Изображения страниц

His 'Vulgar Errors.'


the main, treatises of information, antiquarian research and scholarship, and curious special disquisition, such as might be expected from a domestic and social man of an odd turn of mind spending his leisure in his study, and now and then increasing his stock of manuscripts.

The Vulgar Errors is by far the largest of Browne's works, extending to about five times the length of the Religio Medici. From the nature of the work, it is obvious, as Dr. Johnson remarks, that it was not written continuously, but was the collection of years. The design may have been formed early, and the materials may have been accumulated in scattered papers and notebooks, some of them, perhaps, written while he was still at Oxford studying or practising medicine, though the greater part may have grown in his hands after his settlement in Norwich. As the title of the work indicates, it is a kind of cyclopædia of scientific and historical gossip referring to fallacies popularly believed. After an introductory dissertation on the causes of error in the various departments of knowledge, the author passes to an enumeration of various common errors respecting minerals and plants, or, as we should say, mineralogical and botanical fallacies,--as that crystal is but strongly-congealed ice, that there are loadstone mountains that draw the nails out of ships passing them, that there are real mandrakes, that bays preserve from lightning, &c. Next is a book on zoological fallacies,―as that the elephant has no joints, that the bear brings forth her cubs amorphous and licks them into shape, that the ostrich digests iron, &c. &c., including dissertations on griffins, the phoenix, salamanders, &c. Then follows a book of many popular and received tenets concerning man,' or of fallacies in human anatomy and physiology. The next book contains an enumeration of traditional fallacies in art and in social customs,-as in the pictures of pelicans and dolphins, the pictures of ancient feasts, the pictures of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, those of John the Baptist, and the like: and in the superstitions about hares crossing the path, spilling the salt, and other omens. The sixth book is devoted to fallacies 'cosmographical, geographical, and historical,' such as those respecting the precise date of creation, the order of the seasons, the river Nile, the Red Sea, the cause of the blackness of negroes, and the origin of the gypsies. And the last book is occupied with disquisitions on what the author considers the fallacies of commentators on the Bible, and on other ancient records,—as in the opinion respecting the nature of the forbidden fruit, the story of the Three Kings of Cologne, the legend of the death of Aristotle, and the popular idea of the character of Epicurus. From this description of the work it will be seen that it abounds


[ocr errors]


in curious matter appertaining to the popular and also to the academic knowledge of the author's times. Its chief value now, apart from its interest in connexion with the author, is in its being a record of the state of the various natural sciences in Britain in the period intervening between the promulgation of the Baconian method by Bacon himself, and the actual and systematic application of that method, consciously or unconsciously, by the founders of the Royal Society. The following passage may be taken as a sample of the scientific language and mode of conception of that day :

'Having thus declared what crystal is not, it may afford some satisfaction to manifest what it is. To deliver, therefore, what with the judgment of approved authors and the best reason consisteth :-It is a mineral body, in the difference [division] of stones, and reduced by some unto that subdivision which comprehendeth gems; transparent, and resembling glass or ice; made of a lentous percolation of earth, drawn from the most pure and limpid juice thereof, owing to the coldness of the earth some concurrence or coadjuvancy, but not immediate determination and efficiency, which are wrought by the hands of its concretive spirit-the seeds of petrifaction and Gorgon of itself: As sensible philosophers conceive of the generation of diamonds, iris, beryls; not making them of frozen icicles, or from mere aqueous and glaciable substances, condensing them by frosts into solidities vainly to be expected even from polary congelations, but from thin and finest earths so well contempered and resolved that transparency is not hindered, and containing lapidifical spirits, able to make good their solidities against the opposition and activity of outward contraries; and so leave a sensible difference between the bonds of glaciation, which, in the mountains of ice about the northern seas, are easily dissolved by ordinary heat of the sun, and between the finer ligatures of petrifaction whereby not only the harder concretions of diamonds and sapphires, but the softer veins of crystal remain indissolvable in scorching territories and the negro land of Congo.'

Urn-Burial is a tract of some fifty octavo pages, written on the occasion of the discovery of a considerable number of Roman sepulchral urns in various fields not far from Norwich. These urns, and the manner of finding them, are minutely described; and the author, as an antiquarian and a scholar, takes the opportunity to discuss the extent to which urn-burial had been practised in Britain (he calculates that about four millions of persons in all must have been buried in urns in British earth during the period of the Roman occupation), and also to compare urn-burial and its accompaniment of incremation with the various other modes of disposing of the dead practised by all nations from the beginning of time. Considered merely as an archæological paper the tract is clear, accurate, and interesting.

The Garden of Cyrus.'


The Garden of Cyrus, published together with the tract on Urn-Burial, is nearly twice as long, and is much more odd and fanciful in its nature. Indeed, he seems to have selected an odd subject on principle, or from a kind of speculative freak, that by avoiding the trite and taking a text that no one had thought of before, he would hit out something novel. The subject is the arrangement of the gardens of the ancients. After alluding to the garden of Eden, the hanging gardens of Babylon, and other primeval gardens, he comes to the gardens of Cyrus the younger of Persia, who, he says, so outdid all that went before him in the art of gardening, that, while their names are but poorly associated with individual vegetables and common horticultural processes, 'all stories look back on him as the splendid and regular planter.' The plantations of Cyrus, it seems, were arranged in a peculiar manner.

'Xenophon describeth his gallant plantation at Sardis, thus rendered by Strebaus: Arbores pari intervallo sitas, rectos ordines, et omnia perpulchrè in quincuncem directa.' Which we shall take for granted, as being accordingly rendered by the most elegant of the Latins, and by no made term, but in use before by Varro. That is, the rows and orders so handsomely disposed, or five trees so set together that a certain angularity and thorough prospect was left on every side: owing this name [Quincunx] not only unto the quintuple number of trees, but the figure declaring that number, which, being double at the angle, makes up the letter X; that is, the emphatical decussation or fundamental figure.'

Now, the principle of the Quincunx, or the arrangement of things in fives (four at the corners of an oblong rectangle and one at the point of intersection of its two diagonals), is, according to Browne, not something casual, but something which may be traced through all art and all nature. Man and nature at all times, he avers, have proceeded on the trick of the quincunx. It is to be found in transactions before the Flood, in the architecture and customs of all nations, in the ordering of the stars, in the structure and physiology of plants, in the economy of the animal kingdom, in daily human procedure and strategy. The universality of this quinary arrangement, the multiplication of which produces a lozenge-shaped network, as in the painted windows of a church, leads him to believe in a kind of sacredness or virtue in the number five generally, which he also expounds and illustrates. As might be expected, though the whole idea is fantastic in the extreme, yet, in carrying out, the author exhibits a curious ingenuity in the discovery of analogies, and, in particular, a large acquaintance with vegetable forms and structures. The treatise, as we have said, appeared in the year of

Cromwell's death, though sufficiently before that event for Cromwell to have seen a copy of it. We can fancy nothing more grim than the Protector's face poring, at a leisure moment, over such a specimen of the literature of his reign, and trying to decide whether there was really anything in these quincunxes or in the author's brain who wrote about them. We fear the decision would have been a very short one.

The so-called Miscellany Tracts are thirteen in number, and are all on topics of natural history or archæology. There is an account of some of the plants mentioned in Scripture; there is a dissertation on garlands and the habit of wearing them; there is a treatise on the fishes eaten by Christ with his disciples; there is a paper answering miscellaneous queries about fishes, birds, and insects; there are tracts on hawks and falconry, on cymbals and other musical instruments of the ancients, on ropalic verses and other metrical oddities, on philology and especially on the Saxon tongue in its relations to English, and on artificial mounds and barrows; there are essays on the sites of Troas, Sodom and Gomorrah, &c., on the oracular responses to Croesus; there is a grotesque Prophecy of the Future State of Several Nations; and the series closes with a paper, entitled 'Musæum Clausum, or Bibliotheca Abscondita,' that is, an enumeration of remarkable books, pictures, &c., that had never or seldom been seen by any man living. Not a few of these tracts contain good and interesting matter. The following passage, for example, from the philological tract, may stand as, even yet, a good summary of the history of our English tongue :

'The Saxons, settling all over England, maintained an uniform language, only diversified in dialects, idioms, and minor differences, according to their different nations, which came in unto the common Conquest (which may yet be a cause of the variation in the speech and words of several parts of England, where different nations most abode and settled); and, having expelled the Britons, their wars were chiefly among themselves, with little action with foreign nations until the union of the Heptarchy under Egbert: after which time, though the Danes infested this land and scarce left any part free, yet their incursions made more havoc in buildings, churches, and cities than in the language of the country, because their language was in effect the same, and such as whereby they might easily understand one another. And if the Normans, which came into Neustria, or Normandy, with Rollo the Dane, had preserved their language in their new acquists, the succeeding conquest of England by Duke William of his race had not begot among us such notable alterations: but, having lost their language in their abode in Normandy, before they adventured upon England, they confounded the English with their French, and made the grand mutation, which was successively increased by our possessions in Normandy,

[ocr errors]

Miscellany Tracts.'

165 Guien, and Acquitain, by our long wars in France, by frequent resort of the French, who, to the number of some thousands, came over with Isabel, queen to Edward the Second, and the several matches of England with the daughters of France before and since that time. But this commixture, though sufficient to confuse, proved not of ability to abolish the Saxon words; for from the French we have borrowed many substantives, adjectives, and some verbs, but the great body of numerals, auxiliary verbs, articles, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions-which are the distinguishing and lasting parts of a language-remain with us from the Saxon; which, having suffered no great alteration for many hundred years, may probably still remain, though English swell with the invasion of Italian, French, and Latin.'

To exemplify these remarks, Browne writes a number of complete English sentences, all the words in every one of which are pure Saxon. He also gives a list of provincial Norfolkshire words having a Saxon or Danish origin.

It must not be supposed, however, that in these scientific and archæological writings of Browne there is nothing but what is scientific and archæological. As he wrote these things in his library at Norwich, consulting his books, turning over his herbaria, experimenting with his cups and phials, and bent mainly on giving a form to the stores of his acquired knowledge or on completing curious investigations which he had once begun, the spirit of his earlier ruminations in the solitary Yorkshire roads still remained with him; occasionally the same old meditative mood would come back in the midst of his social cares and more mixed and miscellaneous studies; and through the merest details respecting minerals, plants, animals, relics of the historical past, and local or national customs, there would flash, as he wrote, gleams of the quenchless Platonic light. Passages in proof of this might be quoted in abundance. In all his writings, for example, there is perhaps no strain more rapt and poetical than that which concludes his tract on Urn-Burial. Here is a portion

of it :

'Restless inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories unto present considerations seems a vanity almost out of date and superannuated piece of folly. We cannot hope to live so long in our names as some have done in their persons. One face of Janus holds no proportion unto the other. 'Tis too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs. To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for and whose duration we cannot hope without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and, being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »