Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Coincidence - A Window on Eternity

'The depths of our psyche we know not, but inwards goes the mysterious way. In us or nowhere is eternity with its worlds: the past and the future'. -  Novalis

Many people world-wide have experienced some remarkable coincidence in their lives and yet coincidence, in particular, meaningful or significant coincidence, remains a little understood phenomenon. And although the word 'synchronicity' has now become a fashionable word to describe significant coincidence, few these days know that it was the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung (1875-1961) who introduced the word into language in order to give a name to his psychological theory on meaningful coincidence. 

Long before C.G. Jung, the seventeenth century hermetic philosopher and physician Thomas Browne (1605-82) also held an interest in coincidence, introducing the word to English readers in his medical essay A Letter to a Friend. Browne was fascinated with the phenomenon of coincidence enough to make it the very framework of his esoteric discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Throughout its highly compressed and dense imagery, Browne's ringmasters in rapid procession a multiplicity of evidence of the coincidence of the number five and the Quincunx pattern, firstly in art, then in nature, notably botany, to spiritual symbolism and finally to the 'Quincunx of Heaven'.   

New  insights into the phenomenon of coincidence can be gained through juxtaposition of the ideas of C.G. Jung with those of Dr. Browne of Norwich . The subject of coincidence is one of a number of interests the two physicians shared. Both men maintained a medical practice throughout their lives, both engaged in deep analysis of themselves and their dreams, both studied comparative religion and read alchemical literature closely, sharing an interest in the pioneering Swiss physician, Paracelsus (1493 –1541) along with his foremost advocate, Gerard Dorn (c.1530-84). And finally, both were interested in unusual psychic phenomena such as coincidence or synchronicity, as Jung termed it. 

One of the most accessible books on C.G.Jung is his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) in which Jung narrates of his relationship to his one-time mentor, Sigmund Freud, his psychology and 'discovery' of the archetypes, his world-wide travels, visiting and hearing the dreams of various indigenous peoples along with his highly original interpretation of alchemy, as well as the many extraordinary coincidences which he experienced in his life-time. 

C.G.Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections is prefaced by a verse composed by the English poet Coleridge. Selected by Jung's secretary Aniela Jaffe to describe the Swiss psychologist, Coleridge's notebook verse is in fact about someone he greatly admired, none other than Thomas Browne ! A remarkable coincidence first detected in 1996 when beginning what is now a quarter century of Brownean studies. Coleridge's verse reads - 

He looked at this own Soul 
With a Telescope.What seemed
all irregular, he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations: and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.
C.G.Jung's major writing on coincidence  'Synchronicity:An Acausal Connecting Principle'  was first published in 1952 . Its useful to be clear on the meaning of the word 'acausal' in the title of Jung's essay, which like the word 'asymptomatic', meaning without showing symptoms, acausal means without any known or perceived cause. Jung states- 

We do know at least enough about the psyche not to attribute to it any magical power, and still less can we attribute any magical power to the conscious mind.....The great difficulty is that we have absolutely no scientific means of proving the existence of an objective meaning which is not a psychic product. We are, however, driven to some such assumption unless we want to regress to a magical causality and ascribe to the psyche a power that far exceeds its empirical range of action. [1]

Jung's essay on coincidence, which he terms Synchronicity, includes a long statistical analysis of astrological data of married couples and a chapter on the forerunners of Synchronicity naming Kepler, Paracelsus and Pico della Mirandola, among others, who speculated upon the phenomenon of coincidence, each of whom were once well-represented in Thomas Browne's library.

C.G. Jung found confirmation of his ideas on synchronicity in the Chinese oracle of the I Ching, also known as the Book of Changes. Consisting of 64 Hexagrams made through casting coins or yarrow-sticks which are read as either broken or whole, Yin or Yan, each of the 64 configurations of the I Ching has a highly philosophical verse attached to it. Readings of the I Ching naturally stimulate  the possibility of synchronicity. In Jung's view -

The Chinese mind, as I see it at work in the I Ching, seems to be exclusively preoccupied with the chance aspect of events. What we call coincidence seems to be the chief concern of this peculiar mind, and what we worship as causality passes almost unnoticed. ....Just as causality describes the sequence of events, so synchronicity to the Chinese mind deals with the coincidence of events.   [2]

Unlike the Greek-trained Western mind, the Chinese mind does not aim at grasping at details for their own sake, but at a view which sees the detail as part of a whole...The I Ching, which we can well call the experimental basis of Classical Chinese philosophy, is one of the oldest known methods for grasping a situation as a whole and thus placing the details against a cosmic background - the interplay of Yin and Yang. [3]

Called by short-sighted Westerners a "collection of ancient magic spells" an opinion echoed by modernized Chinese themselves, the I Ching is a formidable psychological system that endeavours to organize the play of the archetypes, the "wonderous operations of nature" into a certain pattern, so that a "reading" becomes possible. it was ever a sign of stupidity to depreciate something one does not understand.   [4]

Hexagram 27 of the I Ching (above) is named The Corners of the Mouth. Providing Nourishment. 
Its accompanied by the verse -

Perseverance brings good fortune.
Pay heed to the providing of nourishment.
And to what a man seeks
To fill his own mouth with.

Jung concludes his essay on Synchronicity, defending his hypothesis thus-

'Synchronicity is no more baffling or mysterious than the discontinuities of physics. It is only the ingrained belief in the sovereign power of causality that creates intellectual difficulties and makes it appear unthinkable that causeless events exist or could even occur.... Meaningful coincidences are unthinkable as pure chance. But the more they multiply and the greater and more exact the correspondence is, the more their probability sinks and their unthinkability increases, until they can no longer be regarded as pure chance, but for a lack of a causal explanation, have to be though of meaningful arrangements... Their 'inexplicability' is not due to the fact that the cause is unknown, but to the fact that a cause is not even thinkable in intellectual terms  [5]   

*   *   *  *  *

Marie-Louise von Franz (b. January 4th 1915 - d. 17th February 1998) was one of C.G.Jung's most gifted followers (above with Jung). She first met the Swiss psychoanalyst in 1933 when aged 18 and subsequently became his lifelong collaborator, translating important alchemical manuscripts for him until his death in 1961. Von Franz was one of Analytical Psychology's most original thinkers. In 2021 on January 4th, the date of Marie-Louise von Franz's birthday,  the first volume of von Franz's collected works was published, with a projected plan for the subsequent 27 volumes to be published in the following 7 years until 2028. 

Like the British broadcaster, writer, politician and chef Clement Freud (1924 - 2004) grandson of Jung's one-time mentor, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Von Franz was immune from Christianity's prejudice towards gambling, and once stated in her informal  and intuitive lectures- 

'If you are a gambler, and I hope you are, then you know that one is always torn between two possibilities - either to have a system, or to trust to what I would call the unconscious, and what another gambler would call his god of luck, Lady Luck or whatever'. [6]

Thomas Browne in his early years, also enjoyed the thrill of game play. In his spiritual testament  Religio Medici he declares-

'Tis not a ridiculous devotion, to say a Prayer before a game at Tables; for even in sortilegies and matters of greatest uncertainty, there is a settled and pre-ordered course of effects; 'tis we that are blind, not fortune: because our eye is too dim to discover the mystery of her effects, we foolishly paint her blind'.[7]

According to von Franz-

'Gambling is one of the greatest of human passions. The fascination with it, in my view, comes from the fact that what one ultimately comes in contact with here is one's own unconscious, the secret of synchronicity, and thus with the creative activity of God or divine destiny'.. [8] 

In his European best-seller Religio Medici (1643) Thomas Browne, like many devout Christians of his age then and now, attributed fortune and chance to the 'hand of God.' 

Fortune, that serpentine and crooked line, whereby he draws those actions his wisdom intends in a more unknown and secret way; This cryptick and involved method of his providence have I ever admired, nor can I relate the history of my life, the occurrences of my days, the escapes of dangers, and hits of chance with a Bezo las Manos, to Fortune, or a bare Gramercy to my good stars:....... Surely there are in every man's life certain rubs, doublings and wrenches which pass a while under the effects of chance, but at the last, well examined, prove the mere hand of God:   [9]  

It is however, the human mind or psyche which concerns the psychologist when examining the phenomena of coincidence.  

In  a series of lectures collected under the title of  'Synchronicity and Divination' von Franz states- 

'By introducing the concept of synchronicity, Jung opened the door to a new way of understanding the relationship between psyche and matter.... a completely unresearched area of reality.

One cannot speak of alchemical symbolism without referring to Jung’s important - if not most important - discovery of the synchronicity principle, that is, his discovery that symbols produced spontaneously by the unconscious through the actions of the archetypes tend to coincide in a meaningful way with material occurrences in the external world, constituting an exception to the causal determination of all natural processes still widely espoused by natural science. This points empirically to an unobservable cosmic background, which imparts order to psyche and matter at once.

Marie-Louise von Franz was also one of the first to elaborate in depth upon fairytales, recognizing the wealth of archetypal material they contain as well as their mapping of the trials, dangers and rewards of the individuation process, that is, the hazardous journey in becoming a whole and integrated individual. A typical, astute remark and observation of her's being -

'In European fairytales, the wizard generally represents the dark aspect of the image of God which has not been recognised in the collective unconscious.' [10]

One motif in fairy-tales is the valued item which is returned through unexpected, coincidental ways. In Hans Christian Anderson's The Tin Soldier, a one-legged toy soldier is discarded, and after many adventures is swallowed by a fish. By a remarkable coincidence after the fish is caught and sold at market and prepared by a cook,  the toy soldier falls out of the fish, returning to the home of the child who owned him.    

The mystery of coincidence remained of interest to Sir Thomas Browne in his old age. In his Museum Clausum (circa 1673) a bizarre list of lost, imagined and rumoured to exist, books, pictures and objects, there can be found the item of -
A Ring found in a Fishes Belly taken about Gorro; conceived to be the same wherewith the Duke of Venice had wedded the Sea. [11]

Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) is surely his greatest contribution to the literature of coincidence. In what is one of the most idiosyncratic of all writings in English literature, Browne utilizes the coincidence of the number five along with its various derivatives, notably the Quincunx pattern, in order to demonstrate order and the myriad of interconnections in the universe. 

Number has defined as the most primitive instrument of bringing an unconscious awareness of order into consciousness, and in The Garden of Cyrus Browne's fascination with Pythagorean numerology is given full vent, supplying his reader with evidence of the coincidence of the number five in subjects as diverse as Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, Comparative religion, the Bembine Tablet of Isis, mythology, ancient world plantations and gardening, geometry, sculpture, numismatics, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics, the camera obscura, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least in numerous botanical  observations which anticipate modern-day studies in genetics, germination, generation and heredity, 

In the opening of the third chapter of The Garden of Cyrus Browne adjusrs his focus from 'sundry works of art' to 'natural examples'. He seems surprised that the 'elegant ordination' of the Quincunx pattern which is 'elegantly observable'  seems to have been 'overlooked by all'.
'Now although this elegant ordination of vegetables, hath found coincidence or imitation in sundry works of Art, yet is it not also destitute of natural examples, and though overlooked by all, was elegantly observable, in several works of nature'.

Unsurprising in this cheerful, light-hearted and playful half of Browne's diptych discourses, pastimes and games are alluded to including chess and backgammon, archery, skittles and knuckle-stones as well as singing and music-making. 

*  *  *

Since earliest time the uncertainty of life has inspired humanity to devise a number of ways to predict  the future. In bibliomancy a random verse from the Bible is selected as advice, in hydromancy, the ripples and reflections of water are interpreted, and in belomancy, the flight and resting place of arrows is consulted. But perhaps the strangest of all divination methods must surely be gastromancy in which the rumblings and gurglings of the digestive tract and stomach are interpreted as if the speaking voices of spirits. 

Browne alludes to the little known of esoteric art of Geomancy in The Garden of Cyrus, a divination technique and schemata which like the Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching involves a schemata based upon chance, but far less developed and rudimentary, with only 16 configurations to the I Ching's  total of 64 configurations.

Geomancy (from Greek of Geo earth and mancy divination) is a method of divination which interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand. The most common form of geomancy involves interpreting a series of 16 figures formed by a randomized process followed by analyzing them.

According to Von Franz, 'Geomancy is a "terrestified" astrology. Instead of taking the constellations of the stars and using them for divination, one makes the constellation of the stars oneself on the earth (Ge means earth) and then proceeds as in astrology. [12]

Geomancy was one of the most popular forms of divination throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In England it was practiced by Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and John Heydon (1629 – 1667).  It would appear that Browne also took an interest in Geomancy. He owned one of the very few books written exclusively on the subject, a copy of the little-known of Henry of Pisa's Geomancy is listed as once in his library. [13]   

Its in a series of queries challenging his reader, slowly building to the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus  that Browne alludes to geomantic formations thus- 

'Why Geomancers do imitate the Quintuple Figure, in their Mother Characters of Acquisition and Amission, &c somewhat answering the Figures in the Lady or speckled Beetle ?' 

The five points of the quincunx  can be seen in  the geomantic configurations of aquisitio and amissio (above) as well as albedo and rubedo, two stages of the alchemical opus. The two terms aquisitio and amissio mean gain and loss respectively. They are both equal values as a minus and plus and  are associated with both the quincunx pattern and the number ten ( 5+5 = 10 -5 = 5). 

Browne's Garden of Cyrus can be interpreted as representing the 'whitening' or albedo of the alchemical opus; its apotheosis the short-lived red hot Rubedo of the alchemical opus. The other half of the diptych Urn-Burial equates to the black despair and melancholy of the initial Nigredo stage of the alchemical opus in its subject-matter and imagery. [14 ] 

Digressing slightly, another alchemical polarity which corresponds well to Browne's diptych discourses is the Massa confusa and the Unus Mundus of alchemy. With its procession of Time and successive civilizations, allusion to grieving, bereavement, the passions and the vain-glory of humanity, Urn-Burial can be said to portray the Massa confusa, loosely translated as Ball of Confusion, the initial, Nigredo-like stage of the alchemical opus. Likewise The Garden of Cyrus with its persistent demonstration of the archetypal patterns of Geometric design, the Platonic Forms, Number and  Order, are all indicative of the interconnectiveness of the Universe, and point towards the Unus Mundus or One  World of alchemy. 
Its in his vastly underrated essay A Letter to a Friend (circa 1656 pub. post. 1690) which is packed full of case-histories and medical gossip concerning health, disease and illness, that Browne makes an astounding analogy, likening coincidence to the tail-eating snake known as the Uroboros. Citing 'the Egyptian Hieroglyphick of Pierus', (pictured below) Browne states-

'that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, which tho Astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making Predictions of it'.

The symbol of the uroboros is in many ways the basic mandala of alchemy. Originating in ancient Egypt,  Greek depictions of it stress its duality or polarity through contrasting colours. The words Hen to pan 'Everything is One', are inscribed in its centre.

As a symbol of Eternal Return or Recurrence, Thomas Browne surely knew of the complex symbolism of the uroboros involving Time and Space. His associating it with the phenomena of coincidence is quite remarkable. It was the Brownean scholar Frank Huntley who first noted that Browne's diptych Discourses of 1658 are uroboros-like in their  circular construction

C.G. Jung noted - In the age-old image of the uroboros lies the though of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.  The uroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite i.e. of the shadow. This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the uroboros that he slays himself and brings to life, fertilizes himself an gives birth to himself. [16]


Although the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer considered coincidence to only be meaningful to those to whom it happens, here's a few personal ones, several of which seem to be connected with books, unsurprisingly. On arriving at the North Sea, commencing reading an Aldous Huxley novel, within a minute the words 'North Sea' on its page. Showing a book on flower symbolism to a lover with the same name as the author, recovering from the shock of a gas-boiler 'boom' to sit down and begin a new chapter of Charles Dicken's 'David Copperfield' entitled 'I take part in an explosion'. Listening to music on earphones in a park, the  word 'Michael' is sung, a split-second later someone calls out the name 'Michael. But perhaps most intriguing of all,  daily living a coincidence for 25  years. My home address is identical  not only to the date of birth but also to zodiac sign, albeit by substitution of Latin astrological nomenclature to Saxon. (Aquarius/Waterman).  

At its very lowest level detection of a coincidence affirms that an an individual is being attentive and aware, able to observe the world around them, possessing a good memory, and able to make connections about the world around them. 

From personal experience I can confirm that coincidences often occur when an emotionally charged situation arises. An aura of the numinous is often attached to them. It is also sometimes when the archetypes are activated that coincidences can occur. Near endless in number the dominant archetypes in Jungian psychology include the lover, the old wise man, the great mother, the helpful animal, the trickster and death. Coincidences can occur when the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious meet or collide.

At present synchronous events can be seen as reminders that we are far from understanding everything about humanity's place in Time and Space, or of the human psyche. As C.G Jung states- 'Consciousness is too narrow and too one-sided to comprehend the full inventory of the psyche'. [16]  Coincidence, in particular meaningful coincidence, serves to  remind us that we neither fully understand ourselves, nor our relationship to Nature, on either a collective or an individual basis. As if nodal points on an invisible Network of Time and Space, (incidentally, Thomas Browne is credited as the first to use the word 'Network' in its meaning of an artificial construction) or black holes in deep Space which puzzle science, synchronicity and meaningful coincidence are windows which can open to eternity.  


*  Thomas Browne: Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen pub. OUP  2014
* Synchronicity An Acausal Connecting Principle C.G.Jung  pub. RKP 1972
*  The I Ching or book of Changes Cary F. Baynes pub. RKP. 1951
* Alchemical active imagination -Marie Louise von Franz pub. Shambala 1997
* Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche -Marie-Louise von Franz pub. Shambala Press 1999 
* On Divination and Synchronicity - Marie-Louise von Franz pub. 1980 Inner City 
* The Feminine in Fairytales - Marie-Louise Von Franz pub. Spring Publications 1988

[1]  C.G. Jung Foreword to Baynes edition of I Ching
[2]  CW 10 968/973
[3]  C. G. Jung Foreword to Baynes edition 
[4]  CW 14:401
[5] On Synchronicity
[6] On Divination and Synchronicity - Marie-Louise von Franz 
[7] Religio Medici Part 1 : 18
[8] p.67 Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche -Marie-Louis von Franz
[9]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 17
[10] Miscellaneous Tract 12 Item 20 of 'Antiquities and Rarities of Several Sorts'
[11] The Psychological Meaning of Redemption motifs in Fairytales - Von Franz
[12] On divination and Synchronicity- Von Franz
[13] 1711 Sales Catalogue  p.30 no. 11 H. de Pisis Geomantia Lugd. 1638 
[15] CW 14: 
[16] CW 14:759

This one for the Jungian blogger, Ms. Monika Gemini with thanks for her insights and virtual company over the years. 

Postscript - Norwich's local newspaper, the EDP published an article featuring historical photographs of the statue of Sir Thomas Browne on January 27th. Link to photos of statue of Sir Thomas Browne 

Saturday, November 07, 2020

William Taylor of Norwich - 'Kräftig, aber klappernd'.

Born in Norwich, William Taylor (7 November 1765 - 5 March 1836) was an essayist, scholar and translator of German Romantic literature. He was also, alongside Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, a leading mediator in Anglo-German literary relations. Indeed, it was because of Taylor's early advocacy of German literature that the influential Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (Universal Literary Newspaper) could declare in 1796 -

'Incidentally, German literature has the greatest number of followers in Norwich, for understandable commercial reasons.' [1] 

In his lifetime Taylor was widely read. Importantly,  his translations of German poetry  bridged German Romanticism to English Romanticism. Taylor's translations influenced the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth to produce Lyrical Ballads (1798), a vanguard  literary work of Romanticism which, with its inclusion of Coleridge's long poem The rime of  the Ancient Mariner, changed the course of English poetry. 

More recently, Taylor's name and contribution to English appreciation of German literature is featured in Peter Watson's tour-de-force survey of German science and culture, The German Genius (2010) [2]

William Taylor's diverse  interests included - philology, etymology, chronology, topography, history sacred and profane, ancient and modern, political economy,  statistics, international law, municipal law, Talmudic legend, Muslim ethics, Biblical texts, churches and sects, parliamentary reform, slave trade and almost every category of modern European literature.  Among the thousands of reviews and essays which he wrote are those with titles such as, 'The Jews in England', 'Songs of the Negroes of Madagascar', 'Historic doubts concerning Joan of Arc', 'On the Sublime and Beautiful', an 'Ode in Praise of Tea' and, 'Of the Use of Ice as a Luxury'.

As the only child of a wealthy merchant who traded and exported Norwich goods to continental Europe, Taylor was fortunate in his education. He was taught by the English poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, and author of children's literature, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743 - 1825) at her Palgrave Academy in Suffolk. 

Barbauld informed her former pupil of her reading aloud a poem translated by him at an Edinburgh literary soiree and of the reception it received -  

 'Are you aware that you made Walter Scott a poet ? So he told me the other day I had the gratification of meeting him. It was, he says, your ballad of Leonora, and particularly the lines-

Tramp, tramp across the land they speed:
Splash, splash, across the sea. [3]

Later, Taylor lauded Barbauld as, 'the mother of his mind'. Barbauld's own career as a poet ended abruptly in 1812, with the publication of her Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, in which she severely criticized Britain's participation in the Napoleonic Wars. Shocked by the vicious reviews it received, she published nothing more. 

Anna Barbauld can been in a group of three Muses, standing beside an easel with arm raised, in Richard Samuels' painting Nine Living Muses of Great Britain (1779). 

Devoted to his mother, Taylor never married, but did have a friendship unto the death, begun during  his schooldays when  meeting the serious-minded theologian and antiquarian Frank Sayers (1763-1817) at Barbauld's Palgrave Academy. A portrait of Sayers painted by John Opie dated 1800, once hung in William Taylor's library, and in all probability both men were gay. [2] 

For many years Taylor's daily routine consisted of rising early and studying until noon, swimming in the River Wensum from a bath house upstream from the city, followed by a long walk in the afternoon. In the evening he liked to drink and discuss linguistics, literature and philosophy in society. 

In May 1790 Taylor visited France; arriving at Paris he declared himself to have ‘kissed the earth on the land of liberty.’ He spent nine days at the National Assembly, listening to its speakers debate upon the governance of the new, revolutionary France. The fever of the times are characteristically described by him thus-

'I am at length in that point of space where the mighty sea of truth is in constant agitation and every billow dashes into fragments some deep-rooted rock of prejudice or buries in a viewless gulph some institution of gothic barbarism and superstition. I am at length in the neighbourhood of the National Assembly, that well-head of philosophical legislation whose pure streams are now overflowing the fairest country on earth, and will soon be sluiced off into the other realms of Europe, fertilising all with the living energy of its waters.' [4]

Upon his return to Norwich Taylor translated some of the decrees of the National Assembly and read them at a meeting of the Revolutionary Society (which was named after the 1688 British revolution, not the recent French revolution). 

In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, Taylor embarked on another tour of Europe, visiting France, Italy and Germany, partly on business for his father. In Paris he met the Norfolk-born political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791) 

In 1792, while visiting the Norfolk market-town of Alysham, the English satirical novelist and playwright Frances Burney, (1752-1840) noted of Norwich's political life -

I am truly amazed to find this country filled with little revolution societies which transmit their notions to the larger committee at Norwich which communicates the whole to the reformists in London. I am told there is scarce a village in Norfolk free from these meetings. [5] 

It was the British Prime Minister Pitt the Younger who called Norwich the Jacobin city after the clandestine French political movement which agitated for improved worker's rights and conditions. The historian E.P. Thompson in his groundbreaking work The Making of the English Working Classes sets the scene for the radical politics of late 18th century Norwich.  

Norwich, an ancient stronghold of Dissent, with an abundance of small masters and artisans with strong traditions of independence, many have even surpassed Sheffield as the leading provincial centre of Jacobinism......... In August 1792, when the Norwich Revolution Society sponsored a cheap edition of Rights Of Man, it claimed to have forty-eight associated clubs. By October it claimed that the 'associated brethren' were not fewer than 2,000.

But Norwich, was, in other respects, by far the most impressive provincial city. Nineteen divisions of the Patriotic Society were active in September, and, in addition to the weavers, cordswainers, artisans, and shopkeepers who made up the society, it still carried the cautious support of the patrician merchant families, the Gurneys and the Taylors. Moreover, Norwich owned a gifted group of professional people, who published throughout 1795 a periodical - The Cabinet - which was perhaps the most impressive of the quasi-Jacobin intellectual publications of the period. Its articles ranged from close analysis of European affairs and the conduct of the a war, through poetic effusions, to disquisitions upon Machiavelli, Rousseau, the Rights of Women and Godwinian Socialism. Despite the many different degrees of emphasis, Norwich displayed a most remarkable consensus of anti-Ministerial feeling, from the Baptist chapels to the aspiring philosophes of The Cabinet from the 'Weavers Arms' (the headquarters of the patriotic Society) to the House of Gurney, from the Foxite Coke of Holkham to the labourers in the villages near the city. The organisation extended from Norwich to Yarmouth, Lynn, Wisbech and Lowestoft. [6]

Throughout his life William Taylor was a Unitarian, attending the newly-built Octagon chapel completed in 1756 in the Neo-Palladian style by architect Thomas Ivory (above). Classified  as  'liberal'  in the family of churches, Unitarians place emphasis on reason when interpreting scripture. Freedom of conscience and the pulpit are core values of its tradition. Unitarianism is also known for rejecting several orthodox Christian doctrines, including original sin, predestination, and the infallibility of the Bible. The Unitarian's tolerant creed catered well for the liberal beliefs of several leading Norwich citizens including William Taylor from the year of the Octagon Chapel's completion in 1756 to the present day. [7]

In Taylor's day, the late 18th and early 19th century, the Octagon congregation included most of Norwich's principal Whig families - the William Taylors and John Taylors (unrelated one to the other, the Marsh family (the carriers), several leading medical families, the Aldersons, Dalrymples and Martineaus, beside Alderman Elias Norgate, the Alderman John Green Basely, the Bolingbrokes, some of the Barnards and J.E. Smith the botanist.  [8]

Taylor's great literary protégé without doubt was George Borrow (1803-1881) who lived at Willow Lane while attending Norwich Grammar School during his teenage years. In many ways Norwich's connection to the Romantic movement is embodied in  George Borrow who was of a dashing, Byronic-like appearance, of athletic build, over 6 feet tall with a shock of white, not blonde, hair.  A keen boxer with a fiery temper, holding strong opinions including being a fervent anti-Papist,   Keen to study the culture and language of the Romany people who he first encountered on Mousehold Heath. As a young man Borrow roamed the length and breadth of Britain as a tinker, while also studying the Romany language and its culture. 

Its in Borrow's Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (1851) a literary work which hovers somewhere between the genres of memoir and novel, and which has long been considered a classic of 19th-century English literature, that a conversation between an old man and a young man is recollected. Taylor speaks first,- 

‘Suicide is not a national habit in Germany as it is in England.’

‘But that poor creature, Werther, who committed suicide, was a German.’

'Werther is a fictitious character, and by no means a felicitous one; I am no admirer either of Werther or his author.  But I should say that, if there ever was a Werther in Germany, he did not smoke.  Werther, as you very justly observe, was a poor creature. He is a fool who breaks his heart on any account; but it is good to be a German, the Germans are the most philosophic people in the world, and the greatest smokers: now I trace their philosophy to their smoking......[9] 

while in the sequel to Lavengro, the equally unclassifiable The Romany Rye, (1857) Borrow refers to Taylor as -  

'a real character, the founder of the Anglo-German school in England, and the cleverest Englishman who ever talked or wrote encomiastic nonsense about Germany and the Germans'. [10] 

With Taylor's encouragement, George Borrow embarked on his first translation, Klinger's version of the Faust legend, entitled Faustus, his Life, Death and Descent into Hell which was first published in St Petersburg in 1791. Borrow, however, in his translation, changed the name of one city, making one passage read:

They found the people of the place modeled after so unsightly a pattern, with such ugly figures and flat features that the devil owned he had never seen them equaled, except by the inhabitants of an English town, called Norwich, when dressed in their Sunday's best.

For his ridiculing of Norwich society, the Norwich public subscription library burned Borrow's first publication. The ultimate harsh review.

Above - The artist Alfred Munnings' depiction of George Borrow with his gypsy companion Jasper Petulengro  at the summit of St. James Hill with its panoramic view of Norwich. Petulengro says - 'There's a wind on the heath brother, who would wish to die?'

Taylor made his name translating Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the themes and subject-matter of Lessing's drama greatly appealing to his radical and progressive convictions.

Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing (1729-81) is set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. It describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin, and a Templar knight resolve the misunderstandings between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Its major themes are friendship, tolerance, relativism of God, a rejection of miracles and a need for communication. Primarily an appeal for religious tolerance, its performance was banned by the church, and was not performed until 1783, after Lessing's death. 

Far more problematic is the relationship between the German giant of literature,  Johann Goethe (1749-1832) to Taylor. Henry Crabb Robinson, who was a classmate of Taylor's at Barbauld's Academy, informed Goethe in 1829, 'Taylor’s Iphigenia in Tauris, as it was the first, so it remains the best, version of any of your larger poems'. 

Taylor sent his translation to Goethe in Weimar; but he never heard whether or not the poet received it, and this might be a reason why he became hostile in his judgement of Goethe in his last years. A statement in Goethe's Tages und Jahreshefte suggests the fault and negligence lay with Goethe himself, for he stated-  'A translation of the Iphigenia appeared in England; Unger reprinted it, but I retained neither the original nor the copy'.
But in fact, not only is the original edition and Unger’s reprint recorded as once in Goethe's library, but also Taylor’s Historic Survey of German Poetry, which includes the complete Iphigenia in its third volume. 

Goethe wrote about Taylor erroneously, and of his monumental work rather dismissively, on 20 August 1831 to Carl Friedrich Zelter -

“I received  'A Survey of German Poetry’ from England, written by W. Taylor, who studied 40 years ago in Göttingen, and who lets loose the teachings, opinions, and phrases that already vexed me 60 years ago.”

But in fact Taylor never studied at Gottingen.  Worse harsh criticism was to come for also in 1831 Thomas Carlyle published a review of Taylor's Historic Survey. Carlyle's scathing review has seriously damaged Taylor’s literary reputation to the present-day. His hostility and intolerance towards Taylor is also evident in his Sartor Resartus (1836) with its pun-like Latin title of 'The tailor retailored'. There may even be intentional word-play upon the proper name of Taylor and the lowly occupation of tailor in its title. Carlyle's novel also includes sharp and critical remarks upon Taylor's creed, that of Utilitarianism, as well as repeated mocking of the excesses of German philosophy and idealism. 

During Norwich's 'Golden Age' in literary and artistic life (circa 1760-1832), William Taylor became acquainted with several of the Norwich School Painters, and gave lectures to the Norwich Philosophical Society on art. In one lecture in 1814, he advocated architecture and Urban settings to be higher artistic subjects than those of rural life. His comment may well have been directed towards leading artist of the Norwich movement, John Crome (1768-1821) who produced a number of urban Norwich riverscapes, some of which are set almost on his doorstep, including  Back of New Mills (below) dated circa 1814 -17. 

There's the distinct possibility that Taylor's aesthetic influence upon the Norwich School of Painters may be far greater than hitherto  has been acknowledged. 

One genre of literature which Taylor shared an interest in, with Anna Barbauld and the poet Southey, was children's literature, in particular, the fairy-tale. Southey is credited as being the author of the original version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in 1837, a year after Taylor's death, while Taylor himself wrote a version of Bluebeard and Cinderella.

William Taylor's friendship with Robert Southey (above, circa 1795) began in 1798 when Southey visited Norwich as Taylor's guest; the poet revisited him at Norwich in February 1802. In correspondence to Taylor, Southey asks him-

'Can you not visit Creswick next summer ? Coleridge will talk German with you; he is desirous of knowing you; and he is a sufficient wonder of nature to repay the journey'.  [11]

'I wish you could mountaineer it with us for a few weeks, and I would press the point if Coleridge also were here: but even without him we could make your time pass pleasantly; and here is Wordsworth to be seen, one of the wildest of all wild beasts, who is very desirous of seeing you'. [12]

Its testimony to their long friendship that the poet Southey (1774 -1843) who was Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death thirty years later, (Walter Scott having declined the post) could criticize Taylor's literary style yet their friendship remain intact, after writing to him, firstly-

' you too often (like your admirable old townsman Sir Thomas Browne) go to your Greek and Latin for words when plain English might serve as well'.

Perhaps influenced by his German reading, Taylor was fond of introducing newly coined words, most of which were as incomprehensible to the average reader as his ideas. The editors of the periodicals to which he contributed objected about his neologisms, his friends pleaded with him to abandon the habit. Sir James Mackintosh however, remarked of Taylor's idiosyncratic style, 'He does not speak any language but the Taylorian; but I am so fond of his vigour and originality that... I have studied and learned his language'. [13] 

Southey persisted in his pleas-

'How are plain Norfolk farmers - and such will read the Iris - to understand words which they never heard before, and which are so foreign as not to be even in Johnson's farrago of a dictionary ? I have read Cowper's Odyssey and to cure my poetry of its wheyishness; let me prescribe the Vulgar Errors of Sir Thomas Browne to you for a likely remedy.'  [14] 

Ignoring Southey's advice, the poet now severely admonished the Norwich scholar-  

'Now I will say what for a long while what I have thought. That you have ruined your style by Germanisms, Latinisms and Greekisms, that you are sick of a surfeit of knowledge, that your learning breaks out like scabs and blotches upon a beautiful face.......Wordsworth, who admires and reverences the intellectual power and the knowledge which you everywhere and always display, and who wishes to see you here [in the Lake District] as much as I do, frets over your barbarisms of language, which I labour to excuse, because there is no cure for them.' [15]

Taylor defended his literary style thus-

'Were I reviewing my own reviewals, I should say, This man's style has an ambitious singularity which like chewing ginseng, which displeases at first and attaches at last'.

'And yet my theory of good writing is, to condense everything into a nutshell: I grow and clip with rival rage, and produce a sort of yew-hedge, tangled with luxuriance and sheared with spruceness. The desire of being neat precludes ease, of being strong precludes grace, of being armed at points than being impervious at any'. [16]

Southey repeatedly invited Taylor to stay with him, along with Coleridge and Wordsworth at the Lake district, but Taylor repeatedly declined.  It may in fact have been far livelier at the Creswick cottage in the Lake District than Taylor could imagine. Government spies were sent to watch the comings and goings of the poet's residence, for Wordsworth and Coleridge were both known to the authorities for their radical political views, while in 1799 Coleridge and Southey were involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) supervised by the scientist Humphrey Davy.  

Taylor's aesthetic preference of the urban over the rural is trenchantly expressed in his correspondence with Southey thus - 

How can you delight in mountain scenery ? The eye walks on broken flints; not a hill tolerant of the plough, not a stream that will float a canoe; in the roads every ascent is the toil of Sisyphus, every descent the punishment of Vulcan: barrenness with her lichens cowers on the mountain-top, yawning among mists that irrigate in vain; the cottage of a man, like the aerie of an eagle, is the home of a savage subsisting by rapacity in stink and intemperance: the village is but a coalition of pig-sties; where there might be pasture, glares a lake; the very cataract falls in vain,- there are not customers enough for a water-mill. Give me the spot where victories have been won over the inutilities of nature by the effort of human art, - where mind has moved the massy, everlasting rock, and arrayed into convenient dwellings and stately palaces, into theatres and cathedrals, and quays and docks and warehouses, wherein the primeval troglodyte has learned to convoke the productions of the antipodes'. [17]

To which the poet Robert Southey parried -

You undervalue lakes and mountains; they make me happier and wiser and better, and enable me to think and feel with a quicker and healthier intellect. Cities are as poisonous to genius and virtue in their best sense, as to the flower of the valley or the oak of the forest. Men of talent may and will be gregarious, men of genius will not; handicraft-men work together, but discoveries must be the work of individuals. Neither are men to be studied in cities, except indeed, as students walk into hospitals, you go to see all the modifications of the disease. [18]

In his lifetime William Taylor (above) attracted considerable hostility for his radical religious and political views.  Nicknamed  'godless Billy' by fellow Octagon Chapel member, Harriet Martineau (1802-76) who petulantly reminisced of him:

'his habits of intemperance kept him out of the sight of ladies, and he got round him a set of ignorant and conceited young men, who thought they could set the whole world right by their destructive propensities'.  [19]

Taylor was not without a stochastic ability either. As early as 1804 he made the suggestion that ships could be powered with steam before the world’s first commercial steamboat, the North River Steamboat, began operating out of New York in 1807. In 1824 he introduced the idea of cutting through the isthmus of Panama when the first attempt to construct a canal through what was then a  province of Colombia at Panama, did not begin until 1881. [20] 

Both Taylor's life and writings offer a few cautionary lessons to writers, especially those not living at the hub and centre of either conventional society or London, the literary capital of England. Just as Taylor's contemporaries, the various painters associated with the 'Norwich School' discovered, Norwich,with its rural hinterland  of Norfolk and its North Sea coast-line was inspirational for creating art, but its patronage was thin. Art sales and advancement were facilitated far easier in London than Norwich. Likewise, the damage inflicted from a single malignant review can unjustly ruin a writer's reputation, sometimes long after their death.  One possible reason for unjust and critical hostility against Taylor would be prejudice against his sexual orientation.  At one time Taylor considered a vacancy at the British Museum, but it was taken before he applied. One suspects that he loved the familiar charms of Norwich far too much to ever leave the 'Do different' City.  There's more than a hint of humorous self deprecation in his stating- 

'Contended mediocrity is always the ultimate destiny of us provincials'.

But, as his words quoted here hopefully demonstrate, William Taylor was a highly expressive writer, a Vulcan-like wordsmith who wrote thousands of literary reviews and articles on an extraordinary range of topics in his lifetime.

It was the German literary critic George Herzfelde in the nineteenth century who considered Taylor's translation of Iphigenie auf Tauris to be 'Kräftig, aber klappernd' ('Powerful but Clattering') [21]. Herzfelde's pithy observation seems apt of much of Taylor's idiosyncratic writings and translations. Even today, in the archives of Norwich City's Millennium library, there remains a cornucopia of his writings awaiting to be sympathetically read and interpreted. A single sentence suffices to highlight Taylor's Classical learning, aesthetic sensibility and subtle wit -

'Those who can die of a rose in aromatic pain have not grief in reserve for Medea's last embrace of her children'.


* William Taylor of Norwich: A Study of the Influence of Modern German Literature in England (1897) by Georg Herzfeld 

* C.B. Jewson -The Jacobin City 1975 Highly Recommended

* The Making of the English Working Class - E.P. Thompson 1963 reprinted in 1980 Pelican

*John Warden Robberds A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich (1843).
*Review from The Quarterly (1843-44).


[1] In the original - Uebrigens hat die deutsche Literatur aus sehr begreiflichen mercantilischen Gründen die zahlreichsten Anhänger in Norwich'.  

[2] Peter Watson -  The German Genius (2010) pub.Simon and Shuster page 314

[3] Chandler, David "Taylor, William" in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) speculates upon Taylor's sexuality. 

[4] John Warden Robberds - A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich (1843).

[5] The Making of the English Working Class - E.P. Thompson 1963 reprinted in 1980 Pelican

[6] C.B. Jewson -The Jacobin City 1975

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Appendix III Romany Rye

[11] Robberds

[12] - [18] Ibid.

[19] The Life of George Borrow by Herbert Jenkins

[20] Perhaps from his reading Sir Thomas Browne's speculation that - 'some Isthmus have been eat through by the Sea, and others cut by the spade: And if policy would permit, that of Panama in America were most worthy the attempt: it being but few miles over, and would open a shorter cut unto the East Indies and China'.

[21] William Taylor of Norwich: A Study of the Influence of Modern German Literature in England by Georg Herzfeld (1897)

Monday, October 19, 2020

Lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing.

Although long recognized as a work of World literature, for many Urn-Burial (1658) is neither an easy or comfortable read. With its melancholic meditations on the uncertainty of life, the unknowingness of the human condition, the fragility of mortality and the certainty of death, all couched in splendid flourishes of Baroque oratory, Thomas Browne's philosophical discourse will never be everyone's favourite bedtime reading. 

In addition to its ornate literary style and near taboo subject-matter to modern sensibilities, another stumbling block hindering appreciation of Urn-Burial is that its author frequently shifts the focus of his discourse in order to give expression to quite different facets of himself. This results in surprising changes of perspective, alternating from the viewpoint of pioneering scholar of comparative religion to local historian, to scientist and archaeologist, to antiquarian and Christian moralist, often without alerting his reader of the fact other than beginning a new paragraph.

In modern times Urn-Burial  has been recognized as closely corresponding to the Nigredo of alchemy. The black despair and melancholy experienced by the adept beginning their quest is encapsulated in  Browne's succinct phrase lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing an expression apt for the suffering of millions world-wide today, anxious about income and the future, grieving, ill or depressed in the wake of the current pandemic.

Thomas Browne began his medical career in Norwich in 1637, just a few years before English society was sufficiently polarized to engage in Civil war (1642-49) resulting in an estimated 100,000 deaths. Never one for political controversy, Browne occupied himself with establishing his medical practice in Norwich and in 'snatches of time, medical vacations' with compiling and revising his encyclopedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646),  first published during the English Civil war. 

The very title of Browne's colossal endeavour depicts superstition and erroneous beliefs as if a disease.(Lt. Pseudo false, Doxia Truth, Epidemica widespread occurrence of an infectious disease). The prescription for curing such epidemics of 'vulgar errors for Browne were the combined medicine of - consultation of the Classical authors of antiquity, empirical experiment, inductive reasoning and collaborative debate with contemporaries. Often engaging in all of these methods in order to ascertain truth, Browne is credited with introducing up-to-date scientific journalism to the English reading public as well as hypothesis in the pages of Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

It's in a chapter of Pseudodoxia Epidemica which discusses whether the mythic creature known as  the Basilisk is capable of emitting deadly rays from its eyes that Browne engages in a medical speculation of great importance to our times-

'if Plagues or pestilential Atoms have been conveyed in the Air from distant Regions, if men at a distance have infected each other,........there may proceed from subtler seeds, more agile emanations, which contemn those Laws, and invade at distance unexpected'. [2] 

As a doctor Thomas Browne (1605-82) could not help but take an interest in disease. Along with his interest in ancient Greek medicine, primarily the writings of Hippocrates, he also took an interest in ancient Greek mythology. In his medical essay A Letter to a Friend (circa 1656) Browne alludes to the Greek myth of the origin of disease, Pandora and her Box. The Greek myth recounts how Pandora was given the gift of a sealed jar which held within it all the misfortunes for humanity. Her great curiosity overcame her fear of what the jar contained and breaking its seal she released disease, sorrow, conflict and war with only hope remaining inside the jar. The name Pandora means 'All Gifts' both good and bad gifts being bestowed upon Humanity. 

Its whilst alluding to the Greek myth of Pandora and theorizing upon the origin of disease in A Letter to a Friend that Browne introduces the word 'Pathology' into the English language.

'New Discoveries of the Earth discover new Diseases: for besides the common swarm, there are endemial and local Infirmities proper unto certain Regions, which in the whole Earth make no small number: and if Asia, Africa, and America should bring in their List, Pandora's Box would swell, and there must be a strange Pathology'.

Whether Browne, during his travels and studies in Continental Europe from 1629-32 attending the Universities of Padua in Italy, Montpelier in France and Leiden in Holland, upon hearing of an outbreak of the plague in Milan, steered well clear of visiting the Italian city, or, alternatively, viewed the column erected in Milan informing of the crime and punishment of those believed to have started the outbreak, is not known. Precise biographical details are scant. In either event, the Milan plague was still in his memory in his old age when compiling the bizarre inventory of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, paintings and objects known as Museum Clausum (c. 1675) which includes the sinister fantasy item -

* Pyxis Pandoræ, or a Box which held the Unguentum Pestiferum, which by anointing the Garments of several persons begat the great and horrible Plague of Milan. [3]

As a Royalist Browne must have been under intense psychological distress during the years of the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-59) and his Urn-Burial has been described as a threnody to the waste of human life during the English civil war. Prompted by the accidental unearthing of several burial urns in a Norfolk field just as its secondary title A Discourse upon the supulchrall urnes lately found in Norfolk, informs, Urn-Burial opens with dazzling literary showmanship  naming the main themes of the discourse, notably Time and Memory, Death and the after-life. 

In his scientific, spiritual and mystical analysis of death and the after-life, Browne first surveys the burial rites and custom of various nations throughout history. His early comparative religion skills references the Chinese, Persian, Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations, the Moslem, Hindi and Judaic religions, as well as one of the very earliest mentions of the Zoroastrian religion in Western literature. Like his near contemporary, Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Browne recognized the syncretic nature of religious symbols, but just like Kircher, he was often misguided in his comparative religion studies.

The unknowingness of the human condition is illustrated in striking medical imagery thus- 

'A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Plato's den, and are but Embryon Philosophers'.

Closely related to Browne's medical imagery, there is also what might be termed opiate imagery in Urn-Burial. Widely in use since the sixteenth century, the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was among the earliest advocates of opium. Such was its widespread usage in the seventeenth century that Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) the so-called 'Father of English medicine' whose books are well-represented in Browne’s vast library, declared- 

'Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.'

Browne's commonplace notebooks include observations upon dosage and effects of opium, while  knowledge of its recreational usage with sex can be found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica 

'since Opium it self is conceived to extimulate unto venery, and the intent and effect of eating Opium, is not so much to invigorate themselves in coition, as to prolong the Act, and spin out the motions of carnality'. [4]

In Urn-Burial the poppy flower, Opium and Oblivion are invariably interconnected. 'But the iniquity of Oblivion blindly shaketh her poppy' for example. In a heady fusion of philosophical stoicism, medical imagery and empirical observation, Browne declares of the human condition and also perhaps of the psychological effects of opium -

'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time, which temporally considereth all things.'

Its  been proposed that one reason why the prose of Urn-Burial  and its twin The Garden of Cyrus, in particular the transcendent prose of the fifth and last chapter of each Discourse is unlike any other seventeenth century English literature, may have been from Browne writing under the influence of opium. As a physician Browne was licenced to obtain Opium, the only available painkiller available in his day. During the decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-59) and the highly uncertain days which it engendered, it may have been very tempting for Royalist supporters, particularly those of an empirical nature such as Browne, to reach into the medicine cabinet.

Urn-Burial also features a short, but detailed description of Browne's single, credited scientific discovery, the formation of the waxy substance which coagulates upon the body fat of a corpse, named as adipocere. 

'In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castile-soap: whereof part remaineth with us'.

Burial, putrefaction and interment are all synonymous with the Nigredo stage of alchemy defined by C.G. Jung thus - 

'the original half animal state of unconsciousness was known to the adept as the Nigredo, chaos, confused mass, as inextricable interweaving of the soul with the body'. [5] 

 According to Jung-

'the nigredo not only brought decay, suffering, death, and the torments of hell visibly before the eyes of the alchemist, it also cast the shadow of melancholy over his solitary soul. In the blackness of his despair he experienced.. grotesque images which reflect the conflict of opposites into which the researcher's curiosity had led him. His work began with a katabasis, a journey to the underworld as Dante also experienced it'. [6] 

Urn-Burial alludes to several Soul journeys of classical literature including Homer's Odyssey in which the wily hero Ulysses descends into the Underworld, Macrobius's commentary on the planetary Soul journey Scipio's Dream and the Greek philosopher Plato's myth of Er, as well as Dante's Inferno. The religious mystic in Browne knew that each one of us from birth, conscious or not of the fact, embarks upon a soul-journey with Death as a final port of call.

The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung (1875-1961) freed modern-day scholarship from many of the prejudices and misunderstandings which have hindered study of western esoteric traditions. Today, the thematic concerns of Urn-Burial can confidently be identified as matching the nigredo of alchemy and may even be the template upon which Browne modeled his discourse upon. Urn-Burial's counterpart, The Garden of Cyrus reinforces this interpretation for its opening pages muse upon paradise, a frequent symbol of the albedo or whitening in the alchemical opus succeeding the Nigredo.

C.G. Jung  states- 'As we all know, science began with the stars, and mankind discovered in them the dominants of the unconscious, the "gods," as well as the curious psychological qualities of the zodiac: a complete projected theory of human character'.  [7]   

As the most remote planet known to the ancients, Saturn was believed to be a cold, heavy planet, qualities which were confirmed millennia later by modern science. In the western esoteric traditions of alchemy and astrology, Saturn is associated with restriction, contraction, limitation and melancholy. As the ruler of isolation and quarantine, Saturn is the god of lock-down par excellence.  'Old Father Time' depicted with his scythe as the Grim Reaper is a variant upon symbolism associated with Saturn.

Originally an Italian agricultural god, other implements associated with Saturn include the pruning-hook,  spade and the hour-glass, as well as the oar for its slow, regular strokes which, like the ticking of a clock,  propel a boat through time.

Positive aspects of Saturn's symbolic attributes include the highest insight of the scholar, spiritual revelation and the crystallization of ideas. 
Interest and knowledge of astrology and alchemy along with planetary symbolism advanced considerably during the Renaissance. Browne's era, the seventeenth century is considered to be the Golden Age of alchemy, its long decline beginning at the century's close. 

In his spiritual testament Religio Medici (1643) Thomas Browne candidly confesses-

‘If there be any truth in Astrology, I may outlive a Jubilee, as yet I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years’. [8]

Like many thinkers and artists during the Renaissance, Thomas Browne was able to identify with the psychological aspects of planetary symbolism, stating in Religio Medici - 

'I was born in the planetary hour of Saturn and I think I have a piece of that leaden planet in me'. [9] 

Although often associated with melancholy, Saturn like Mercury, was also associated with transformation, and the two alchemical 'gods' are frequently linked together in western esoteric tradition literature and iconography. Because of its powers of transformation Saturn was also considered by alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike, to be a touchstone of the alchemical art as much as Mercury or Hermes, the more commonly associated 'deity' of alchemy. Hermetic themes preoccupy much of Urn-Burial's counterpart, The Garden of Cyrus, a literary work which is replete with planetary symbolism. 

Its interesting to note in passing that Browne's Saturnine characteristics seem to have appealed to the German author, translator and UEA academic, W. G Sebald (1944-2001). Meditations about Browne and his prose weave throughout W.G. Sebald's much admired hybrid work The Rings of Saturn (1995 English translation 1998).

The woodcut reproduced in the Theatrum Chemicum (above) is a symbolic illustration of the Nigredo of alchemy. The adept, seen encased within a bubble has the two great luminaries, the Sun and Moon, along with the five planets above him. He is depicted as under the influence of the black star, Saturn. A raven, of the Corvid family of birds, alights upon his stomach while two angels keep watch over him. 

Consisting of five folio volumes the Theatrum Chemicum (1613) was the most comprehensive anthology of alchemical writings in the seventeenth century and the handbook of many a would-be hermetic philosopher. Both C.G. Jung and Thomas Browne owned an edition of the Theatrum Chemicum. Isaac Newton filled the margins of his copy with annotations. [10]

The woodcut illustration of the Nigredo was copied and reproduced in countless editions of alchemy until the 18th century. It must have fascinated C.G.Jung for he reproduced it in his collected works twice. Highly apt as lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, it wouldn't have been totally out of place as a frontispiece for Urn-Burial.  

The first volume of the Theatrum Chemicum  (Theatre of Chemistry) features over 400 pages of writings by the Belgian physician Gerhard Dorn (c. 1530 - c. 1584). The foremost promoter of Paracelsian alchemy, Dorn devised his own planetary symbolism in order to express his psychological insights, including that of an  'invisible sun'. We can be confident that Browne read the Theatrum Chemicum closely, he appropriated Dorn's planetary symbolism of an 'invisible Sun' for his own purposes, featuring it at the apotheosis of Urn-Burial as the mysterious life-force we each possess. In a high flourish of Baroque oratory Browne declaims- 

'But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature. Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us'....

A major theme of Urn-Burial is the futility of the endeavour to be remembered after death, especially through funerary monuments, including the earliest and most spectacular, the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Thomas Browne did not need to look far from his doorstep for ostentatious displays of vain-glory or 'pompous in the grave' monuments. 

Though little known, the city of Norwich is home to one of the world's largest and finest collections of funerary monuments. Erected by various civic dignitaries, Norwich's surviving monuments are evidence of the great wealth which it once generated as an important European trading City. Browne would have had opportunity to see these extravagant and costly monuments, mostly sculpted from marble stone, some of which are adorned to saturation point with obscure and learned religious symbols which the City's merchant mayors loaded onto them, seemingly in competition with each other. But it is just as Browne repeatedly stresses in Urn-Burial, the dignitaries who wanted their names to be remembered and their monuments admired, are now long forgotten and their monuments are housed behind locked or restricted access doors of  mainly disused or redundant churches. It was only as recently as 2012 that the source of the Layer monument's (below) iconography was identified. A wealth of religious symbolism, some of which is esoteric, remains to be studied on the funerary monuments of the medieval churches of Norwich. Photographs and details of Norwich funerary monuments are featured throughout this essay.


As great a religious mystic as Julian of Norwich or Meister Eckhart, Thomas Browne was well-aware of altered states of spiritual consciousness, naming several at the conclusion of  Urn-Burial thus-

'And if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, extasis, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the Spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them'.

Much of Browne's mysticism rests in his highly original proper name symbolism along with the plexiformed construction and relationship of his two 1658 discourses. Although appearing identical, each being prefaced with a dedicatory epistle and consisting of five chapters, Browne's twin Discourses, not unlike two side-by-side white, crystalline substances, once tasted are found to differ sharply; Urn-Burial is discovered to be the bitter salt of  Stoicism, a sprinkling of which is essential for spiritual well-being in the face of illness or disease, death and the grave.  In complete contrast, the sweetness of The Garden of Cyrus with its playful delight in nature, is written in a literary style not unlike a hyperactive sugar rush.  

A large part of esoteric schemata involves correspondences and polarities or opposites. Together the diptych discourses display polarity in theme, imagery and style. (Browne is credited as introducing the very word 'Polarity' into the English language). It was Frank Huntley who first advanced the interpretation that Browne's Discourses simultaneously progress in sequence from the Grave to the Garden, mirror each other in imagery, such as darkness and light, and are circular with Cyrus concluding Oroboros-like returning to night, sleep and darkness. [11]

A plethora of opposites exist between the two Discourses including and this list is far from exhaustive - Earth and Heaven, Grave and Garden, Accident and Design, Darkness and Light, Doubt and Certainty, Death and Life, Ephemeral and Eternal, Time and Space, Microcosm and Macrocosm.  

Contemplation of the body and soul in Urn-Burial gives way to a preoccupation with ideas associated with the mind and Spirit in The Garden of Cyrus. In terms of planetary symbolism Urn-Burial is strongly Saturnine with its theme of Time while The Garden of Cyrus has Space as its template and is utterly Mercurial in its communication of esoteric revelations. Even stylistically the two Discourse differ, the slow-paced, Baroque oratory of Urn-Burial's primary appeal is to ear its sonorous prose is best appreciated read aloud. In complete contrast the sensory organ of the eye and the visual in design, pattern and shape is prominent throughout the hasty, excited prose of Cyrus. 

Given Browne's deep interest in the esoteric we cannot overlook C.G.Jung's observation that the opposites and their union was the chief preoccupation of alchemists. Jung's study of alchemy led him to believe that the opposites are one of the most fruitful sources of psychic energy and for him their union played a decisive role in the alchemical process stating -'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [12] The resultant synergy and unconscious associations for the reader between the two Discourses may well be Browne's literary concept of the Philosopher's Stone.

The psychological element in Browne's writings was admired by the poet Coleridge who declared of him that he, 'added to the consciousness hidden worlds within worlds' The Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung when introduced to Browne's declaration in his Religio Medici that- There is all Africa and her prodigies in us was deeply moved and immediately wrote it down. Understanding of the relationship between the two doctors Browne and Jung, is a rich, yet little explored field. Both naturally held a deep understanding of the human condition acquired from their profession, and both knew that with suffering comes spiritual growth.  Browne's Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus as well as his A Letter to a Friend were all written as condolences for bereaved patrons. 

Browne describes the blessings of not knowing the future and the relationship between memory, suffering and self-preservation  in Urn-Burial thus -

'Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions'.

Writing currently at a time of great sorrow and potentially in the near future of great anger, strife and conflict if the consequences of the Pandemic and the socio-economic inequalities it has highlighted throughout the world are not resolved, C.G. Jung reminds us that -

'Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering. Indeed, bitterness and wisdom form a pair of alternatives: where there is bitterness wisdom is lacking, and where wisdom is there can be no bitterness'. [13] 

The dark, sombre and gloomy half of Browne's literary diptych speaks for our times and for all times. The worthy doctor gently draws to our attention to the fact that - 'the certainty of death is attended with uncertainties, in time, manner, places', and of how little we know of ourselves, and how unlikely it is we will be remembered beyond a generation or two at most. Our days are finite and numbered and the inescapable port of call on our soul-journey is death he reminds us, in ornate, baroque prose. 

Browne's Urn-Burial is a high watermark in English prose. Acknowledged as a work of World Literature, its pages, as countless readers throughout generations have discovered, are a valuable source of wisdom.  Reading Urn-Burial today is a timely reminder of how vulnerable we are to the invisible and unseen, and of how temporal our lives are; something which the devout Norwich physician seldom, if ever, needed reminding of.


[1 ] The great plague of Milan in 1630 was alleged to have been started by a Milanese barber and the Commissioner of Public Health. They were executed and a column was erected in Milan in August 1630 informing of their crime.  

[2] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 3 chapter 7 of  'On the Basilisk'.

[3] Miscellaneous tract 13  item 24 of Antiquities and Rarities of several sorts in Museum Clausum (circa 1675)

[4] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 8 chapter 7

[5] Collected Works  Vol. 14:696

[6] C. W.  Vol.14: 93

[7] C.W. Vol. 12:346. 

[8] Religio Medici Part 2 :11

[9] Religio Medici Part 2 :6 

[10] The Theatrum Chemicum is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne Library on page 25 no. 124  as 5 vols. Strasbourg 1613

[11] Frank Huntley Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study, pub. Ann Arbour 1962 

[12] CW 8:414 and CW 12: 557 and CW.  vol. 14 Foreword 

[13] C.W 14: 330

Books consulted 

* Reid Barbour - Sir Thomas Browne A Life pub. Oxford University Press 2013

* Thomas Browne: Selected Writings edited and with an introduction by Kevin Killeen pub.Oxford          University Press 2014


*Top - Woodcut, the Nigredo Vol. 4 Theatrum Chemicum (1613) 

* Death wearing a Crown (Corona) Joseph Paine Monument (1673), St. Gregory's, Norwich 

* Detail of allegorical figure of Time from the Sotherton Monument (1611), Saint Andrew's, Norwich.

*  Woodcut, the Nigredo Vol. 4 Theatrum Chemicum (1613)

* The Layer Monument (1608) St.John the Baptist, Maddermarket, Norwich

* SCIOLTA  (Freed) Allegorical image of the soul released from the cage of the body.  Suckling Monument  (1616) St. Andrew's Norwich 

* 4th edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica with first publication of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus appended.

Recommended Listening

Icelandic composer Johann Johannson (1968-2018) is still missed in the music world. 

His song 'The Sky's gone dim and the Sun is Black' could not be more nigredo in mood.

The English composer William Alwyn (1905-85) was a prolific film-score composer who had a life-long love of the writings of Sir Thomas Browne. His 5th Symphony entitled Hydriotaphia is based upon his reading of Browne  and was first performed in Norwich in 1973.

Stevie Wonder's  Saturn (1976) with lyrics  -  
We can't trust you when you take a stand/
With a gun and bible in your hand/ 
Saying, Give us all we want or we'll destroy.

Links to Wikipedia entries on  Nigredo -  Theatrum Chemicum - Gerhard Dorn

This essay with thanks to Dr. E. Player.

 In Memoriam  Richard Paul Faulkner (1958-2020)