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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose|
7. Sir Thomas Browne And Milton
by Coleridge, Stephen
|My Dear Antony,
You will have seen from the extracts I have already quoted to
you of the writers of the Elizabethan age that the style of all of
them possesses something large and resonant, something that may be
said to constitute the "grand style" in prose; and this quite
naturally without effort, and without the slightest touch of
A great writer who came immediately after the
Elizabethans—namely, Sir Thomas Browne, who lived from 1605
to 1682—displays the development in his style of something
less simple and more precious than ruled in the former
It is difficult to select any passage from his works where all
is so good. He was curious and exact in his choice of words and
commanded a wide vocabulary. There is deliberate ingenuity in the
framing of his sentences, which arrests attention and markedly
distinguishes his style. His Urn Burial, in spite of its
elaboration, reaches a grave and solemn splendour.
The fifth chapter, which begins by speaking of the dead who have
"quietly rested under the drums and tramplings of three conquests,"
rises to a very noble elevation as English prose.
Here I quote one paragraph of it, characteristic of the
"Darkness and light divide the course of time, and oblivion
shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we
slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest strokes of
affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no
extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into
stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities; miseries are
slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no
unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful
of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest
the mixture of our few and evil days, and, our delivered senses not
relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw
by the edge of repetitions. A great part of antiquity contented
their hopes of subsistency with a transmigration of their
souls,—a good way to continue their memories, while having
the advantage of plural successions they could not but act
something remarkable in such variety of beings, and, enjoying the
fame of their passed selves, make accumulation of glory unto their
last durations. Others, rather than be lost in the uncomfortable
night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being, and
make one particle of the public soul of all things, which was no
more than to return into their unknown and divine original again.
Egyptian ingenuity was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in
sweet consistencies, to attend the return of their souls. But all
was vanity, feeding the wind, and folly. The Egyptian mummies,
which Cambyses or Time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummy is
become merchandise. Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for
Milton was a contemporary of Sir Thomas Browne, and, like all
great poets, was a master of resounding prose. All that he wrote,
both in verse and prose, is severely classic in its form. His
Samson Agonistes is perhaps the finest example of a play
written in English after the manner of the Greek dramas.
Milton wrote The Areopagitica in defence of the liberty
of publishers and printers of books. And it stands for all time as
the first and greatest argument against interference with the
freedom of the press.
The Areopagitæ were judges at Athens in its more
flourishing time, who sat on Mars Hill and made decrees and passed
sentences which were delivered in public and commanded universal
I will quote one of the finest passages in this great and
"I deny not but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church
and Commonwealth to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves
as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do
sharpest justice on them as malefactors: for books are not
absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to
be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do
preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that
living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as
vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragons' teeth; and being
sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.
This is a fine defence of the inviolability of a good and proper
"And yet on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good
almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a
reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book
kills reason itself; kills the Image of God as it were in the eye.
Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the
precious life-blood of a master-spirit; embalmed and treasured up
on purpose to a life beyond life.
"'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof, perhaps, there
is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the
loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare
"We should be wary, therefore, what persecutions we raise
against the living labours of public men; how we spill that
seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see
a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom,
and, if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre,
whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life,
but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of
reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life."
A bad book will generally die of itself, but there is something
horribly malignant about a wicked book, as it must always be worse
than a wicked man, for a man can repent, but a book cannot.
It is the men of letters who keep alive the books of the great
from generation to generation, and they are never likely to
preserve a wicked book from oblivion. Ultimately such go to light
fires and encompass groceries.
Your loving old