Quincunx

“When Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised Sir Thomas Browne for having ‘a brain with a twist,’ he captured one of the central reasons why it remains such a pleasure to read Browne’s prose. His idiosyncratic and often surprising ways of thinking are 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?

Browne was a great coiner of neologisms, finding English insufficiently expressive for all that he wanted to say. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, he was responsible for introducing more than one hundred words to the language, including the nouns exhaustion, hallucination, and suicide; the verbs compensate, invigorate, and bisect; the adjectives precocious, medical, and literary.

More than his contributions to the OED, Browne is celebrated for the quality of his prose. Samuel Johnson first described Browne’s style at some length, although his assessment leaned more toward criticism than praise. The labyrinthine sentences that Johnson castigated seemed, as the twentieth-century novelist W.G. Sebald would later put it admiringly, like ‘processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness.’ Browne love music, and in a remarkable sentence in Religio Medici he marvels at its power over him: ‘it unties the ligaments of my frame, takes me to pieces, dilates me out of myself.’ “

— from the introduction to the NYRB edition of Browne’s Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall