Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial "Time Hath An Art To Make Dust Of All Things"

Sir Thomas Browne

"Time Hath An Art To Make Dust Of All Things"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: This philosophical physician and scientist set out to write a report concerning some forty or fifty Roman funeral urns which were exhumed near Norwich. His speculative nature led him beyond the bounds of a mere scientific report to a disquisition on burial customs in general, ranging, of course, through his vast knowledge of classical literature. In this final chapter, which has been described as "a prose poem on death of perhaps unequaled verbal harmony," Browne discusses the impermanence of human fame and monuments. These bones removed from the funeral urns, he says, because of their anonymity have already outlasted all the buildings built over them:

Now since these dead bones have already out-lasted the living ones of Methuselah, and in a yard under ground, and thin walls of clay, out-worn all the strong and specious buildings above it; and quietly rested under the drums and tramplings of three conquests; What Prince can promise such diuturnity unto his Reliques, . . . Time which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments. In vain we hope to be known by open and visible conservatories, when to be unknown was the means of their continuation and obscurity their protection: If they died by violent hands, and were thrust into their urns, these bones become considerable, and some old philosophers would honour them, whose souls they conceived most pure, which were thus snatched from their bodies; and to retain a stronger propension unto them: whereas they weariedly left a languishing corpse, and with faint desires of re-union. . . .