O Diem Præclarum!

Thomas Browne’s Commonplace Book

Thomas Browne’s Commonplace Book is available in two full, finished versions, one partial version, and an early, largely unrealized version:


I’ve been reading a fair amount by Marjorie Perloff lately: 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics, the essays on her website, and especially Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, in which she devotes a chapter to the “citational poetics” of Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk, and another to the “found text” of Susan Howe's The Midnight. The examples of Benjamin and Howe, as explained by Perloff, suggested a very Browne-like way of explicating Sir Thomas Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus by acculumating and arranging a constellation of discovered sentences in and around the sentences of Browne’s now largely neglected companion to the much more popular Hydriotaphia, insofar as Browne himself is very much of a citationist and keeper of commonplace books. I have even seen a discussion, although I have mislaid the citation, of Browne’s use of his commonplace book in composing The Garden of Cyrus.

Just as I was starting this project, in the fall of 2015, I was fortunate enough to hear a talk by Johanna Drucker in which she complicated the matter of the book’s “form” as potentially more than just a stream of characters folded over sequential pages. She concluded her talk by discussing of XML schemas as a the “metatexts” for the documents they describe, and by suggesting (to me at least--I may have been too busing applying her observations than listening) that this relationship between schema and XML can be read as an analogy for the relationship between our expections of books and books themselves.

In any case, Drucker's talk, plus Perloff's observations on Benjamin and Howe, suggested a way forward for a Browne project: to put passages from Browne into collision with passages from other writers, to let the reading experience follow from disjunctive leaps from passage to passage, and (this is key, and I owe Drucker for it) to let let Browne provide the “metatexts” for the Browne project.

© 2015-2020 Stephen M. Pentecost