The Major Works: borrowings

Three poems in my sequence The Major Works borrow words and phrases from Sir Thomas Browne’s original works. This page gives the poems with the borrowings underlined. In each case, the borrowings are taken from the work quoted in the poem’s epigraph.

The fate of his bones

… who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or whether they are to be scattered?

Let fall the urn its contents to a cloth
else mortal dust will drift to airy motes.
Observe how human bulk can sink to so
few pounds of bone and ash as urging fire
(which Heraclitus thought the first of all)
shrinks carnal composition down to calx.
While reconstruction from surviving bones
be no impossible physiognomy,
conjectured from the shape the carnous parts
might hang upon their full consistencies;
yet here, the urnall fragments which subsist,
imperfectly transmuted by the flames,
these teeth and ribs and thigh bones only hint,
by smallness, thinness and exility,
at women and at those of minor age.
A thought confirmed by broaches, combs and pins
that passed the flames or later joined
the gathered clinker in it doleful home.

These poor sere pieces once, when whole and firm,
played vital partner to the moister flesh,
but save we dream Ezekiel, tug hard
his sleeve, beseech him have these dry bones live,
we may not see a skull reject the fire,
nor skin and muscle re- encase the bones,
nor organs take up fresh their housings deep.
As we would learn of these picked bones
the outline of their morbid thoughts who made
the obsequies and lit the pyre, who watched
the fracture of their comrade in the flames,
we’ll mimic huntsmen going after deer
who read its path in verdure trampled down,
and in these ancient remnants trace anew
their duty and their tenderness towards
the cindered remnants of departed friends;
that echoes in the care with which we plant
our own belovèds in Christ’s sacred field.

We hold that twelve square foot a fathom deep
is honour’s labour owed to our dead friends;
but are the sexton’s hours at pick and spade
more worthy than their old expenditure
in gathering a body’s worth of wood?
Consider also trinkets – though that word
degrades their tender items in our eyes:
whilst we preserve such glistening garnitures
above the ground and thread them onto grief-
struck children’s hands or velvet them away
in box or drawer, maintaining thus our live
œconomy, they held that ownership outlasted life
and for their purpose was perpetual.
We may conjecture further from these goods
the funerary dressing of their friends
was not a shroud, but clothes they erstwhile wore.
Both indicators, haply, that their thought
held life continuous across the flames.

How will they judge who disinter ahead
in time our resting bones from future graves?
Will they restore our characters from our
knaved skulls: hold this one tender-hearted,
that a fool, all from the external form?
As if the noblest qualities of wine
may be derived from banding on the cask.
Will they rehearse the stone’s speech at our heads
to gain at least a name and make an age,
or will the symbols be as Egypt’s are to us?
What will they learn of hope beyond their days:
that requiescat for its proper sense
demands a waking at the end of sleep?
That we interred, alike to those en-urned,
await the greatest morning of the world
and reassembly from our scattered dust:
the few then living easily borne up
by weighty generations of the dead.


Every Man unto Himself

… yet, so intrinsical is every man unto himself, that some doubt may be made, whether any would exchange his Being or substantially become another Man.
Many would have thought it a Happiness to have had their lot of Life in some notable Conjunctures of Ages past; but the uncertainty of future Times hath tempted few to make a part in Ages to come.
Letter to a friend.


The samphire flourishes in salty air;
so Norfolk heaths through mutton grow our bones
as all dead things become our nourishment.
We carry in ourselves our geography:
the flesh of those who keep their natal bounds
is built from constancy; while travellers
are constitute of foreign flocks and grains;
and spices grow us fragments of far lands.

As every man his substance is his own
to change that burden for another soul’s
approaches death, where flesh and spirit part;
like lion-mauled martyrs or the souls who serve
themselves a sea-borne banquet, split until
the journey of the world is done;
when each pair, panting, finds itself new-made,
rejoined at last for glory or for shame.

If resurrection be but gathering-in
then most will find they have to share their flesh
with worms and foxes, birds and even sheep.
The final judgement might be to assign
the rights to common atoms of each man.
We hope for better when the earth’s renewed:
the manufactor of the stars will not
be baffled by the assignment of our bones.


Unquiet minds in unregenerate times
would rather they had flourished in the days
of Alexander or of Charles the Great.
Deceived by resolution they contend
that had they sat by Plato in his grove
his writings would be keener; Socrates,
on their entreaty’d spurn the hemlock bowl;
and Plinie’s errors all would be resolved.

But realised, each airy phantasm’d fail,
as every dreamer found himself as much
a temporal native as a terreous one;
his mind conceived, his manners all curtailed
within the thought and customs of our age.
His alien discourse to the Academy
would mark him fool; while fated Caesar, to
the forum bound, would spurn the madman’s words.

Yet few aspire to Ages yet to come;
four hundred years must surely change the world;
no comfortable imagination runs
so far ahead, when forty days of rain
is all the future most would dare foretell.
We cleave to fears we know, like coasting barques
and leave to generations still unborn
the navigation of those distant seas.

Sorry Things

Time which perfects sorry things, imperfects others.
Christian Morals.


Unthinking heads around the winter fire,
fixed on the thoughts they hold their fathers held,
decry new ventures as impiety,
know man and manners ever plunging down
with all the incessant speed of Lucifer.
The volumes of man’s history contain
the abominable and laudable alike,
but they, in downward discourse, treat the good
as writ in ashes on a well-trimmed hearth,
while any evil they record in stone,
the measure of malignity their own.
They honour with remembrance those that hold
the whole of mankind their Ambition’s slaves,
who for their sunflower glory and its rule,
make flies of men and nations wilderness.
’Tis wise to think times past as better than
the present times than hold times always bad;
our contemplation of the earth’s past course
finds empires, cities, tyrants, kings and saints
fixed fast to Fortune’s wheel, enduring mire
then exaltation in their turn, as Time
drives on his oxen to their waiting stall.
The tragic exits of the eminent,
their unexpected periods, amaze
considerate observators: their schemes
all wither fruitless, plans fold up,
and empires pass to enemies or fools.

We snatch our embryon felicities;
contentments stand on tops of pyramids,
all set to fall; and when no hand’s-breadth cloud
does threaten thee, recall the wheel of things;
sit quiet in soft showers of providence
and in thy region prove an asterisk.


Our learning swells as Time has burned away
the dewy truths that Aristotle found,
while much of Galen has been overturned
as subtle operators probe beneath
the skin, and surface wonders greater than
the deepest mine or Indian diver’s bag.
We should rejoice posterity will see,
in after years, new volumes and new worlds
of knowledge presently obscure, yet sigh
the slim progression from the ancients’ start.
What was it in the mind of men
that as they cleaved hard to the ancients’ thought
they put their curious faculty aside,
and in contentment used their eyes to read
and ears to hear the old conclusions?
What if they had let wit and senses rest
on all created things – themselves as well?
We might find Plinie standing six rows back
and Plato scarcely closer to the front.

Despite misapprehensions and mistakes,
we ought to treat them civilly who sought
to order and to understand the world,
who set aside the stories of the gods
and binding observation to their thought
had glimpses in the very hand of truth.


If we adopt the Psalms’ suggested scale
and match endurance to creation’s days
we find a likely pattern for the world:
six days to make, six thousand years to mar;
which leaves scarce hundreds till the end of days
when every matter terminates at once,
much as a play brings all threads to a knot.
Futurity still shortens; prophecies
transmute to history and present times
suck in the times to come; and Janus shall
give up one face, gaze solely on things done.
But in our contemplations we take care
to look beyond the earth with its short span,
for this world stands a small parenthesis
among the wonders of eternity.

The colonies of heaven must be drawn
from earth; first Adam’s folk stand by
to board the barque, its sailing settled on
the holy tide that floods all wedding feasts
yet gathers up the bride from house and field
and tricks her out in borrowed finery.