The 100 best nonfiction books: No 93 – Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658)

Sir Thomas Browne earned his reputation as a ‘writer’s writer’ with this dazzling short essay on burial customs

Sir Thomas Browne is one of those major-minor figures in the story of these great books, a writer whose afterlife vindicates the power of an enchanted, idiosyncratic, and – the gift that holds one key to the success of the writing life – deeply humane imagination. Browne’s reputation among admirers as various as Johnson, Coleridge, De Quincey, Lytton Strachey and, most recently, WG Sebald confirms him as an early example of “the writer’s writer”.

Browne himself, whose life spanned the 17th century, was a learned, proto-Romantic, nomadic figure with a scholarly, metropolitan pedigree. He told John Aubrey (No 54 in this series) that he had been born in Cheapside, educated at Oxford, then “spent some years in foreign parts” before joining the college of physicians. He also proudly reports that he was “knighted September 1671, when Charles II, the Queen and court” visited Norwich, the city to which he had retired in old age. Another fan, Dr Johnson, who wrote a brief “life” of Browne, supplied a good summary of his subject’s inimitable style, which the plain-spoken critic described as “a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. He must, however, be confessed to have augmented our philosophical diction; and, in defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express, in many words, that idea for which any language could supply a single term.”

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