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Style Study: Sir Thomas Browne


But to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidically extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as emblems of mortal vanities, antidotes against pride, vainglory, and maddening vice. . . . 

And therefore, restless unquiet for the diurity of our memories unto present consideration seems a vanity almost out of date, and superannuated piece of folly. We cannot hope to live so long in our names, as some have done in their persons. One face of Janus holds no proportion to the other. 'Tis too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs. To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope, without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction of our beliefs. We whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment.

. . . There is no antidote against the opium of time, which temporally considereth all things: our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our survivors. Gravestones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks. . . .But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals of the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pity the founders of the pyramids?

--Sir Thomas Browne, "Chapter Five." Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial. Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry. Ed. Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke. 7th edition. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1982.


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