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The Garden of Cyrus

The Garden of Cyrus or The Quincuniall, or Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered by Sir Thomas Browne was first published along with its diptytch companion of stoical moralising and funereal gloom, Urn-Burial in 1658. Cyrus in modern times has been recognised as the obverse of the Coin consummately crafted by the Norwich physician and as Browne's major literary contribution to the treasure house of Hermetic wisdom.

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 Preface to Patron
3 Text
4 Summary


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 cabbala, Cyrus may, with a modern understanding of the influence of hermetic philosophy upon the arts and intellectual history, be termed a work of hermetic phantasmagoria.

Preface to Patron

The dedicatory preface to his patron Nicolas 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 folio's 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.

The introductory preface also hints at the essence of Browne's 'nature philosophy'. 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 which binds all life together. Browne first wrote upon the existence of the anima mundi in Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor) of 1643 thus-

Now besides these particular and divided Spirits, there may be (for ought I know) an 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?


The opening lines of The Garden of Cyrus depicts 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 alludes to Vulcan of the alchemists. The Roman god of fire and furnace was commonplace during the resurgence of interest in the esoteric in Protectorate Britain and well-known as symbolic of Paracelsan alchemy during the 1650's.

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 in operation extant in English literature. An example of such alchemical imagination occurring in chapter two, which reads not unlike modern 'stream of consciousness' style:

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, that is consisting of five petals. Page after page of 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 Cyrus is it. The Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus's encouraging of fellow physicians to 'seek truth in the Light of Nature' is in fact a dualistic concept in which both the apprehending of Nature's esoteric arcana and the beginnings of modern biological research are inextricably linked. In Browne's day these two pursuits were quite indistinct from each other.

After exploring Art and Nature for evidence of the Quincunx pattern chapters four and five delve into esoteric topics such 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, these are - 'rational conjecture', 'occular 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.


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, jotted 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 a study of draught manuscripts reveal, Browne's excited scribbling of ideas are uncharacteristically scribbled and race across the page often quicker than his pen can write.

Cyrus is also exemplary of hermetic phantasmagoria literature and not unlike Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, or the science-fiction of H. G. Wells, it 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 it's diptych companion Urn-Burial. Firstly because of an editoral and publishing trend, totally against Browne's artistic intentions, it was omitted from many Victorian editions, such inexcusable Pythagorisme was little humoured by Victorian critics and thus it has been omitted from many modern editions .

The second reason is the sheer difficulty of 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 to 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' or dyptych, literary creation.

Difficult as it is to read The Garden of Cyrus remains an important work of English literature for the following reasons, firstly, it is a literary example of hermetic philosophy and secondly as evidence that as late as the mid-seventeenth century great intellects continued to endorse the tenets and teachings of hermetic philosophy.