slumber-or to make us feel it' but as the dividing streak between our visible
well to existencerried scenes of papritten of death
horizon and that more clear and unstained hemisphere, on which the sun of human existence rises, when it dips behind the remotest hills of earthly vision with all its livery of declining glories.
But Sir Thomas Browne, in the work before us, hath dared to take the grave itself for his theme. He deals not with death as a shadow, but as a substantial reality. He dwells not on it as the mere cessation of life—he treats it not as a terrible negation—but enters on its discussion as a state with its own solemnities and pomps. Others who have professed to write on death, have treated merely of dying. They have fearfully described the rending asunder of soul and body-the last farewell to existence—and the state of the spirit in its range through new and untried scenes of rapture or of woe. Some have individualized the theme, and written of death in relation only to particular persons or classes who become its victims. Those who regard it more universally and intenselymas Blair and Young—yet look but on its surface. They are conversant only with cypresses, yew trees, and grave stones, or hint at superstitions which endow the dead with life, and endue the tomb with something of vitality. Sir Thomas Browne alone treats of death as one subdued to its very essence. He encounters the tyrant, and “ plucks out the heart of his mystery." He speaks not of the agonies of dissolution; but regards the destroyer only when he is laden with his spoils, and the subjects of his victory are at rest. The region of his imagination is that space beneath the surface of the world, where the bones of all generations repose. His fancy works beneath the ground its way from tomb to tomb, rests on each variety of burial, ennobles the naked clay of the peasant, expands in the sepulchres of kings, and, skimming beneath the deepest caverns of the sea, detects the unvalued jewels “ in those holes which eyes did once inhabit.” The language of his essay is weighty, yet tender, such as his theme should inspire. We can imagine nothing graver. His words are sepulchral-his ornaments are flowers of mortality. If his essay were read by Mr. Kemble, it would have appropriate voice, breathed forth in the tenderest of sepulchral tones, with cadences solemn and sweet as the last tremblings of good men's lives.
The immediate occasion which called forth the deep and noble effusion we are now to contemplate, is thus related by its author:
"In a field of old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between forty and fifty Urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep, nor far from one another: Not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described; some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jaws, thigh-bones, and
teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion. Besides the extraneous substances, like pieces of small boxes, or combs handsomely wrought, handles of small brass instruments, brazen nippers, and in one some kind of opal.
“ Near the same plot of ground, for about six yards compass, were digged up coals and incinerated substances, which begat conjecture that this was the Ustrina or place of burning their bodies, or some sacrificing place unto the manes, which was properly below the surface of the ground, as the aræ and altars unto the gods and heroes above it.”
Thus inspired, he pours forth, without particular order or design, his richest treasures of imagery and thought. These may be divided into two classes—those learned commentaries which relate to modes of interment, and those intense reflections which he makes on death, life, and duration.
He opens the subjects with a general survey or map of the earthy region through which he is about to conduct us :
“In the deep discovery of the subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfy some enquirers; who, if two or three yards were open about the surface, would not care to rake the bowels of Potosi, and regions toward the centre. Nature hath furnished one part of the earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in urns, coyns, and monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endless rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth itself a discovery. That great antiquity, America, lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the urn unto
« Though if Adam were made out of an extract of the earth, all parts might challenge a restitution, yet few have returned their bones far lower than they might receive them; not affecting the graves of giants, under hilly and heavy coverings, but content with less than their own depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, and the earth be light upon them; even such as hope to rise again, would not be content with central interment, or so desperately to place their reliques as to lie beyond discovery, and in no way to be seen again; which happy contrivance hath made communication with our forefathers, and left unto our view some parts which they never beheld themselves.”
Here his genius seems to make its way through the softened mould. We feel as if we could be delighted to grope all our lives about the roots of vegetables for the treasures of time which lie so near us. How sublimely does he, in his antiquarian zeal, represent America as when undiscovered “ a buried antiquity," and expand his subject to the limits of the world! With what rich conceit does he allude to the solemnities of our frame, and with what a placid and smiling allusion does he insinuate our hopes of rising from the tomb! When he dis
cusses modes of burial, instead of dwelling with fondness on one of them, he dignifies them all. He treats burial superstitions, however fantastic, as most holy. Assuming with a philosophic charity, that “ all customs were founded on some bottom of reason,” he finds traces of noble imagination, or deep wisdom, in the most opposite rites and ceremonials. “Some,” says he,
“ Being of the opinion of Thales, that water was the original of all things, thought it most equal to submit unto the principle of putrefaction, and conclude in a moist relentment. Others conceived it most natural to end in fire, as due unto the master principle in the composition, according to the doctrine of Heraclitus. And therefore heaped up large piles, more actively to waft them towards that element, whereby they also declined a visible degeneration into worms, and left a lasting parcel of their composition.
“Some apprehended a purifying virtue in fire, refining the grosser commixture, and firing out the æthereal particles so deeply immersed in it. And such as by tradition or rational conjecture held any hint of the final pyre of all things, or that this element at last must be too hard for all the rest, might conceive most naturally of the fiery dissolution.”
And again :
“ The Scythians who swore by wind and sword, that is, by life and death, were so far from burning their bodies, that they declined all interment, and made their graves in the air. And the Ichthyophagi, or fish-eating nations about Egypt, affected the sea for their grave : thereby declining visible corruption, and restoring the debt of their bodies. Whereas the old heroes in Homer, dreaded nothing more than water or drowning; probably upon the old opinion of the fiery substance of the soul, only extinguishable by that element; and therefore the poet emphatically implieth the total destruction in this kind of death, which happened to Ajax Oileus.”
The following appears to us some of the most beautiful moralizing ever drawn from funeral solemnities.
“ Men have lost their reason in nothing so much as their religion, wherein stones and clouts make martyrs; and since the religion of one seems madness unto another, to afford an account or rational of old rights, requires no rigid reader. That they kindled the pyre aversely, or turning their face from it, was an handsome symbol of unwilling ministration; that they washed their bones with wine and milk, that the mother wrapt them in linen, and dried them in her bosom, the first fostering part, and place of their nourishment; that they opened their eyes toward heaven, before they kindled the fire, as the place of their hopes or original, were no improper ceremonies. Their last valediction, thrice uttered by the attendants, was also very solemn, and somewhat answered by Christians, who thought