Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial is one of the great glories of Renaissance scholarship and without doubt one of the greatest essays in English literature. The work is ostensibly a study on some forty or fifty Roman funeral urns that had been discovered near Norfolk. The wonderfully associative mind of the author immediately reads philosophical implications out of, and rich analogues into, the urns.
Regarded as one of the finest specimens of Baroque prose of the seventeenth century, Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial is also a superb example of the occasional essay. It is distinguished for a number of reasons. Like all of Sir Thomas Browne’s works, it displays a combination of education and sensibility characteristic of the writers of the seventeenth century, for whom science was an equal partner with classical learning. Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial is a demonstration of Browne’s enormous reading, enviable memory, and intense interest in humanity’s beliefs, habits, and hopes.
Browne uses the incidence of the discovery of these burial urns as a prompt for philosophical speculations about humankind, specifically the concepts of mutability and impermanence. The first chapters, largely descriptive of burial customs and living habits of past civilizations, are merely prelude to the more significant topic toward which the author is aiming in his thoughtful and provocative conclusion. The thrust of Browne’s method becomes clear at the...
(The entire section is 1550 words.)
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