Marginalia, no.102

The Turkish Emperour odious for other crueltie was herin a remarkable master of mercy; killing his favourite in his sleepe, and sending him from the shade into the house of darkness.  He that had been destroyed, would hardly have bled at the presence of his destroyer, where men are already dead by metaphor, and passe but from one sleepe unto another.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, from the Notebooks

“Dead by metaphor” is very nice.  Nice too is the whimsical spelling.  Why do we always correct Shakespeare and Milton but never Browne?  The folkloric notion that murdered corpses bleed in the presence of their murderer is echoed in Lady Anne’s words to Gloucester in Richard III: “See, see dead Henry’s wounds / Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh / For ‘tis thy presence that exhales this blood / From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells.”  Criminal forensics must have been a simpler science when the killer could be identified by wheeling the victim round town for a game of Hotter/Colder.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Marginalia, no.102

  1. This is very good, Ian. Thanks. I have to get back to Browne, who moulders away, for the most part, in memories of reading done in graduate school; I must disinter him for myself.

    Somehow the “folkloric notion” you speak of had escaped my notice. Thanks for bringing me to it. But that “dead by metaphor” is lovely, isn’t it, just as you say? You’ll know the old conceit, scattered everywhere in Renaissance English poetry, as in this perhaps best known instance from Samuel Daniel:

    CARE-CHARMER Sleep, son of the sable Night,
    Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
    Relieve my languish, and restore the light ;
    With dark forgetting of my care return.
    And let the day be time enough to mourn
    The shipwreck of my ill adventured youth :
    Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
    Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
    Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires,
    To model forth the passions of the morrow ;
    Never let rising Sun approve you liars
    To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow :
    Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain,
    And never wake to feel the day’s disdain.

    Maybe Browne is at once “using” and “citing” the conceit as sleep as brother and/or son to Death (anyway, as close kin). Is he effortlessly pointing out that this conceit had become, by the time he wrote, a cliche, and that he couldn’t deploy it without also explicitly calling it what it was: a “metaphor”? Or, to put it another way, Browne takes a dead metaphor about a metaphorical death and makes it “live” again, and all this in a passage about murder.

    Nice flourish at the close of your remarks, by the way. Maybe the “CSI” people should roll it out.

  2. Ian Wolcott

    I’m not at all familiar with Samuel Daniel, so thank you for that. I especially like “embracing clouds.” I was lucky enough never to study Browne in school, but then I never went on to graduate school, so that’s probably why. But I think it was better for me to discover him on my own somewhat later in life.

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