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Three aspects of time : a structural analysis of Urn Burial, the Garden of Cyrus and Samson Agonistes Lewison, Joyce Rosalind


Much of the melancholy of seventeenth-century English writing stems from obsessive concern with the swiftness of the passage of time and the equally swift approach of death. In Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, Sir Thomas Browne demonstrates that the concern is unwarranted. Aware of man's wish to perpetuate the memory of himself, Browne exposes the vanity of a desire for fame as well as the more mundane desire to be remembered in a monument. In Urn Burial he faces death squarely and shows the essential emptiness of man's egocentric ideas. He explains in the closing chapter that happiness consists in living privately in innocence, dealing justly with others, and believing in "the sufficiency of Christian Immortality [which] frustrates all earthly glory." In The Garden of Cyrus, he presents another point of view wherein he shows that happiness can be discovered, regardless of creed, by becoming aware of the loveliness, grandeur and mystery of the universe, and assumes that all human beings can sense the sublime in nature. Therefore, he itemizes a variety of wonders in order to enhance man's appreciation of the mysterious force which creates and incessantly maintains order in the world. The first essay treats of time in the linear sense through which man comprehends the movement of his own lifespan and the long perspective of history. The second essay deals with the perpetual present. This segment of time, which has more immediacy, is symbolized by the wedge in the Roman numeral V, five. The Garden of Cyrus is founded upon the pattern of a quincunx, a series of five points disposed in the shape of a square or rectangle with the fifth point in the centre. However, each essay has five chapters which together constitute a unit forming "the sacred Letter X" which is also the Roman numeral for ten, a number denoting fullness or completion. Whereas Browne chooses to disclose his concepts of time in the form of abstract symbols, Milton, in Samson Agonistes, indicates his concept of the time-element by dramatizing the biblical story of Samson and, through the exposure of a human being's thoughts and actions, shows that time is vital to man's understanding of the meaning of his existence. Like Adam in Paradise Lost, Samson represents mankind since, despite his superhuman strength, he is a frail mortal who lives in the darkness of human ignorance. In Milton's interpretation of Judges 13-16, Samson's imprisonment in the mill at Gaza is symbolic of the cage within which man tends to incarcerate himself, preferring the prison of mundane ignorance to the freedom of spiritual knowledge. And Samson's blindness symbolizes man's ignorance both of his motives for action and the nature of his connexion! with God. The tragedy is concerned with God's justice toward man. At the beginning of the drama, Samson questions the justice of God's acts, but, time passes during the course of the drama and, finally, the questions are answered. In Man is Not Alone, the religious philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: "Philosophy begins with man's question: religion begins with God's question and man's answer." Samson understands that God has questioned him, and the hero, craving for communion with his spiritual father, replies by changing his attitude toward life. Thereafter, in place of physical vision, God gives Samson insight which leads to his self-knowledge, to his release from the confines of the prison, and, paradoxically, to his freedom from the burden of life itself. At the close of the drama, through the tragedy of his untimely death, Samson's human father, his Danite friends, and the audience, gain similar insight and begin to understand the mystery of God's justice. A deeply religious atmosphere and an essentially vertical structure inform both Milton's tragedy and Browne's essays. Just as Browne derives much of his imagery from Scripture, so Milton depends upon scriptural sources for the bulk of his drama. In his chapter "On Scriptural Interpretation" in The Seventeenth Century Background, Basil Willey writes: "Milton believed, with Browne. . .that in Scripture truth was often conveyed figuratively." Both seventeenth-century authors are in search of truth, and both can be seen as theologians: Browne, the physician, expresses his understanding of God as he examines the amazing order he finds in the universe; Milton, the poet, expresses his understanding as he sings of the hidden wonders he finds in the mind of man.

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