Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Tropical Thomas Browne


It is dark. I sat down with Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici and in the preface I found these words:

There are many things delivered Rhetorically, many expressions therein meerly Tropical, and as they best illustrate my intention; and therefore also there are many things to be taken in soft and flexible sense, and not to be called unto the rigid test of Reason.

Tropical, I confess, threw me. I vaguely imagined that some of the opinions in Religio Medici were fit only for a sunny beach. I pictured Browne dancing in a lei while pronouncing on matters reasonable and religious. Perhaps the intense cold had paralysed my deductive faculties for, falling from this airy reverie to the frosty fields of reason, I realised that Tropical meant relating to rhetorical tropes.

The connection is turning. The earth tilts upon its axis. For six months the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun and this I call summer. For the other six months it is the turn of my anitscian to don a shirt of many colours and loll around on the shores of Bouvet Island. The extent of this turn is 23 degrees both ways. Even as I sullenly type the sun (from our point of view) appears to be hovering at noon over those who are 23 degrees South of the Equator. Then it turns back northward. The Greek for turn is tropos hence tropic.

So the tropics, cancerous and capricious, are the latitudes at which the sun turns. The Greeks, it would appear, used a direct translation of our expression turn of phrase, they called it a rhetorical trope, because a word was being turned to something other than its normal use. So if you use tropes, your prose is tropical.

My prophetic soul tells me there will be more posts on Browne before advent is out. Mrs Malaprop is on holiday. She like Browne is "oft-times fain to wander in the America and untravelled parts of truth."


Sir Thomas Browne's stolen skull resting on a copy of Religio Medici

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