Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 2. The Anatomy of Melancholy

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

§ 2. The Anatomy of Melancholy

The first edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy appeared in 1621, in the same year as Barclay’s Argenis. In modern days, at least, The Anatomy has been read rather in parts than as a whole, and some misunderstanding has prevailed as to its purpose. It has been regarded as a mere conglomerate of miscellaneous excerpts, as a colossal jest, and the synopsis prefixed to each of the three parts as nothing but a parody. A study of the work in its entirety should convince a reader that, however curious in some of its developments, Burton’s main object was the practical one that he himself proclaimed. The present Regius professor of medicine at Oxford, while speaking with keen appreciation of its literary qualities, has pronounced The Anatomy “a great medical treatise, orderly in arrangement, serious in purpose.”

The introduction, “Democritus Junior to the Reader,” after justifying the assumed name, the title, the choice of subject and the method, shows, by “a brief survey of the world,” that melancholy is “an inbred malady in every one of us.” The first partition deals with the definition, causes, symptoms and properties of melancholy; the second (and shortest) with the cure; the third, in its final form by far the longest, with the definition, symptoms and cure of the two distinct species, love melancholy and religious melancholy. “The Conclusion of the Author to the Reader,” with which the first edition ends, did not appear again; but it has not always been observed that a large proportion was incorporated in the introduction.

Though the book is primarily a treatise on melancholy, the elasticity of the term, the universality of the disease and the elaboration with which Burton tracks its several phases, extend the subject to the life of man. The writer’s temperament, matched with his theme, exhibits him not merely as the physician of body and soul, but as a satirist, a humorist and a social and political reformer, in which last character he constructs the ideal Utopia of his introduction. The general literary aspect of The Anatomy has so far overpowered the medical, that Fuller could speak of it as a “book of philology.”

Burton’s is one of those minds whose interest in human emotion, conduct and character expresses itself in a meditative, rather than in a dramatic, form. But he is not confined to man’s nature in the abstract. The Anatomy is peopled with men and women. Many a great name from history is there; and instances, various and picturesque, of affliction and healing, gathered by Burton from physicians’ records—the young maid in Amatus Lusitanus that would wash her hair in the heat of the day; the strange malady of Katherine Gualter, a cooper’s daughter; the country fellow that had four knives in his belly, with other baggage; the merchant from Nordeling that fancied he had lost his money at the fair; the painful preacher at Alkmaar in Holland and countless other cases.

Panoramic effects are frequent, arising from the author’s fertility and readiness in enumeration. In this impression of multitudinousness, he recalls in different ways both Rabelais and Whitman. A most characteristic example of the torrential manner in which Burton’s memories are poured forth is his rhapsody of the world of books in the member on “Exercise rectified.”

Burton’s humour is pervasive and inseparably intertwined with his irony and the kindly commonsense of his attitude to life. Comparisons are dangerous, but it may safely be said that in Burton there are touches of Montaigne, and contact in his character with the most English of our writers, Chaucer and Fielding. Jusserand points to his kinship with Izaak Walton in his susceptibility to the charm of country life.

Neither in thought nor in style can he rival the subtlety of Sir Thomas Browne, to whom he has been compared and with whom he certainly has this in common that the same readers seem drawn to both. Though he cannot pretend to the serene impartiality of Religio Medici, Burton, in his theological views, shows a widely tolerant spirit. We see him at his highest in “Religious Melancholy,” especially in “The cure of despair,” though this is not the only place in which his grave pathos is felt, and his tenderness for the “fear and sorrow” of others that he must have known himself.

The extent to which the words and names of other authors appear in The Anatomy of Melancholy is, undoubtedly, its most striking external feature. But the practice of profuse quotation was not peculiar to Burton. It was an age when appeal lay to tradition and authority, and the tendency was fostered by the formation of libraries. The attitude of a typical scholar of the day has been summed up by his modern biographer, “If a great writer has said a thing, it is so.” It was the fashion of the time to quote by way of proof or illustration, in talk, in writing, from the pulpit. No exposition or argument could be conducted “without refreshment on the road from Jerome or from Athanasius.” In enforcing the most familiar of truisms, men appealed to the classics without fear of consequences. The pretender to learning had perforce “his sentences for Company, some scatterings of Seneca and Tacitus.” The difference between Burton and his contemporaries is one of degree:

  • No man in his time did surpass him for his ready and dexterous interlarding his common discourses among them with verses from the Poets, or sentences from classic authors: which being then all the fashion in the University made his company the more acceptable.
  • Indeed, if the occasion be considered, the wealth of ancient instances, of Greek and Latin in Taylor’s sermon, “The House of Feasting,” is as surprising a phenomenon as anything in Burton. Taine, “superseding the facts by a statement of his own subjective consciousness,” has spoken of Burton’s casting on paper “a folio column of heraldry” and “the history of the particle que,” but, though Burton modestly spoke of his work as a “cento” that he had “collected out of divers writers,” there is always reason and method in his borrowings. He never flung his commonplace book in the face of the public.

    Undoubtedly, Burton possessed an inordinate appetite for books, a cacoethes legendi. He confesses to a “want of art” and “order” in his reading; “I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries,” “rambling amongst authors (as often I do).” So Boswell wrote of Johnson in his youth, “He read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as chance threw books in his way and inclination directed him through them.”

    But Burton in his ramblings must have been ready to suck melancholy out of all that he met. For all his omnivorous reading, he was no bookworm. It was the human interest in the printed page for which his eye was open. Modern critics, unversed in a literature familiar to Burton’s day, have dwelt pleasantly on dusty folios, and made merry over the names of authors of whose works they were ignorant, as though what is obsolete for us was already rare and far-fetched in the seventeenth century. Taine pictured Burton sporting with antediluvian monsters, the first being Besler of Nürnberg! and an English writer seems to imagine that Codronchus was a special find for him. There was little remoteness in the newly printed text-books of medicine and botany.

    In the case of a reader so all engulfing as Burton, it is not easy to sum up his sources with precision, but the following heads will afford a rough notion of the field covered: medical writers of all periods, and scientific works; the Bible, the fathers, theologians; Greek and Latin classics (the former “cited out of their interpreters”): some few are largely or wholly neglected, such as Aeschylus: to others, such as Horace, he has frequent recourse; historians and chroniclers; travels, descriptions of cities and countries (Burton was “ever addicted to the study of cosmography”); treatises on government and politics; the miscellanea of scholars and Latin belles lettres from the revival of learning: poems, orations, epistles, satires, facetiae and the like; English poetry: Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Daniel, Drayton; Harington’s Ariosto, Florio’s Montaigne, Rabelais and others. Interesting light is thrown on Burton’s reading by the list of the books given to the Bodleian in accordance with his will, which includes a large number of pamphlets and controversial tracts.