by Sir Thomas Browne
Reflections on the iniquity of oblivion.
I first encountered the seventeenth-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne in an essay by one of my favourite writers, Stephen Jay Gould. Many years later, I encountered him again in W.G. Sebald's mastepiece, The Rings of Saturn. Sebald refers to Browne's essay on an ancient urn-burial field near his home in Norfolk. When I discovered that a similar (Bronze Age) urnfield still exists on the Moor behind my house, I knew that I would have to read this book.
Browne, writing in mesmerising, but rather difficult seventeenth-century English, spends several chapters describing how people from different cultures, both historical and contemporary, disposed of their dead, what we know/suspect of the remains they left behind, and so forth. The stand-out chapter, however, is the final one, in which Browne ruminates on ‘the iniquity of oblivion’: the whims and vagaries of circumstance, which determine whose memorials actually survive over time. It is a magnificent chapter.
This Penguin edition includes a couple of other works by Browne (one in extract). Again, they are difficult reading, but worth the effort.