Sir Thomas is the Johann Sebastian Bach of English prose. Like other major authors such as Jonathan Swift and Horace Walpole, he was an amateur who wrote to amuse himself.
Though Sir Thomas did not do a lot of writing, the stylistic range is impressive. It is no big deal for him to go from the organ tones of the closing section of the Urn Burial to the Pliny like compilations of the Pseudodoxia and the miscellaneous scientific treatises. Sir Thomas at times wrote in a lurid purple prose which has long since gone out of fashion though some later writers have been able to imitate and extend it, e g Thomas De Quincey in the three part account of his drug addiction and Melville in Moby Dick. Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) has also written some tolerable purple prose in Look Homeward Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935). In general, purple prose runs the risk of bombast and embarrassing pomposity.
The canon of Sir Thomas' writings can be best appreciated in the context of the seventeenth century which was the age of Baroque prose. The prose of the late sixteenth century e g Sidney's Arcadia and Lyly's Euphues, had been highly mannered and contorted. These writers as well as Shakespeare in the prose parts of the plays were influenced by the Italian, Spanish, and Dutch painters (including Michelangelo and El Greco) who thrived on the distortion of form whereas the early Baroque painters like Caravaggio and Rubens restored the integrity of form. The prose writers of the seventeenth century - Bacon, Burton, Taylor, Donne, Milton, Browne, the early Swift, Pascal, Descartes, Moliere - likewise aimed at three dimensional effects. They used the verbal equivalent of foreshortening and light and shadow.
Sir Thomas' work needs to be seen in the light of Baroque art-- like "Areopagita" and Paradise Lost, the plays of Corneille and Racine and the satires of Dryden.
Hugh Aldersey-Williams has shown how Sir Thomas was as much a believer in witchcraft as James I or the authors of the Malleus Malificarum-- or Montague Summers in the first half of the twentieth century! This is helpful and important, because it reminds us that an author's environment can be both formative and limiting.
Sent in by Steve Harvy