The Garden of Cyrus
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.
The Garden of Cyrus is Browne's Neo-Platonic and Neo-Pythagorean vision of the interconnection of art, nature and the Universe via numerous symbols, primarily the number five, and the quincunx pattern along with its variants, including the figure X and lattice design. 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 and advocation of intelligent design. The Discourse also includes one of the earliest usages of the word 'archetype' in the English language.
With its near vertiginous procession of visual imagery, objects, botanical observations and mystical analogies, along with its constant reinforcement of how God geometrizes (via the symbols of the number five and quincunx pattern), all developed from hastily jotted notes in a fractured, breathless, style, The Garden of Cyrus is an exceptionally idiosyncratic literary work. A critical examination of draught manuscripts reveals that the inventory from art, nature and mysticism in Browne's discourse were written with uncharacteristic haste, as if the physician-philosopher's imagination were conjuring evidence of the quincunx pattern faster than his pen could possibly write, a good example occurring in the passage -
In Chess-boards and Tables we yet find Pyramids and Squares, I wish we had their true and ancient description, farre different from ours, or the Chet mat of the Persians, and 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 Sun and Moon.
The Garden of Cyrus may therefore be considered an early example of stream of consciousness and even of altered consciousness writing. Not unlike Lewis Carroll in his Alice in Wonderland, the science fiction of H. G. Wells or the Russian esotericist P. D. Ouspensky, Browne expresses an unusual perspective upon life and reality.
There are however, two major reasons why The Garden of Cyrus is not as well known as its diptych companion, Urn-Burial. Firstly, the sheer difficulty of the text itself, which has baffled all but the most determined readers. Stylistically, the discourse veers abruptly from passages of sublime purple prose to crabbed note-book jottings. It also alludes to what is now considered to be obscure learning, namely Hermeticism and the esoteric in general.
The second reason for The Garden of Cyrus being little-known is due to an editorial and publishing trend, totally against Browne's artistic intentions, of it being omitted from many nineteenth and twentieth century editions, reproducing Urn-Burial alone. Even modern editions from highly reputable publishers, such as Penguin New Directions in 2006 and New York Review Books in May 2012 continue to perpetuate this error.
Though difficult to read, The Garden of Cyrus remains an important work of English literature, primarily because it is incontrovertible evidence that as late as the mid-seventeenth century, isolated individuals throughout Europe continued to subscribe to the tenets of Hermetic philosophy.
The Latin text accompanying the frontispiece to 'the Garden of Cyrus' quotes Quintillian's Institutio Oratoria Book VIII.3.ix: Quid quincunce speciosius, qui, in quamcumque partem spectaveris, rectus est? which translated reads as, "What is more beautiful than the quincunx which however you view it, presents straight lines?"
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