Synopses & Reviews
Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, is one of the pinnacles of Renaissance scholarship and without doubt one of the great essays in English literature. Beginning with observations on the recent discovery of Roman antiquities in the form of burial urns, Browne’s associative mind wanders to elephant graveyards, to pre-Christian cremation ceremonies, and finally to the idea of Christian burial. Browne then explores, with a more melancholic meditation, man’s struggles with mortality and the uncertainty of his fate and fame in the living world. This edition includes a magisterial discourse on Sir Thomas Browne taken from the first chapter of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
"In the mid 17th century, some 40 to 50 Roman burial urns were uncovered in the fields of Norfolk, the occasion of which moved Dr. Thomas Browne to reflect on the significance of their contents, as well as on the ultimate insignificance of their discovery. This gorgeous new edition reintroduces Browne's seminal meditation on impermanence. Browne explores the quirk of fate that these seemingly delicate urns of ash and bone remained unharmed, despite the work of the plow and the destruction of most everything above ground. He also considers the response to death of various faiths and traditions, those who do and do not cremate their dead. His quiet language is profound and humble, timeless as well as singularly poignant. Sebald's preface, excerpted from The Rings of Saturn, introduces Browne's life and work as a physician, along with Sebald's own account of his search for Browne's skull, rumored to have been kept in a museum hospital. Additionally, Sebald paints the landscape of Browne's Renaissance contemporaries as they too engaged with the remains of the dead, notably Rembrandt's painting of human dissection. The pairing of these two works accentuates the importance of both.
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Browne’s is the voice of a strange preacher, of a man filled with doubts and subtleties and suddenly swept away by surprising imaginations. The Millions
Browne is a cracked archangel. Virginia Woolf
I translated Browne into seventeenth-century Spanish and it worked very well. I love him. --Jorge Luis Borges
The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten. These are the circles Browne’s thought’s describe. --W. G. Sebald, author of The Rings of Saturn
No archaeologist ever took such care to construct such luxurious lines for his readership. Browne, on the level of language as well as inquiry, is not that strict, exacting, stereotypically staunch fusspot of science...Browne presents himself as more of an interlocutor, a foil reflecting the given light of the sun so others may feel a little less dark in their darkness. Greg Gerke
Urn Burial, one of the most influential essays in Western literature, is now available as a New Directions Pearl.
About the Author
Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) was an English Renaissance author and physician. He wrote extensively about medicine, geography, philosophy, and Christian spirituality.W. G. Sebald was born in Germany in 1944 and died in 2001. He is the author of The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, Austerlitz, After Nature, On the Natural History of Destruction, Unrecounted and Campo Santo.