The Garden of Cyrus

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The Garden of Cyrus, or The Quincuncial 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, in conjunction with its diptych companion, Urn-Burial. In modern times it has been recognised as Browne's major literary contribution to Hermetic wisdom. [1]


Penned during a relaxation of licences for printing-presses and State censorship thus catering for the psychological uncertainties, social debate and millenarian expectations engendered during the Protectorate of Cromwell; The Garden of Cyrus (1658) is Browne's contribution to what was a 'boom period' and the single-most decade of interest in esoterica England has ever witnessed. Browne's Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean vision of the interconnection of art and nature via various symbols, primarily the number five and the quincunx pattern, along with the figure X and lattice design caused little stir when first published, however, its slender, but highly compressed pages of imagery, symbolism and associative thought are exemplary of a fundamental quest of alchemist and Hermetic philosopher alike, namely, proof of the wisdom of God, and demonstrable evidence of intelligent design. The Discourse also includes early recorded usage of the words 'prototype' and 'archetype' in the English language.

Title-page of 'The Garden of Cyrus', first edition 1658
Frontispiece to 'The Garden of Cyrus' (1658)


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 exceptional and highly idiosyncratic literary work. A critical examination of draught manuscripts of the Discourse reveals that the extraordinary variety of examples taken from art and nature were written with uncharacteristic haste; as if the physician-philosopher were sometimes recollecting evidence of the quincunx pattern faster than his pen could 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.

Paragraphs of The Garden of Cyrus may be considered as early examples of stream of consciousness writing, which, speculated as the product of altered consciousness,[1] are not dissimilar to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the science fiction of H. G. Wells or the Russian esotericist P. D. Ouspensky, in expression of a highly 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, as stylistically the discourse alternates between notebook jottings to passages of sublime purple prose. It also alludes to what is now considered 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 reputable literary scholars and publishers such as New York Review Books [2] continue to perpetuate this misrepresentation of Browne's paradoxical cosmic vision.[3]

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 Quintilian'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?


  1. ^ Peter Green, Writers and their Work no. 108, Longmans and co. 1959
  2. ^ Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall New York Review Books Classics 2012 by Thomas Browne, Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff (Editors) Publisher: NYRB Classics 3 Sept. 2012 ISBN 978-1590174883
  3. ^ Heideman M. A. 'Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus' A Paradox and a Cosmic Vision' University of Toronto Quarterly, XIX 1950

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