Sunday, December 19, 2010

Uriel Deceived, Browne on Women, Chaucer, and Jefferson

Reading Log for December 14–19, 2010

Paradise Lost

I’ve been a little sidetracked from Paradise Lost for this weekend and have only had a few longer reading sessions. Narrative verse isn’t something to sit down and read in 5 minutes. My preference is to read one book of Paradise Lost per sitting, though practically speaking—as a father of 3 young kids, a walker of Dog, and a married man—two sittings may be more typical of my reading. Book III begins with a radical change in tone as Milton switches from the gloom below to the unapproachèd light. God and his Son see that Satan is going to sneak in and seduce Man into forsaking glory and make their plans. Satan is flying about the Ptolemaic spheres and morphs himself into the form of a cherub so he can get directions from Uriel. If you are wondering, as I was, why an Archangel couldn’t see through Satan’s trickery, Milton explains:

So spake the false dissembler unperceived,

For neither man nor angel can discern

Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks

Invisible except to God alone

By His permissive will through Heav’n and Earth.685

And oft, though Wisdom wake, Suspicion sleeps

At Wisdom’s gate and to Simplicity

Resigns her charge while Goodness thinks no ill

Where no ill seems, which now for once beguiled

Uriel, though regent of the sun and held690

The sharpest sighted spirit of all in Heav’n,

Who to the fraudulent impostor foul

In his uprightness answer thus returned:

Uriel goes on to praise the disguised Satan’s desire to admire the Creator’s new work. On to Niphates he goes.

Religio Medici

I’ve finished with Part I of Religio Medici, and have read on through Part II:9. Once I hit Part I:50 I found myself far more involved in the work. I still find that I can say very little about Browne other than that he’s interesting. I think I’ll have more to say after I’ve finished the book and have had time to consider and revisit it. I do find myself wondering how often the humor which Coleridge says is constantly “mingling with and flashing across” the philosophy is unintentional humor.

C.S. Lewis, when quoting Browne in The Four Loves, comments on this:

Venus herself will have a terrible revenge if we take her (occasional) seriousness at its face value. And that in two ways. One is most comically—though with no comic intention—illustrated by Sir Thomas Browne when he says that her service is “the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there anything that will more deject his cool’d imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed.” But if he had gone about that act with less solemnity in the first place he would not have suffered this “dejection.” If his imagination had not been misled, its cooling would have brought no such revulsion…

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Chapter IV, “Eros”

In case it isn’t clear, what Lewis casually refers to as “her service” is copulation. It’s clearer in the full context of Browne’s text:

I was never yet once, and commend their resolutions who never marry twice, not that I disallow of second marriage; as neither in all cases of Polygamy, which considering some times and the unequall number of both sexes may bee also necessary. The whole world was made for man, but the twelfth part of man for woman: man is the whole world and the breath of God, woman the rib and crooked piece of man. I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this triviall and vulgar way of coition; It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his coold imagination, when he shall consider what an odde and unworthy piece of folly hee hath committed; I speake not in prejudice, nor am averse from that sweet sexe, but naturally amorous of all that is beautifull; I can looke a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse.

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Part II, Section 9

Immediately following this, he leads from the music of beauty to the music of the spheres. C.A. Patrides, editor of the volume I am reading, gives this footnote:

The sentiment was first censured by James Howell in 1645, who thought ‘it was a most unmanly thing’ in Browne ‘to wish that ther wer a way to propagat the world other wise than by conjunction with women’ (Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ, 3rd ed. [1655], I, 308). Other censures followed, e.g. Dr Johnson’s [in The Life of Sir Thomas Browne]. But the light hearted tone of the passage suggests that Browne again deploys his ‘soft and flexible sense.’

I personally find it a bit of a strain to read it other than it appears. Can anyone convince me otherwise? Of course, as Dr. Johnson points out, it wasn’t long after Religio Medici was published that Browne was married, seemingly happily.

He married, in 1641, Mrs. Mileham, of a good family in Norfolk; “a lady,” says Whitefoot, “of such symmetrical proportion to her worthy husband, both in the graces of her body and mind, that they seemed to come together by a kind of natural magnetism.”

This marriage could not but draw the raillery of contemporary wits upon a man who had just been wishing, in his new book, “that we might procreate, like trees, without conjunction,” and had lately declared, that “the whole world was made for man, but only the twelfth part of man for woman;” and, that “man is the whole world, but woman only the rib or crooked part of man.”

Whether the lady had been yet informed of these contemptuous positions, or whether she was pleased with the conquest of so formidable a rebel, and considered it as a double triumph, to attract so much merit, and overcome so powerful prejudices; or whether, like most others, she married upon mingled motives, between convenience and inclination; she had, however, no reason to repent, for she lived happily with him one-and-forty years, and bore him ten children, of whom one son and three daughters outlived their parents: she survived him two years, and passed her widowhood in plenty, if not in opulence.

I personally side with Dr. Johnson’s estimation of “these contemptuous positions,” but I also find myself chuckling like a teenager at the phrase “procreate like trees,” and at Browne’s professed capacity to “look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse.” Perhaps all this was meant quite innocently—the measure of woman as “the crooked piece of man” isn’t forgivable—but 3 sections prior, Browne was discussing the unity of the soul in two bodies in reference to friends, where today it would be very surprising to find anyone speaking in this way about anyone but a lover.

I’m convinced of one thing—Browne’s base assumptions are not mine, nor are they like anything I’ve come to expect. Whether Browne is entirely unique or it is a matter of distance in time and place, it seems necessary to dismiss expectation and come to his work and his thoughts on their own terms.


I picked up my Chesterton volume again last night. I’d been reading Religio Medici most of the day and needed some lighter fare. There is nothing in particular to comment on with the Chesterton reading—I didn’t get very far before going to sleep—but I wonder if there is anyone who brings me quite as much light-hearted delight as Chesterton. There was one bit that I wanted to quote for its relevance to what I’m reading:

Chaucer was a poet who came at the end of the medieval age and order: which certainly contained fanaticism, ferocity, wild asceticism and the rest. There are some who really suggest that it contained only fanaticism, ferocity and the rest. Anyhow, I was faced with the fact that Chaucer was the final fruit and inheritor of that order. And I was also confronted with the fact, which seems to me quite as certain a fact, that he was much more sane and cheerful and normal than most of the later writers. He was less delirious than Shakespeare, less harsh than Milton, less fanatical than Bunyan, less embittered than Swift. I had in any case to construct some sort of theory in connexion with this practical problem and this practical fact. Therefore in this book I advance the general thesis; that, in spite of everything, there was a balanced philosophy in medieval times; and some very unbalanced philosophies in later times.

Thomas Jefferson to his future son-in-law

The last bit of reading this weekend was Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. It’s a letter of advice on a young man’s education and health. It was written over 200 years ago, and is still well worth reading. He makes advice on how to go about education—seek lectures for the sciences, but books for history, and seek out original authors on the histories of Greece, Rome and England, though Gibbons is fine for covering the transition from ancient to modern. He also adds that,

There are portions of the day too when the mind should be eased, particularly after dinner it should be applied to lighter occupation: history is of this kind. It exercises principally the memory. Reflection also indeed is necessary but not generally in a laborious degree.

On health, Jefferson recommends taking up the habit of walking in the evenings—“Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded.”

There’s more there that’s worth reading, and it isn’t long. You can find a copy of it at the link I provide at the beginning of the post.

Jefferson Letter


  1. Chris, the whole world stumbles upon and seizes upon Browne's attitude to sex forgetting a) it's an opinion he voiced years earlier, b) he had a happy married life with 10 children. It certainly comes across as priggish; but then his critics completely ignore the following soaring music in the next paragraph on harmony streaming neatly on from woman, to beauty, to music to the soul .

    Doctor Johnson brought to attention all of Browne's foibles long ago, Patrides repeats them. Coleridge's observation that the R.M. ought to be read in a 'soft and flexible sense' seems worth heeding.

    There certainly are some interesting connections between C.S.Lewis and Browne. I've just come across an essay entitled 'Sir Thomas Browne,Screwtape, and the amphibians of Narnia' an article from Christianity and Literature dated 22 June 2010.

    I must read more Chesterton soon. Cannot comment on Chaucer and Jefferson, devoted too much time reading Browne! As Patrides observes Browne wears many masks and differs significantly in style depending on theme, you may find 'Urn-Burial' less full of the author's contradictory idiosyncrasies and more in command of stylistic purity and succinct profundity. But I am no apologist for him.

  2. I included the Johnson quote to point out Browne's marriage, and on Paul's blog I left a comment about his children -- according to Patrides he had 12 children, 8 of which died. At any rate, I can see why people seize upon the passage (as I have done...) -- it's easy to know what I think of it, excerpted from the rest, yet the fact that in the very same section he goes on to discuss music beautifully... well, the section does stand out. When I have a chance to review the book as a whole, I hope to be more balanced in the review of it. Right now I'm just snatching at what a) grabs my attention AND b) I'm capable of addressing. There's a lot I can't address right now because I need to mull it over.

    Whatever the case, I'm enjoying Browne. In many ways this book is a rarity, and his exposed personality and thought life is singular and fascinating.


Don't be a jerk.