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The Garden of Cyrus

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The Garden of Cyrus or The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered is a Discourse written by Sir Thomas Browne. It was first published in 1658, along with its diptych companion, Urn-Burial. In modern times it has been recognised as Browne's major literary contribution to Hermetic wisdom.

Overview

The Garden of Cyrus is Browne's mystical vision of the interconnection of art, nature and the Universe via the symbols of the number five, quincunx pattern, lozenge shape, figure X and reticulated Network. Its slender but compressed pages of imagery, symbolism and associative thought are evidence of Sir Thomas Browne's complete understanding of a fundamental quest of Hermetic philosophy, namely proof of the wisdom of God .

With its near vertiginous procession of examples of how God geometrizes; via art-objects, botanical observations, ancient history, optics, biblical scripture and the Kabbalah, Cyrus may, with a modern understanding of the influence of hermetic philosophy upon the arts and intellectual history, be termed a work of hermetic philosophy.

Preface to Patron

The dedicatory preface to his patron Nicholas Bacon includes several examples of Browne's subtle humour:

Had I not observed purblinde men discoursing well of generation and some excellently of Generation... How three full folios are yet too little and how new Herbals fly from America from persevering enquirers... some commendably grew plantations of venomous vegetables... and Cato seemed to dote upon Cabbage.

Text

The opening lines of The Garden of Cyrus depict the creation of the cosmos. Like many alchemist-physicians Browne was fascinated with life's beginnings; thus cosmic imagery opens his joyous Discourse upon life, light and beauty. The act of the Creation itself is likened to the alchemical opus -- God is viewed as a cosmic alchemist.

The opening paragraph of Cyrus also alludes to Vulcan of the alchemists. The Roman god of fire and furnace was a commonplace symbol of Paracelsan alchemy during the era of Cromwellian Commonwealth Britain.

The dense symbolism of Cyrus is supplemented by hundreds of foot-notes. The very first informs the reader that the "divine philosopher" alluded to in the opening paragraph is Plato, author of the Bible of alchemy, namely the Timaeus. As throughout the Discourse highly original optical imagery is employed:

That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology, may pass for no blind apprehension of the Creation of the Sunne and Moon, in the work of the fourth day: When the diffused light contracted into Orbs, and shooting rays, of those Luminaries... While the divine Philosopher unhappily omitteth the noblest part of the third.

Throughout The Garden of Cyrus Browne tirelessly supplies his reader with proof of the higher geometry of nature via the closely related symbols of the number five, the Quincunx pattern, the figure X and the network lozenge shape in art, nature and finally, mystically. In many ways The Garden of Cyrus with its numerous examples of sacred geometry is one of the finest examples of the alchemical imagination extant in English literature. An example of such alchemical imagination occurring in chapter two, reading not unlike modern stream-of-consciousness writing:

In Chess-boards and Tables we yet find Pyramids and Squares I wish we had their true and ancient description, far different from ours, or the Check-mate of the Persians, which might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the secretary of Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets, with Eclipses of the Sun and Moon.

Browne was a keen botanist, and the central chapter of The Garden of Cyrus contains many of his astute botanical observations; in total over 140 plants are mentioned. Botany was a much favoured pastime of alchemists, not only because plants possessed medicinal properties useful to the physician, but also because plant life demonstrated nature's organic ways. It may also be noted that many flowers are indeed cinque-foiled, which is to say that they have five petals. Page after page contains detailed descriptions of plants, speculations upon germination and growth, considerations upon embryology, generation and heredity -- the alchemy of nature and transformation are placed at the heart of the Discourse.

If ever there were a literary example of a physician "seeking truth in the light of nature" as exhorted by Paracelsus, this central chapter with its many sharp-eyed observations on plant life is it. The esoterica of natural philosophy and the beginnings of modern biological research are inextricably linked. In Browne's day these two pursuits were quite indistinct from each other.

From the detection of nature's arcana the alchemist-physician penetrated Nature's secrets to apprehend a fundamental tenet of alchemy -- the Universal Spirit of Nature, the anima mundi or World-Soul, responsible for all phenomena, and binding all life together. Browne first wrote upon the existence of the anima mundi in Religio Medici ("The Religion of a Doctor", 1643) thus:

Now besides these particular and divided Spirits, there may be (for ought I know) a universal and common Spirit to the whole world. It was the opinion of Plato, and is yet of the Hermeticall philosophers; if there be a common nature that unites and ties the scattered and divided individuals into one species, why may there not be one that untyes them all?

After exploring Art and Nature for evidence of the Quincunx pattern, chapters four and five delve into such topics as the healing properties of music, astrology and physiognomy, Sir Thomas revealing himself to be well-versed in the Cabbala.

The apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus contains Browne's testimony of his scientific credentials for obtaining truth: "rational conjecture", "ocular observation" and "discursive enquiry"; there follows the much-celebrated penultimate paragraph of purple prose in which the orbit of the doctor's "soul-journey" splashes down to earth and hard reality.

But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge. We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precogitations; making Cables of Cobwebs and Wildernesses of handsome Groves. Besides Hippocrates hath spoke so little and the Oneirocriticall Masters, have left such frigid Interpretations from plants that there is little encouragement to dream of Paradise it self. Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours; and though in the Bed of Cleopatra, can hardly with any delight raise up the Ghost of a Rose.

Consciously evoking the basic mandala of alchemy, the tail-eating Uroboros, the Discourse concludes in imagery of night, darkness and unknowingness, thematically uniting it to Urn-Burial.

All things began in order, so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the ordainer of Order and the mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven.

Summary

With its near vertiginous procession of visual imagery and objects, its constant reinforcement of how God geometrizes (via the symbols of the number five and Quincunx pattern), and jotted as it is in a hasty, fractured and breathless style, Cyrus may be considered a stylistic forerunner of stream of consciousness writing and even an early example of altered consciousness writing. For as critical examination of draught manuscripts reveal, the rapid procession of visual images from art and nature in Cyrus were written with uncharacteristic haste, in some cases rapidly scribbled, as if Browne's imagination were conjuring evidence of the Quincunx pattern faster than his pen could possibly write.

Not unlike Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, or the science fiction of H. G. Wells, The Garden of Cyrus invites the reader to share with its author in a fantastic perspective upon life and reality.

There are however two major factors why The Garden of Cyrus is not as familiar to readers of English literature as much as its diptych companion Urn-Burial. Firstly, because of an editorial and publishing trend, totally against Browne's artistic intentions, it was omitted from many Victorian editions. Its "inexcusable Pythagorisme" was little liked by Victorian critics and thus it has been omitted from many modern editions.

The second reason is the sheer difficulty of the text itself which has baffled all but the most determined reader. Stylistically the Discourse veers abruptly from passages of sublime purple prose to crabbed note-book jotting. It also alludes to what is now considered to be obscure learning, namely hermeticism and the esoteric in general.

The complex relationship between Cyrus and Urn-Burial in terms of polarity, densely-packed symbolism, imagery and style, make Browne's diptych discourses not only a highly-crafted example of the baroque extravagances of the hermetic imagination, but also a unique, 'binary' literary creation.

Though difficult to read The Garden of Cyrus remains an important work of English literature. It is a literary example of hermetic philosophy and secondly it provides evidence that as late as the mid-seventeenth century great intellects continued to endorse the tenets of hermetic philosophy.

External links

  • Text of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus

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