Friday, July 02, 2010

Anne Drury Hall, Epistle, Meditation and Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici

Anne Drury Hall, Epistle, Meditation and Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, PMLA, March 1979, Volume 94, Number 2, pp. 234-246.

Religio Medici has traditionally been called simply “an essay” or “an autobiographical essay.” … if we examine the Religio in its literary context, we will see that the principles generating its style and specifying the range of its feelings derive from two prose modes closely associated with other, more clearly defined seventeenth-century genres, the anti-Ciceronian epistle and the religious meditation. Thus, a better definition of its genre is “a meditation in the epistolary mode,” … (234)

Religio… is distinctly epistolary in addressing a restricting audience in a tone of conversational immediacy. (234)

The abruptness of this opening, the intimacy of the voice, and the ruminative ease with delicate points of stress that characterize relaxed conversation are stylistic features sanctioned, not in sixteenth-century rhetorics like Thomas Wilson’s, but in anti-Ciceronian treatises on the familiar letter—Justus Lipsius’ Institutio Epistolica and its English heir, John Hoskins’ Directions for Speech and Style. /
The medieval ars dictaminis had treated the letter either as a formal communication with an unknown superior or as a learned essay based on the oration. But in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, letter-writing rhetorics began to give emphasis to a more relaxed, familiar form. This fragmentation of epistolary rhetoric is reflected in Hoskins’ Directions: (234)

The emphasis of both Lipsius and Hoskins on subdued tone, subtlety of expression, and tasteful wit implies a redefinition of decorum, one appropriate to a small and select audience. Ciceronian oratory, on which the ars dictaminis depended, strives to include as much of the commonalty as possible and hence rests primarily on a principle of clarity. (234)

The understated quality of this irony—not high-pitched and sarcastic, but ducking and bowing with an easy grace—is part of an epistolary code. It assumes that the friend is perceptive enough, first, to hear the irony and, second, to understand that its mock submissiveness reveals the crowd’s hostility as unmannerly and ridiculous. /
This double focus, explicitly addressing a friend and yet placating the world, inveigles the sympathies of the reader, who knows he is not part of one audience but does not want to be classed with the other. (235)

In sum, the epistolary essay style is witty, social, and polite. What gives the Religio its wide and yet subtle range, having the effect of flickering lights on a dark background (Coleridge used the metaphor of shot silk), is the combination of this style with one almost antithetical to it—the somber, withdrawn, and sometimes lyric prose of devotional texts. (236)

Although the seventeenth-century meditation took a variety of forms, I am interested here in what might be called the “confessional” meditation, the meditation at its most expressive; a clear example is Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. … The epistolary-essay style presumes a speaker who is a member of a civilized society of a particular historical period, who recognizes a public made up of similar individuals, and who defines his identity, his difference, in relation to the others within this public. The speaker in the meditation belongs, not to a specific civilized community, but simply to the category “God’s human creatures,” which comprised all men who have ever lived. (236)

The epistolary essay is historically bound, logically explanatory, and, though private, dressed for some public audience, however small. The devotion is ahistorical, emotionally cumulative, and intensely private, … (236)

Intended not for the members of a particular community but for all human creatures, devotional prose expresses for both speaker and readers a common worship. As a result, the utterances of the meditation readily absorb the incantations of prayer, since the speaker’s purpose is not to explain and argue… (236)

In the Religio, it is the meditation that generates the incantatory lilt in the rhythm, the roll of the cursus, and the ritualized utterances of Hebraic synonymy, all of which frequently move Browne’s style from middle to elevated. (236)

Where the witty style actively invades the unknown in order to carve out from it a public, human space, ordered by thought, the devotional style collapses in passivity as the human creature craves possession by God. In seeking to “meet” the divine, the meditation characteristically rises above the attempts of reason. (236)

The psychological function of the prescribed steps of a formal meditation was to move the soul form the confusion to the calm of faith. (236)

Each “conclusion” that Browne draws has to do with a spiritual truth or mystery that is beyond what the common sense of reasonable men can discover. (237)

From the friendly address to the reader in the colloquial “your” (“your Piae Fraudes”), this passage moves straight-facedly into the wry suggestion… At this point in the paragraph, the sharp ups and downs of conversational emphasis gradually give way to the slower rhythms of rumination. … The tone here has clearly departed from the relaxed, easy conversation… By the seventeenth sentences, Browne has moved into the repetitions, parallel synonymies, and cursus of the meditation, one thought tacked onto another in radically “libertine” fashion, as the voice dissolves into chanting: /

‘For that indeed which I admire is farre before antiquity, that is, Eternity, and that is God himselfe; who though hee be stiled the Antient of dayes, cannot receive the adjunct of antiquity, who was before the world, and shall be after it, yet is not older then it; for in his yeares there is no Climacter; his duration is eternity, and farre more venerable then antiquitie.’/

Logically, the thought ends with “For that indeed which I admire is farre before antiquity, that is, Eternity, and that is God himselfe”; the rest of the paragraph muses on that notion of eternity. (238)

The combination of civil and devotional prose was not in itself a new achievement. The speaker in Donne’s “Good Friday: Riding Westward,” who devoutly pleads at the end of the poem, “O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish me,” is also a civilized man of the city. Joseph Hall used the civil perspective of the Theophrastan character to discuss religious virtues. Browne’s achievement, however, was to combine the two modes in a way that retains the distinctive timbre of each—wit’s happy confidence and the meditation’s deep mournfulness. The secularity of Browne’s civil prose is clearly heard because his diction has the sharp edges of satiric point. In fact, Browne’s diction in the Religio contributes to a satiric voice, which, in the 1640s, was highly original, a voice whose bemused good humor is crucial to his plea for urbane moderation in matters of religion. (239)

On the face of it, the combination of the cheerful, social, civilized intimacy of the happy man and the isolated piety of the mediator is a daring one, especially since Browne’s wit is so delicately sophisticated and his meditation so wistful. One would think that his poise would make his piety seem insincere or that his piety would make his wit seem brash. (241)

But, besides restraining wit’s tendencies toward aloof contempt, Browne had to restrain the meditation’s tendencies towards self-castigation and eager ecstasy. Generally, of course, he controls the potential emotionalism in the mediation by avoiding the second-person address to God. But he does frequently interject a parenthetical aside just before the concluding though of a section—an “I fear” or “I protest” or “no doubt” (242)

It has become almost a topos in Renaissance criticism to disparage Browne’s ease in favor of Donne’s toughness. Browne’s ease in favor of Donne’s toughness. Browne does not, it is argued, pursue the logical consequences of the paradoxes he sets up, nor does he feel their emotional pull with sufficient sensitivity. [Fish in Self-Consuming Artifacts. A typical comparison of Donne and Browne appears in Gilbert Phelps, “The Prose of Donne and Browne,” in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. III, ed. Boris Ford, Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1956, 116-30] Let us assess this criticism by examining, first, his failure of intellect. (243)

Now, although the religious person will concede that ultimately he accepts a mystery, he may prefer that philosophical inquiry not resort too quickly to mysterious paradoxy as a solution, in order to preserve the value of logical thought. But Browne recognizes that, if we refuse to allow paradoxy until we have reached a level of abstraction that only the trained theologian is comfortable with, then we will have to reject many of the intuitions about religious truth that enable the ordinary man to make sense of his life. And this Browne does not want to do. His purpose is to argue that we do less harm in accepting what is perhaps philosophically fuzzy paradoxy than in demanding strict logical consistency. (243)

We should recognize too that, if we complain about Browne’s lack of philosophical rigor, we are voicing philosophy’s old quarrel with rhetoric’s condescension to the way the ordinary man takes hold of his experience, and rhetoric, as we know, was at the heart of Christian humanism. (243)

To answer the complaint that Browne is not sufficiently sensitive to the pains of the human condition requires a distinction between public common sense and private lyric serenity. Given his subject, we have to grant Browne the occasional expression of serene faith. But it is harder to grant him those moments when the serenity becomes quite sweet. (243)

But if Browne’s critics are directing their complains not only at his aureate loveliness but also at his cheerful common sense, then I think we have to listen more patiently to the argument implied in his mixture of meditation and epistle. There is an ethical purpose in Browne’s use of the epistle’s wry humor to hold off the sometimes histrionic emotionalism of the confessional meditation, for this emotionalism can keep the soul from recognizing the importance of the public space to its complete flourishing. In acknowledging that man is a social creature who takes pleasure in society and who must use his intelligence to make that society work, if only by being polite, the epistle’s composure checks the absorption in the self that can destroy the commonality. (244)

The self-absorption of the meditation’s emotionalism can also blind the soul to a proper understanding of its relationship to God. A demonstration of one’s anxiety and yet a final affirmation of faith constitute an unseemly attempt to bargain with the Almighty. “Insolent zeales the doe decry good workes and rely onely upon faith, take not away merit: for depending upon the efficacy of their faith, they enforce the condition of God, and in a more sophisticall way doe seeme to challenge Heaven” (I.60). The attempt to prove the intensity of one’s faith is pathetic arrogance: “Surely, that which wee boast of, is not any thing, or at the most, but a remove from nothing” (I.60). Although it is tru that the thought of evil and death can overwhelm us with terror, this terror is an emotion that the meditation should acknowledge, not encourage. To concentrate on the pains of the human situation is to question God’s wisdom in having made our nature what it is and to complain about the way he looks after us. To be happy is a way of being properly thankful. Browne’s unruffled good sense makes it possible for the human spirit to accommodate life’s variety. /

Still, Browne’s version of common sense should not be rated higher than it deserves. Although the Religio is one of many Renaissance attempts to reconcile the values of Christianity with those of classical antiquity, Hooker and Milton are far more profound in addressing the difficulties of that reconciliation. Above all, they speak to the question of man’s responsibility for the commonality in terms of something deeper than manners and a sense of proportion. But in the same way that Browne’s calm cheerfulness has its limitations, so also does Donne’s nervous, self-involved toughness. To be sincere and serious is not enough; one must be sincere and serious about the right things in the right way. Perhaps the best way to distinguish among these various expressions of Christian humanism is to use Pater’s metaphor of a city’s architecture. Hooker and Milton are the “grand public structures” under whose shadow and protections stand the “private houses,” one of which belongs to Browne. [Appreciations] Browne’s ethic of civilized Christian retirement is a form of devotion that makes the society among those houses happy and charitable. (244)


Blogger Hydriotaphia said...

One of the most perceptive pieces available on-line on 'Religio Medici' I've read for a very long time.

5:39 AM  

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