The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIII. Robert Burton, John Barclay and John Owen

§ 1. Robert Burton

IT has been rightly observed that the first half of the seventeenth century may be reckoned eminently the learned age, and the authors who form the subject of the present chapter carry, each in his own way, this mark of the period. Two of these, the epigrammatist Owen and Barclay the writer of satire and romance, delivered themselves in Latin, one producing the best known body of Latin epigrams since Martial, the other the most famous work in Latin prose fiction since Apuleius. From Burton, we have his own confession that it was not his original intention to “prostitute his muse in English,” but, could a printer have been found, to publish his huge medical and moral treatise in Latin. Yet, while the frame of the book is in his native English, Latin is never far away. We find it in phrases interwoven with the text, in formal citation on page or margent, visible through the paraphrase of the sources from which he drew. Composition in Latin, at a time when that language was still international, was, in itself, no special sign of learning, but Barclay and Owen give proof of wide and apt knowledge, and possess an individual style and flavour. In their day, they are remarkable instances of men of real literary inspiration, who chose to speak in a past tongue. For width of reading, rather than precise scholarship, Burton may count among the most learned of English men of letters. The study of all three was Man. To a modern mind, the way in which tradition and direct experience often lie side by side unblended in seventeenth century literature is strange. An eager interest in human character and activity consorted with something that is hard to distinguish from pedantry. But the impulse of the classics was then stronger if less delicate, and the relation between life and books has been variously apprehended at various epochs.

The three differ in their lives, literary performance and subsequent fate. Owen, a Welshman, educated at Winchester and Oxford, showed, while devoid of the higher qualities of a poet, a surprising readiness and dexterity in sallies of verbal wit. Barclay, courtier and cosmopolitan, born in Lorraine of a Scottish father, spending his manhood in London and Rome, after writing a satirical fiction in his youth, combined, later, in a romance of elevated and serious tone, imaginative power with an acute judgment in the treatment of political questions. Burton the Englishman, an Oxford resident and priest in the Anglican church, “by profession a divine, by inclination a physician,” devoted his large leisure to the elaboration of a work which, while technical in its immediate aim, became, because of its author’s vast reading, a storehouse of multifarious learning; because of his disposition, a book of satirical though kindly humour; and, because of the subject itself, a panorama and criticism of human life.

The success achieved by each was remarkable. Owen’s first volume was reprinted within the month. Six editions of Burton’s voluminous treatise appeared within thirty years. Barclay’s chief work, which was posthumous, was reissued on an average once a year during the half century that followed the author’s death. The sphere and period of their popularity were not the same. Owen and Barclay, composing in Latin, quickly attained a continental reputation, and were translated into the principal languages of Europe; Burton, writing in English, was practically unknown across the Channel. The fame of all suffered eclipse, at one time, through changes of literary fashion. Owen, though his production is less bulky and his merit more on the surface, is still strangely neglected. Barclay, since 1674, has been the subject of many learned monographs. The Anatomy of Melancholy, revived by men of genius in the early years of the nineteenth century, the haunt of the literary, rather than the province of professed students, alone continues to be reprinted. It is Burton, beyond doubt, who, of the three, has best preserved his vitality.

Robert Burton is often spoken of as though his personality were quite exceptional, his book an unparalleled piece of eccentricity. But much which might seem peculiar to him is, in reality, shared with other writers of his time. It is no paradox to assert that Burton is representative of the nation and period to which he belongs. He was of English ancestry in the fullest sense, a native of that midland district which has given us his great contemporary, Shakespeare. His family had been settled there for many generations, and an ancestor in the fifth degree had borne king Henry VI’s standard in France. Burton’s own career was normal and uneventful. He was a permanent resident in Oxford at a time when the number of students at our English universities bore a higher proportion to the population of the country than at any subsequent period. In his large interest in life, his humorous, halfironical sympathy with his fellow men and his shrewd commonsense, he was a typical Englishman; English, also, in his tendency to overflow the channels of his thought, in his want of that delicate sense of measure more commonly associated with the Latin races.

Before entering Oxford, Burton had acquired the usual grammar school training of his day, which did not include a belief in a rigid canon of Latin authors. While ability to read and write Latin was a chief aim of school education, the classics were regarded as sources of wisdom and not merely as models of literary form, and writers of the renascence were even admitted to a place beside those of the Roman republic and empire.

As a student of Christ Church and keeper of his college library, enjoying, too, the advantages of the newly founded Bodleian, Burton had ample opportunity for study. He held some small ecclesiastical preferments, and there are indications that he would have been glad to obtain more substantial promotion. Anecdotes about him must be received with caution. His book became so much better known than himself that there was probably a tendency to draw inferences from his work to his person, and to emphasise such details of his life as seemed most in keeping with his character as an author. The whisper of suicide which Anthony à Wood mentions was, presumably, based on the last lines of the “Abstract of Melancholy” prefixed to the third and later editions of The Anatomy, or on a phrase on his monument in Christ Church. Burton, who was “by profession a divine,” declared that he might, had he chosen, have published sermons, but he had “ever been desirous to suppress his labours in this kind.” The nature of his sermons may fairly be inferred from the section on “Religious Melancholy.” His extant minor works consist of his academic Latin play Philosophaster and occasional Latin verse—elegies, epithalamia and the like—scattered through university collections. His Latin comedy, the theme of which is the trickery and exposure of pretenders to learning in a Spanish university, the arch-villain being a Jesuit, is ingenious and diverting and of special interest as containing, in many places, thoughts and expressions that can be paralleled in The Anatomy. The lyrics, few but effective, are in rime. The metre of the dialogue, even after allowance has been made for inevitable ignorance of Plautine and Terentian prosody, is rough.