The Problem of Memoria and Virtuoso Sensibility
in Sir Thomas Browne's The Garden of Cyrus
Arno Löffler (Erlangen)
Even during his lifetime Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) enjoyed the reputation of being exceptionally well read and of having a stupendous memory. As a scholar and author he cultivated the ars memoriae indefatigably, arranging and storing thereby multifarious items of knowledge gained both from books and empirical observation. At the same time he was aware that the traditional mnemotechnical devices were outdated: He considered them the expression of a concept of learning no longer valid for his time. Consequently, he also called in question the old encyclopaedia of scholarly knowledge. In a paradoxical statement he stressed the necessity of eliminating part at least of traditional knowledge from memory in order to be open for new, unquestionable truths:
Knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know. (P: 165)1
The old 'cultural technique' of ars memoriae underwent a considerable change in the course of the 17th century and was increasingly put to doubt. The main attacks turned against the 'unreasonable overload of memory', but also against the bent of scholars to parade their learning.2 However, there were also serious attempts to adapt the art of memory to the new, empirical world view, as is hinted by Frances Yates:
The art of memory underwent yet another of its transformations, turning from a method of memorising the encyclopaedia of knowledge, of reflecting the world in memory, to an aid for investigating the encyclopaedia and the world with the object of discovering new knowledge.3
As a scholar influenced by the principles of empirist philosophy, Browne not only dissociated himself from the traditional ars memoriae, but tried to replace the old system of compiling and registering details of knowledge by a new one, and to develop from it a method of essay writing. The best way of finding admittance to his respective views is through his so-called Commonplace Books.
The Commonplace Books - to use the inaccurate title bestowed on Browne's dispersed notes first by Simon Wilkin (1836) and then by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (1928) - encompass a diversity of items without consideration of the thematic coherence or the relative importance of the items recorded. There are medical and scientific problems, speculations, observations, and experiments; personal and religious reflections; thoughts on books recently read; remarks on historical events; extracts from books which Browne thinks noteworthy. Such an arbitrary procedure is in marked contrast to the traditional practice of the loci communes.
During the Renaissance the commonplace books were an important aid in the acquisition and preservation of learning.4 Accordingly, Rudolphus Agricola (1532) writes: "Sic fit [...] ut omnia quae discimus certa nobis praesentiaque, et prope sub manu conspectu maneant."5 The period's scholars possessed a fixed, well-ordered system of thematic catchwords (capita rerum), most of which originated in the traditional moralis philosophia. Under these headings they collected classical and modern aphorisms and examples, anecdotes and definitions. Verrepaeus (1573) describes the commonplace books as a source of universal learning and wisdom, and as a library of immeasurable richness.6 They are compendia based on a comprehensive world view and a firm framework of ideas.
The commonplace books enabled the humanists to compose little treatises, thus making an essential contribution to the development of the essay as a literary genre: The capita rerum often supplied the topics, and the quotations from the standard authors formed the basic material, which was then linked together and converted into the essay form by means of a commentary.7
After the breakdown of the old world order, which coincided with the rise of the inductive method in natural science, the meaning and use of the commonplace books was increasingly open to doubt. Bacon's opinion in his Advancement of Learning (1605) is characteristic of the transition period around 1600. Discussing the problem of how to preserve and order knowledge, he emphasized the limited value of the commonplaces: their accumulation is useful and even indispensable for the student who wants to acquire the approved, traditional elements of knowledge; the very variety of the subject matter facilitates argument and strengthens the student's critical faculty.8 In contrast to the prevailing opinion, according to which inventio meant the finding of topics and arguments through recollection, Bacon believed that invention must be characterized by creativity and originality. This new kind of invention, however, is rendered impossible if the authority of the commonplaces is adhered to:
But this is true, that of the methods of commonplaces that I have seen, there is none of any sufficient worth; all of them carrying merely the face of a school, and not of a world; and referring to vulgar matters and pedantical divisions, without all life or respect to action.9
Browne, doubtless, shared Bacon's opinion that "the great help to the memory is writing."10 His censure of commonplace books, on the other hand, was even more radical than Bacon's. In his Latin draft Naumachia (c. 1667), probably written for the instruction of his younger son Thomas, he rejects the traditional technique of the mechanical acquisition of knowledge; in addition, he deals with the problem of memoria, and offers advice on how to record information and insights gained from reading. Simultaneously he develops his own idea of composing an informal essay:
Labilis rerum memoria, aetas, Tempus, averticula plurima oblivioni tradunt; parandi itaque mature commentarii, qui tanto malo subveniant. Non qui sententias Authorum in loca communia disponant (quid erit actum agere), sed a recenti Librorum lectione libero filo schedam exarare, quae difficilia quaeque et notatu digna contineat. Qualia vel Author ipse, similium memoria, vel propria Minerva suppeditat. (K: III, 155 f.)11
Although one can hardly imagine that Browne in, say, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) was able to organize the body of facts without a method of arrangement similar to that of the traditional commonplace books, we must interpret this statement as the expression of his personal conviction in the 1660s and as a hint at his own practice of writing about that time. In order not to forget what he has read, and to give free reign to his own invention, he thinks it important to set down a brief summary immediately after reading a book and to comment on its interesting details. He is strongly averse to all trite or vulgar knowledge, and wants to deal exclusively with the 'problematical' and 'noteworthy' aspects of learning, to include those elements of knowledge which he finds stored in his memory, and to add what his own imagination suggests to him. A letter to his eldest son Edward in 1676 shows the high value he sets on this procedure as a mnemotechnical device. He exhorts his son to write little essays periodically:
Sometimes write in Latin upon any subject morall or phylosophicall or rhetoricall, & so that will bee easie unto you & you shall excitate your invention & many things will returne into your head by reminiscence wch otherwise lye dormant & uselesse. (K: IV, 69)
Any theme is suitable for this exercise so long as it activates one's memory and power of invention. Such an exercise will furnish playful intellectual entertainment, without serving a particular scholarly purpose. Browne's intention is loosely to string together a number of learned details, all of which relate to one specific subject. He does not aim at completeness; neither has he in view a systematic arrangement nor a critical evaluation of his segments of knowledge; he is interested in no more than an essayistic sketch ("scheda").
Browne did not in the least deny his "dilettante" inclinations. In a note in the so-called Commonplace Books he ventures an apology for his very personal interest in subordinate and random items of information, yet he is proudly aware that he moves in illustrious company:
I hope I may expect your candour, if not pardon, if I bee sometimes so particular in circumstances while I discours of things wherin I take so much delight, for even Julius Scaliger who doth not use to bee tedious, being a notable huntsman himself when hee writes of doggs could not refrayne from setting down the names of some of his owne and that his beloved bich Urania pissed with one legge up. (K: III, 278)
The notebooks, presumably compiled during the last ten years of Browne's life, were - partly at least - intended for Edward. They contain two paragraphs which throw light on their special purpose. One reads:
Severall hints which may bee serviceable unto you & not ungreatefull unto others I present you in this paper. They are not trite or vulgar, & very fewe of them anywhere to bee met with. I set them not downe in order, butt as memorie phancy or occasionall observation produced them, whereof you may take the paynes to single out such as shall conduce unto your purpose. (K: III, 285)
Sir Thomas is well aware that his "hints" are hardly more than disparate notes compiled without systematic principles. The order in which his thoughts and observations occur is left to chance. His so-called Commonplace Books, in short, are a literary cabinet of rarities which in its conception resembles Musaeum Clausum, in that there, too, Browne is not interested in overall relationships but in individual rarities.12
A few pages beyond the paragraph just quoted Browne addresses himself to the purpose of his notes. He urges Edward to choose one observation every day as the basis for scholarly discussion with his friends. Such learning is not intended as a serious contribution to scholarship but as the intellectual entertainment of a virtuoso and as a means of an evening's relaxation:
Since these few observations please you, for your farther discourse & consideration I would not omitt to send you a larger list scatteringly observed out of good Authors, ... whereof you may single out one daylie to discourse upon it, wch may bee a daylie recreation unto you & empl[o]y your evening howers where your affayres afford you the conversation of studious & learned freinds. (K: III, 304)
Both the loose layout of the notebooks and Browne's explanations suggest a comparison with the literary genre of the diverses lecons, the classical prototype of which was Aulus Gellius's Noctes Atticae. Browne knew the Noctes and was certainly well acquainted with its preface, in which Gellius speaks about the work's origin, development and structure. Moreover, it appears quite possible that Browne's own views were modelled on the paragraph the preface, in which Gellius informs his readers that, while in Attica, he compiled select passages from his reading for his children at home, the intention being to provide them with entertainment for their leisure hours after the day's business had been done. Gellius, too, stressed that he did not attach great importance to the orderly arrangement of his material. He simply jotted down what memory and imagination prompted him to write, admitting that this method also helped to counteract any forgetfulness:
Usi autem sumus ordine rerum fortuito, quem antea in excerpendo feceramus. Nam proinde ut librum quemque in manus ceperam seu Graecum seu Latinum vel quid memoratu dignum audieram, ita quae libitum erat, cuius generis cumque erant, indistincte atque promisce annotabam eaque mihi ad subsidium memoriae quasi quoddam literatum penus recondebam, ut quando usus venisset aut rei aut verbi, cuius me repens forte oblierio tenuisset, et libri ex quibus ea sumpseram non adessent, facile inde nobis inventu atque depromptu foret.13
In compiling his excerpts and notes, Gellius had not been concerned simply to amass knowledge. Although he had studied uninterruptedly during his spare time, he had confined himself in his selection to that which would stimulate a desire for independent learning and be conducive to the useful arts. Not inclined to rate scholarly learning as highly as Browne did, Gellius had nevertheless set value on including only new and comparatively unknown subjects; he had wanted not to teach but to suggest aid and to provide relaxation for the intellect. So, too, Browne was not solely interested in instruction but in stimulating the discourse of members of the "Latine republique" (K: II, 4), not of the unlearned multitude, which he repeatedly calls the "ignorant sort" and "ordinary heads" (K: II, 71; III, 3). While admitting his Socratic ignorance in principle, his sensibility remains that of a virtuoso keenly aware of his superiority in learning.
Bishop Thomas Tenison was the first to notice that parts of Browne's literary works are the result not of professional research but of leisure activity, and that, to some degree, they lack continuity of thought and limitation of subject. In the preface to his edition of Browne's Miscellany Tracts (1683) he drew attention to Browne's spontaneous and improvising methods of composition, referring to the posthumous papers as
a collection of occasional essays [...] which [...] were rather the diversions than the labours of his pen: [...] he did, as it were, drop his own thoughts of a sudden, in those little spaces of vacancy which he snatched from those very many occasions which gave him hourly interruption.14
These observations, however, apply not only to the posthumously published Miscellany Tracts written, for the most part, during the last decade of Browne's life, but also - and perhaps even more characteristically - to some of his earlier works such as Hydriotaphia and, above all, its companion piece, The Garden of Cyrus. Or, The Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially Naturally, Mystically Considered (1658).
The oft-quoted final sections of The Garden of Cyrus offer a striking example of Browne's virtuoso sensibility and of his way of composition: Midnight is at hand; in his study Sir Thomas is still working on his essay. He realizes that he is sleepy, and therefore resolves to finish his work and retire for the night. But it would be contrary to his nature either to omit these trivialities or to mention them straight away. He rather prefers to encode them in a cluster of learned allusions and puzzling images.
The final part of The Garden of Cyrus opens with an enigmatic statement: "But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low" (P: 387). Browne himself thinks it necessary to make his allusion clearer and therefore, in a marginal note, defines the constellation alluded to as "Hyades near the Horizon about midnight, at that time." However, this definition is also a hint of the time of composition: For the Hyades, a group of five stars near the Pleiad, approach the Western horizon about midnight at the beginning of March. That this allusion approximately indicates the end of the period of composition of The Garden of Cyrus is confirmed by the dedication to Sir Nicholas Bacon, which is dated May 1st, 1658.
Having metaphorically encoded the time of the day, Browne circumscribes his wish to go to bed - "'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge" - emphasizing thereby his scholarly belief in the principle of sense perception as the basis of empirical investigation and precondition of understanding. He then adds some remarks on dreams associatively: He does not wish to spin out in his sleep the thoughts about the figure of the quincunx, as it can be observed in the vegetable world. For sleep "to [sic!] often continueth praecogitations; making Cables of Cobwebbes and Wildernesses of handsome Groves". Here, too, he gives an insight into his virtuoso awareness by observing - in metaphorical circumscriptions - to what degree the subtle and filigrane structures of thought set up in the state of waking, are grotesquely coarsened and distorted in the nightly dream visions.
The whole passage - that counts among the "purple passages" in Browne's works - shows his fascination for "beautiful", poetic expression: Not only is it marked by its exquisite learned imagery, but also by the use of rhythm and sound as stylistic devices. The alliteration "Cables/Cobwebbes" is a striking example. In the next period, however, the tendency of matter-of-fact information predominates again: Sir Thomas remembers that Hippocrates in De Insomniis does not say much on dreams about plants, and he mentions the old, famous oneirocritics Artemidorus and Apomazar, who left "frigid" - i.e. discouraging - interpretations of plant visions in dreams. Browne speaks about the dullness of the sense of smell during sleep, and afterwards casually remembers a paragraph in Athenaeus in which the odours around the rose-strewn bed of the sleeping Cleopatra are alluded to: "and though in the Bed of Cleopatra the dulness of that sense can hardly with any delight raise up the ghost of a Rose." Again Sir Thomas does not reproduce a literary reminiscence in the style of everyday language but takes pains to do this poetically, in a rhythmically patterned formulation.
Sometimes he seems to focus his attention rather on the learned detail, sometimes he seems to be more intent on poetic expression, sometimes both tendencies are linked in a witty argument, as for instance in his allusion to the antipodes, which made Coleridge remark with astonishment: "Think you, that there ever was such a reason given before going to bed at midnight; to wit, that if we did not, we should be acting the part of our antipodes!"15
In The Garden of Cyrus Browne notes down those things which, within the limits of his theme, are interesting, problematical and learned; which are directly available to him through his memory or can be recalled with the help of his notebooks. He is not a systematizer but a compiler; not a specialist but an encyclopedist. No early critic was more precise in describing this phenomenon than Samuel Johnson in his Life of Sir Thomas Browne:
There is no science, in which he does not discover some skill; and scarce any kind of knowledge, profane or sacred, abstruse or elegant, which he does not appear to have cultivated with success.
What Johnson defines as a central trait of Browne's learning and literary procedure is doubtlessly in keeping with Browne's own views, which can also be derived from the dedication prefixed to The Garden of Cyrus. In it Browne addresses his friend Sir Nicholas Bacon:
His exuberance of knowledge, and plenitude of ideas, sometimes obstruct the tendency of his reasoning, and the clearness of his decisions: on whatever subject he employed his mind, there started up immediately so many images before him, that he lost one by grasping another. His memory supplied him with so many illustrations, parallel or dependent notions, that he was always starting into collateral considerations. (P: 507)
You have been so long out of trite learning, that 'tis hard to finde a subject proper for you; and if you have met with a Sheet upon this, we have missed our intention. In this multiplicity of writing, bye and barren Themes are best fitted for invention; Subjects so often discoursed confine the Imagination, and fix our conceptions unto the notions of fore-writers. Beside, such Discourses allow excursions, and venially admit of collaterall truths, though at some distance from their principals. (P: 319 f.)
Browne praises Bacon's exquisite learning and, at the same time, tells him that he wants to deal with a new subject hitherto unconsidered by or unknown to him. Sir Thomas strives for originality, he tries to demonstrate his rare knowledge and his awareness of scholarly problems; for "flat and flexible truths are beat out by every hammer; but Vulcan and his whole forge sweat to work out Achilles his armour (P: 386). And he lets his friend - also a lover of horticulture - know that he does not compete with science. Browne neither wishes to write a new herbal, nor "to multiply vegetable divisions [...] or erect a new Phythology" (P: 319). He dissociates himself self-assuredly from the "persevering Enquirers" (P: 319), and he rejects the possibility of encompassing his invention by a systematic approach. His theme - "The Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered" - is but a peg on which to hang his essay and a limitation to his learned imagination; on the other hand, it challenges all his ingenuity as a virtuoso, and activates parts of his knowledge "otherwise ly[ing] dormant & uselesse" (K: IV, 69). It is, as it were, the shelf of a literary cabinet of rarities, on which he successively arranges his own natural observations, quotations from authors, learned reminiscences and problematical questions. He not only refers to ancient philosophers, historians, and poets, but also to contemporary literature of all kinds - such as travel books and studies in natural philosophy, cabbalistic and neoplatonic treatises, not forgetting the Bible.16 Coleridge describes the result:
Quincunxes in heaven above; quincunxes in the earth below; quincunxes in deity; quincunxes in the mind of man; quincunxes in bones, in optic nerves, in roots of trees, in leaves, in petals, in every thing!17
As he explains in his dedication, Browne writes as a lover of gardens for another lover of gardens, - although at the time of composition he was probably not yet the owner of that well-kept garden which John Evelyn was to praise in his diary in October 1671.18 However, already in 1658, he had a strong amateur's fascination for horticulture and its history:
You have wisely ordered your vegetable delights, beyond the reach of exception. The Turks who passt their dayes in Gardens here will have Gardens also hereafter, and delighting in Flowers on Earth, must have Lillies and Roses in Heaven. In Garden Delights 'tis not easy to hold a Mediocrity; that insinuating pleasure is seldome without some extremity. The Antients venially delighted in flourishing Gardens; Many were florists that knew not the true use of a Flower; and in Plinies dayes none had directly treated of that Subject. Some commendably affected Plantations of venomous Vegetables, some confined their delights unto single plants, and Cato seemed to dote upon Cabbadge; While the Ingenuous delight of Tulipists, stands saluted with hard language, even by their own Professors. (P: 320 f.)19
The "dilettante" sensibility, which appears here as a typical feature of all horticulturists, is noticeable in The Garden of Cyrus, too. It appears, above all, in a group of synonymous epithets expressing the pleasure and admiration which result from the beauty, the rarity and the strangeness of the subjects treated: beautiful, noble, gallant, agreeable, precious, fair, neat, fine, curious, strange, rare, comely. The epithet handsome is to be found 13 times, the epithet elegant even 21 times. The figure of the quincunx itself appears "elegant" to Browne:
Now although this elegant ordination of vegetables, hath found coincidence or imitation in sundry works of Art, yet it is not also destitute of naturall examples, and though overlooked by all, was elegantly observable, in severall works of nature. (P: 343)20
The adjective elegant, in particular, hints at the virtuoso sensibility in The Garden: the word is derived from Latin eligere = to select (carefully). The elegant is the exquisite, the extraordinary, perhaps even the far-fetched. Besides this, the word also means that which is tasteful and pleasing. One can be sure that, in using this epithet, Browne was well aware of all these shades of meaning.
In Roman rhetoric the term elegantia had been a category of style. In Cicero's Rhetorica ad Herennium (4,17) it signifies the clarity and plainness of language; in Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria (6,3,20) it rather means the delicacy and the graceful wit of language. In The Garden of Cyrus Browne employs the word elegant twice only with this meaning: He calls Cicero "the most elegant of the Latines" (P: 328), and he speaks of "that Elegant expression of Scripture" (P: 358). If we look for further instances of the term in Browne's other works, we come across an astonishing fact: in Religio Medici (1643) and in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), written before The Garden of Cyrus and to a higher degree philosophical in character or scientific in method, the term elegant is exclusively a category of style or a word which refers to refined education and learning. From the publication of The Garden of Cyrus (1658) onwards, however, Browne repeatedly and increasingly uses the word to refer to the outward appearance of things, above all of plants and animals. This fact can be plainly observed, for instance, in Browne's correspondence with the physician Dr. Christopher Merrett in the years 1668 and 1669.21 The adjective elegant is therefore a good example of the amateur element in Browne's learning symptomatic of his later works.
In the course of the first chapter of The Garden of Cyrus Browne deals with the geometrical qualities of the quincunx. Although he gives a correct definition of the term, he does not forgo the opportunity to enrich his definition by examples and learned references:
Now though in some ancient and modern practice the area or decussated plot, might be a perfect square, answerable to a Tuscan Pedestall, and the Quinquernio or Cinque-point of a dye; wherein by Diagonall lines the intersection was rectangular; [...] yet shall we chiefly insist upon that of Curtius and Porta, in their brief description hereof. Wherein the decussis is made within a longilaterall square, with opposite angles, acute and obtuse at the intersection; and so upon progression making a Rhombus or Lozenge figuration, which seemeth very agreeable unto the Originall figure; Answerable whereunto we observe the decussated characters in many consulary Coynes, and even in those of Constantine and his Sons, which pretend their pattern in the Sky; the crucigerous Ensigne carried this figure, not transversly or rectangularly intersected, but in a decussation, after the form of an Andrean or Burgundian cross. (P: 328 f.)
It is characteristic of his virtuoso sensibility that he begins the next paragraph with the jovial phrase "Where by the way we shall decline the old Theme" (P: 329), and then, nevertheless, starts to deal with some interesting details concerning the relationship of the geometrical form of a quincunx and the different forms of crosses in antiquity: and he does so again with the help of various examples. But this is not enough. The same stereotyped formula is repeated at the beginning of the next section: "We will not revive the mysterious crosses of Aegypt" (P: 330); it is the starting point for another little digression, - although Browne has just expressed the opinion that the theme is not worth dealing with at all. In the ensuing section we once more come across the topos: "We shall not call in the Hebrew Tenupha" (P: 330). The repetition of the formula not only impressively demonstrates Browne's intention to exclude trite and popular pieces of knowledge from the essay. In so far as this programmatic statement does not prevent him from adding digressive insertions it is just this formula which shows his arbitrary way of writing and his indifference towards a systematic treatment of his subject. This, however, is a distinctive feature of the whole essay: Browne does not keep strictly to his garden theme but creates a stupendous digest of learning, which, of its kind, stands alone in the literature of the seventeenth century.
As Jeremiah Finch was able to prove, Benedictus Curtius's Horti (1560) or Baptista della Porta's Villa (1592) were the central sources of inspiration for The Garden of Cyrus.22 But although Browne's essay contains several reminiscences of these books, it compiles, first of all, pieces of Browne's former reading and observation containing "qualia vel Author ipse, similium memoria, vel propria Minerva suppeditat" (K: III, 156).
Except for some digressions, the first chapter of The Garden is a tour of history and geography, in which Browne looks for the figure of the quincunx in the laying-out of famous gardens, - in the garden of Eden, in Babylon and Persia, and finally in Judaea. In the second chapter he devotes himself to the quincunx as it can be found "in sundry artificiall contrivances and manuall operations" (P: 334). While in the first two chapters Browne, above all, reactivates his reading, in the third and fourth chapters he more often refers to his own observations of plants and animals. In the last chapter, finally, he tries to deal with unsolved problems and daring speculations both within the range of natural phenomena and of number symbolism with its affinity to magic and mystery; here, too, he puts into practice part of the concept explained in Naumachia, according to which "difficilia qualia vel notatu digna" (K: III, 155) must not be omitted.
Browne does not search for "mathematicall truths" or general laws because he knows "how few generalities and V finita's [Rules without exceptions] there are in nature" (P: 320). He is not concerned with generalities and systematic correlations but with interesting details. The consequence of such an attitude is an outspoken indifference towards objective results and a tendency towards compilation, which is reflected in style and structure. There are often only loose connections between the sentences and even the paragraphs of the chapters. Instead of a logical progression of thought we find enumerations and a tendency towards the listing of items, which involves not only single words and phrases but also larger syntactic and thematic units. There is a good example of such a short list at the beginning of the third chapter:
But not to look so high as Heaven or the single Quincunx of the Hyades upon the head of Taurus, the Triangle, and remarkable Crusero about the foot of the Centaur; observable rudiments there are hereof
Of course there are paragraphs which are more clearly consistent in thought and content. But often they, too, are only loosely inserted in the sequence of the paragraphs. In several places one could, without perceptibly interrupting the flow of thought, remove or dislocate single links of the chain; and one could add new links without noticeably changing the structure of the text.
A further characteristic trait of Sir Thomas's learned sensibility is his delight in speculative questions and unsolved problems. The last chapter of The Garden of Cyrus consists, for the most part, of such questions: "And these we invent and propose unto acuter enquirers, nauseating crambe verities and questions overqueried" (P: 386).
in the subterraneous concretions, and bodies in the Earth;
in the Gypsum or Talcum Rhomboides,
in the Favagenites or honey-comb-stone,
in the Asteria and Astroites, and
in the crucigerous stone of S. Jago of Gallicia.
It would certainly be wrong to maintain that Browne chiefly formulated questions that run counter to the acknowledged principles of contemporary empirical science. It is, however, also typical of his scholarly attitude that, again and again, "he ignored Bacon's advice in The Advancement of Learning not to confuse the question how with the question why"23 that aims at final causes. So in The Garden, too, he asks several speculative questions of the why-type, as for instance: "Why the form of the germe doth not answer the figure of the enclosing pulp, why the nebbe is seated upon the solid, and not the channeld side of the seed" (P: 352). More symptomatic, however, than the why-questions are questions of the whether-type, which open up alternative perspectives of a problem. Browne uses them to express speculations, to report on learned opinions and to doubt them. These questions, therefore, also enable him to show his own learning in the most favourable light.
Browne's way of asking questions often shows that he lacks interest and patience to apply himself carefully to individual problems and to look for clear solutions. He comments on his
problems in a loose and non-committal way. He likes to show
himself as a detached and indifferent observer who, on the basis of his comprehensive reading and experience, knows how to ask questions without trying to answer them, and who makes conjectures without attempting to examine their validity. The first critic to notice this phenomenon was William Hazlitt, who wrote:
He pushes a question to the utmost verge of conjecture, that he may repose on the certainty of doubt; and he removes an object to the greatest distance from him that he may take a high and abstracted interest in it.24
Terms like conjecture, probability, doubt are, indeed, employed in a stereotyped way; they are intended to stress the difficulty and complexity of the questions, and, equally, indicate the impossibility of solving these problems satisfactorily:
Whether Abraham brought up in the first planting Country, observed not some rule hereof [i.e. of the quincunx], when he planted a grove at Beersheba; or whether a like ordination were not in the Garden of Solomon, probability may contest. (P: 332 f.)25
This sensibility is reflected in a specific sentence structure which in the preceding example is shown in bold type. Some varieties of it may be added here to demonstrate its importance:
Whether ..., may favourably be doubted.
Sir Thomas himself is well aware that his questions lead to "abstrusities of no ready solution" (P: 384). However, these abstrusities hold a particular fascination for him. He can therefore warmly recommend them to the learned reader, and he can confidently assure him "That he shall not passe his hours in vulgar speculations" (P: 385).
Whether ..., is not without probability of conjecture.
Whether ..., may also be considered.
Whether ..., we have not room to conjecture.
Whether ..., may also be observed.
Whether ..., might perhaps deserve the question.
Why ..., deserves another enquiry.
Why ..., were too long a speculation.
Whether ..., were no unpleasant speculation.
Why ..., we leave it unto Arithmeticall Divinity and Theologicall explanation.
(P: 333, 368, 369, 371, 372, 377, 384)
Browne's method of composition partly springs from the private conviction that it is necessary for a scholar to reactivate, from time to time, his mind's fund of knowledge in order to evade the danger of forgetting. However, the problem of memoria in Sir Thomas Browne must also be seen within the framework of empiricist philosophy which emphatically dissociated itself from the old ars memoriae. Thus The Garden of Cyrus exemplifies a characteristic trait of virtuoso sensibility and learning. It reveals an attitude of mind which places the diversity, elegance and exclusiveness of recondite scholarship clearly above the systematized corpus of traditional knowledge.
The present study draws on and develops aspects of my book Sir Thomas Browne als Virtuoso. Die Bedeutung der Gelehrsamkeit für sein literarisches Alterswerk (Nürnberg: Hans Carl, 1972).
The citations from Browne's works are from the following editions:
The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 4 vols., repr. (London, 1964). [K]
Sir Thomas Browne. The Major Works, ed. C.A. Patrides (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977). [P]
1 "To the Reader", Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646).
2 Cf. Aleida Assmann, "Die Wunde der Zeit. Wordsworth und die romantische Erinnerung", Memoria. Vergessen und Erinnern, ed. Anselm Haverkamp und Renate Lachmann (München: Fink, 1993), 363. See also Jörg Jochen Berns und Wolfgang Neuber (eds.), Ars memorativa. Zur kulturgeschichtlichen Bedeutung der Gedächtniskunst. 1400-1750 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1993).
3 Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 368 f.
4 The most important sources concerning the theory of the loci communes were compiled by Paul Porteau in his book Montaigne et la vie pédagogique de son temps (Paris, 1935).
5 Ibid., 183.
6 Ibid., 182.
7 Cf. Ludwig Borinski, "Die Vorgeschichte des englischen Essay", Anglia 83 (1965), 48 ff.
8 See Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, II, XV, 1 (London: Everyman, 1965), 135: "Because it is but a counterfeit thing in knowledges to be forward and pregnant, except a man be deep and full, I hold the entry of common-places to be a matter of great use and essence in studying, as that which assureth copie of invention, and contracteth judgment to a strength."
10 "De Augmentis Scientiarum", in The Philosophic Works of Francis Bacon, transl. by R.C. Ellis and J. Spedding; ed. by J.M. Robertson (London: Routledge, 1905), 166.
11 Translation (K: III, 158 f.): "Memory slips away, age, time, events pass mostly into oblivion; commentaries therefore must be made ready in good time to obviate so great an evil. Not to rearrange the thoughts of writers in commonplace books, which will be doing again what has been done, but from a fresh reading of books to set down an abstract in free style, to include all that is difficult and worthy of note; whatever the author himself, the memory of like things, or natural genius supplies."
12 For a detailed analysis of Musaeum Clausum see my essay "Sir Thomas Brownes fiktives Raritätenkabinett 'Musaeum Clausum'. Eine Studie zur Mentalität des gelehrten Sammlers im 17. Jahrhundert", Archiv 234 (1997).
13 The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, transl. John C. Rolfe (London, 1961), I, xxvi. Italics mine.
14 "The Publisher to the Reader", Miscellany Tracts of Sir Thomas Browne; quoted from Sir Thomas Browne's Works, ed. Simon Wilkin (London, 1835/36), IV, 119.
15 "Character of Sir Thomas Browne as a Writer", Blackwood's Magazine 6 (1820), 198.
16 Cf. Joan Bennett, Sir Thomas Browne: 'A Man of Achievement in Literature' (Cambridge, 1962), 206.
17 "Character of Sir Thomas Browne", 198.
18 Cf. The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E.S. de Beer (London, 1959), 562: "Next morning I went to see Sir Th: Browne [...] whose whole house & Garden being a Paradise & Cabinet of rarities, & that of the best collection, especialy medails, books, Plants, natural things, did exceedingly refresh me ..."
19 Bold type mine.
20 Bold type mine.
21 For further instances see Works (Keynes), IV, 344, 352, 355, 358; III, pp. 50, 57, 379, 415.
22 Sir Thomas Browne. A Doctor's Life of Science and Faith, repr. (New York, 1961), 149: "An examination of these two volumes [...] shows that they furnished not only the theme of the essay but most of the matter of the first chapter as well. - The central thought of The Garden of Cyrus, that nature is dominated by the quincuncial figure, can be found clearly stated in Della Porta. Although his idea is buried in a long discussion of orchard arrangements, it is just the sort of detail that Browne was likely to ferret out of his reading and store away in his notebooks for future use. Most of the information about the history of the quincunx which Browne so learnedly sets forth appears to have been borrowed outright." - Cf. also Finch's "Browne and the Quincunx", Studies in Philology 37 (1940), 274-82, and L.C. Martin's "Commentary", Religio Medici and Other Works (Oxford, 1964), 338 ff.
23 Bennett, 62.
24 "Character of Sir Thomas Browne as a Writer", Lectures chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (London, 1901), Lecture VII, 223.
25 Bold type mine.