Large Are the Treasures of Oblivion: Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne

Urn Burial, just released along with Religio Medici by NYRB Classics, was one of those books I decided to read based on the company it keeps (this probably supplies the majority of the books I end up buying and reading). In this case, the company was twofold: W.G. Sebald makes extensive use of Browne (particularly this book) in The Rings of Saturn; the two books share the theme of human attempts to perpetuate their existence in the face of death and the near-certainty of erasure. The other reference here is Borges, who was a big fan of Browne’s and who has Bioy translating Urn Burial at the beginning of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” (Borges would have liked the sentiment “time hath endless rarities, and shows of all varieties.”)

True to expectations, Urn Burial is strange. The book (or essay, if you prefer) was sparked by the discovery of some ancient Roman urns in the vicinity of where Browne lived. This leads Browne to conduct a lengthy survey of the various burial customs that he is aware of via his copious reading. As Stephen Greenblat explains in his introduction to the volume, Browne specialized in strange essays to seemingly little purpose:

The “twist” in Browne’s intelligence—his idiosyncratic and often surprising ways of thinking—is matched only by the peculiarity of the topics he chooses to think about. Why write a formal treatise on the history of the quincunx in gardening, or the discovery of some ancient urns in a nearby field? Why take the time to ponder and refute the popular belief that diamonds are softened by the blood of goats, or that beavers bite off their testicles to escape hunters, or that Jews naturally stink? . . . Why opine on the kinds of fish that Jesus Christ ate with his disciples after his resurrection from the dead?

Such an intellect makes it easy to see why Sebald and his readers would find common cause with Browne. The structure in Urn Burial is very idiosyncratic, and Browne seems to find uses for facts that no one might have imagined would ever have a place in a literary and/or philosophical text.

The other link to Sebald here is the idea of oblivion, most forcefully and appealingly delineated in Urn’s famous fifth and final chapter, where Browne foregrounds the talk of oblivion that has been a subtle undercurrent throughout. At the end of the NYRB Classics edition there is a final paragraph tacked on as an annotation that, to me, sums up the crossover. It begins, “Large are the treasures of oblivion . . .” This is clearly a very Sebaldian sentiment, and it gives an idea why this book would become fashionable again at a time when the broader currents of New Historicism have been seeping into popular fiction and nonfiction, as well as when the ideas of global cataclysm and the end of civilization have captured the popular imagination.

Browne’s book is also pervaded by a sense of all the knowledge of human civilization that has been lost. He makes the question of this loss feel important, essential even, as though we have lost to oblivion some important insight into the very things that make us human. The idea of obscure or lost information holding some key to understanding is of course a gesture that Sebald took up as core to his writing.

One of the advantages of this baggy form is that it lets Browne relate some frankly bizarre things to us, like this footnote on page 116:

A barbarous pastime at Feasts, when men stood upon a rolling Globe, with their necks in a Rope fastened to a beame, and a knife in their hands, ready to cut it when the stone was rolled away, wherein if they failed they lost their lives to the laughter of their spectators.

The work is at times frustrating and almost carelessly meandering, but, strangely, I never found it dull. It seems Browne has, for now, beaten oblivion, and justly so.

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Browne’s writings never needed to beat oblivion, having been well-known in Europe for over three centuries. One day Americans will be able write about Browne without using these words -peculiar -strange – odd – weird, a reflection upon American perceptions rather than on Browne himself.

Greenblatt has short-changed all American readers by excluding the other half of Browne’s diptych ‘The Garden of Cyrus’ which in complete contradistinction in truth, imagery and style is cheerful and playful, offering scientific certainties. Strangely enough it was American scholarship which first perceived this fact and has now chosen to forget it. Oblivion of memory indeed, but how can oblivion itself have any treasure whatsoever ?

Just to remind you of what Huntley noted fifty years ago now. ‘the first essay cannot be read without the second for the two pieces are purposefully antithetical and correlative. The first is death; the second, life. The first is guess-work, the second science. The first is accident; the second its opposite, design. The first is sad; the second filled with garden delights’.

Likewise the literary critic Peter Green also a full fifty years ago, recognised the discourse’s intimate relationship to each other –

‘the two Discourses can no more be separated than the voices in a fugue: taken together they form one of the deepest, most complex, most symbolically pregnant statements upon the great double theme of mortality and eternity’.

Nice review. Small correction:

who has Bioy translating Urn Burial at the beginning of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Should be

who has the narrator translating Urn Burial at the end of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Stephen Greenblatt cannot possibly have ever actually read ‘The Garden of Cyrus’ if he believes it to be a discourse of the history of the quincunx in gardening !


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