Wednesday, 18 November 1998

Thomas Browne: Religio Medici (1643)

Edition: Renascence Editions, 1998
Review number: 170

Ever since reading Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night for the first time, and seeing how much pleasure the metaphysical poets and Thomas Browne gave her (through the enjoyment she assigned to her characters), I have wanted to read these works for myself. This year I have finally got round to doing so, and was not disappointed. They provide much the same kind of pleasure, in the images used and the linguistic invention in which the writers take such joy. This is perhaps to be expected in poetry, but much less so in prose (even seventeenth century prose), particularly when the subject under discussion is philosophy and theology.

There are many parallels with Gide's Fruits of the Earth, which I read only a short time before Religio Medici: both are written mainly in prose, a prose which reads like poetry; both have similar subject matter; both were written by comparatively young men. Browne's work is, naturally (given its date) more orthodox and (given Browne's nationality) more Protestant in outlook. However, Browne was not completely orthodox; he thought for himself and was not afraid to come to different conclusions from mainstream seventeenth century Anglican theology. (He is much more tolerant of Catholicism and other religions, for example.)

The joys of Religio Medici are in its beautiful language and Browne's humanity, his understanding and his insight. It is not surprising that it was loved by Lord Peter, and by many others.

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