Sir Thomas Browne was born in London, the son of a merchant. In 1626, he graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford University, and three years later took an M.A. degree. Subsequently, he studied medicine at Montpellier (France), Padua (Italy), and Leiden (the Netherlands), where he took a medical degree. He returned to England in 1633, establishing himself in Yorkshire. In 1637, he received an M.D. from Oxford and then moved to Norwich, where he lived, pursuing his varied interests and studies, until his death. Though always a Royalist, he apparently took little interest in politics. After the Restoration, he was made honorary fellow of the College of Physicians in 1664, and Charles II knighted him in 1671.
Browne’s magnificent literary style was set from the very beginning. Religio Medici, written to explore his devotion to Christianity (at the time physicians were often accused of atheism), is characterized not only by Browne’s curious and inquisitive mind, which ranges throughout many fields of knowledge, but also by his whimsical, quaint, sometimes strained vocabulary and his always rich, rolling, vivid style, reminiscent of organ tones created by the greatest master. His sentences are long, sonorous, and heavy.
Browne’s inquiring mind and deliberate style are exhibited further in his second work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (also called Browne’s Vulgar Errors). This work is one of the first catalogs of and critical examinations into folk and popular lore and popular beliefs and practices. Browne’s work clearly lies between that of virtuosi—mere collectors of curiosities—and that of the natural philosophers, many of them his friends, who were beginning to develop modern experimental science. He examines popularly held beliefs such as that the bear is born a shapeless mass and is licked into shape by its mother and that ostriches can digest iron balls—the testing of which theory led to the death of the ostrich in the zoo.
Browne’s later works are in some ways more interesting, more because of their style than their content. Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall is rich in both qualities, and as such may be seen as a transitional work. The Garden of Cyrus is largely a stylistic tour de force. Together, these works are meditations on death and life, represented by the grave and the garden.
Browne is also known for various tracts, many on scientific subjects, and his letters, which show him to be warm and generous as well as brilliant and inquisitive. Unfortunately, by the time of his death the...
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