Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 3. His Reading and Methods of Quotation

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

§ 3. His Reading and Methods of Quotation

Burton was anxious on principle to indicate his obligations. “I have wronged no Authors,” he protested from the first; “I cite and quote mine Authors,” he adds, in the third edition, continuing, in the fourth, “which howsoever some illiterate scriblers accompt pedanticall as a cloake of ignorance, and opposite to their affected fine stile, I must and will use.” Burton, it would seem, is here glancing at writers such as Owen Felltham, who, in the second edition of Resolves (1628), wrote “I am to answer two Objections, One, that I have made use of Story yet not quoted my Authorities, and this I have purposely done.” Yet, while Burton renders to his medical writers what is theirs, to a great number of the illustrative and literary quotations in The Anatomy, as is only natural, no name is attached; to pause at the end of each borrowed phrase to interject a “Shakespeare, ahem!” was clearly impossible. But there is unconscious humour when, in the famous passage conveyed by Sterne, Burton declares that “as Apothecaries we make new mixtures every day, pour out of one vessel into another”; and forgets to refer his readers to Andreae’s Menippus. In many instances, the quotations embedded in Burton’s text have not been drawn directly from their original sources. Not that Burton had any need to fall back on florilegia, a practice that he expressly disclaims; but it often happens that what in itself is a quotation, especially if it be an island of verse in the midst of prose, has caught his eye as it faced him on the page of another writer and found its way to his own. Lines that stand out in Xylander’s Latin version of Plutarch’s Moralia, in Lilius Gyraldus, in Cornelius Agrippa, in Cardan, in Lipsius, have thus recruited his ranks; English writers, too, are made to pay tribute of their spoil. At times, we may track him down a whole page of a predecessor. Castalio’s criticism on the Canticles, with the rejoinder made to it, Dicaearchus’s carping at Plato and the Latin rendering of the lines to Agatho—all this is taken at second hand from an oration of Beroaldus. Elsewhere, successive quotations from Aulus Gellius, Pliny the elder and the philosopher Seneca hail from a controversial piece by Justus Baronius, and Burton commits a curious error through misreading his original. When he protests in his preface that his collection has been sine injuria, that he has given every man his own, it can be shown, from passages he refers to, that he is recalling Camerarius’s emblem under that motto. The insertion of supplementary matter in later editions has here, by separating these quotations, helped to conceal their provenance. Burton’s reading was so wide and devious, his paths of association so unexpected, that it is rarely safe to assume by what road a quotation has reached him. One more example must suffice. It might be supposed that the two lines

  • Virgines nondum thalamis jugatae
  • Et comis nondum positis ephoebi
  • came directly from Seneca’s Hercules Furens. This is not so. Burton took them from Gaulmin’s Latin translation of the Greek romance of Theodorus Prodromus. The ways in which he interlaces the words of others into his own fabric are very various. Sometimes, a quotation stands in his text, sometimes, in the margin; at times, through inadvertence, in both. The margin, again, may supply the original of the rendering that figures on the page. His translations often are “paraphrases rather than interpretations.” Burton’s racy restatements by the side of the Latin have, at times, a humorous effect akin to that of the advocates’ speeches in The Ring and the Book—or in Calverley’s parody.

    Burton exercises an author’s privilege in taking only what is to his purpose and in combining separate excerpts into one period. Naturally, among the thousands of passages that he has occasion to quote, he has not been able to avoid errors. His memory plays him false. He slips in a rendering, assigns words of Silius to Statius, is led astray by his authorities. If Lipsius refers a sentence of Plato to the wrong dialogue, Burton takes it on trust. Lipsius says “Horace” when he should have said “Ovid,” Burton copies his mistake. The number of reference marks in the text and margin become a source of error when complicated by fresh insertions in successive issues. Although each edition has a list of errata, these bear but an insignificant proportion to what may be detected. It is obvious that Burton’s modus operandi was not always the same. He often quotes from memory; there are places, apparently, where the book from which he cites lay open before him; at times, he made use of memoranda. In his introduction, he represents himself as writing “out of a confused company of notes.” Several books containing his autograph show strokes of the pen against words or passages utilised in The Anatomy.

    Everywhere there is evidence that Burton’s brain was soaked in literature. In his elegiacs ad librum suum, echoes are to be heard from Nicholas Gerbelius, Palingenius, Claudian, Ausonius, Juvenal, Martial, Ovid, Vergil. Elia’s “I cannot sit and think. Books think for me,” can be applied to Burton. His constant habit was to express himself in terms of quotation. But in this method lies dizziness for the reader and a danger, at times, that the real strength and individuality of the author’s own thoughts may be overlooked.

    Burton himself describes his style when he confesses that his book was “writ with as small deliberation as I do usually speak.” What we are listening to is the intimate persuasive ring of vigorous and unaffected talk. He never shrinks from homely metaphors:

  • The whole world belike should be new-moulded when it seemed good to those all-commanding Powers, and turned inside out as we do haycocks in harvest …, or as we turn apples to the fire, move the world upon his centre.
  • “The world is tossed in a blanket amongst them.” “As common as a barber’s chair.” “As a tinker stops one hole and makes two.” It was because of his expressing himself in such terms as these that, two generations later, the Christ Church men complained of Bentley’s “low and mean ways of speech.”

    It would be an error to suppose that Burton was not consciously concerned for his vocabulary and the rhythmical movement of his English. Comparing his book to a bear’s whelp, he laments that he has no time to lick it into form, but the changes introduced in each new edition prove his anxiety on re-reading to prune away pleonasms, to escape awkward repetitions and, by numerous slight touches, to ease the running of his sentences. When further additions have affected what was previously in place, he is at pains to alter it. Only a complete collation could exhibit the amount of care that Burton bestowed on revision.

    The success of his Melancholy, instead of prompting Burton to the production of any new work, caused him to concentrate his energy on improving what he had already printed. Additional references or the names of other authors were adduced to support or illustrate statements already made. The insertion of entirely new matter is frequent. In more than one edition, he records a resolve to make no further change, but the method of the book invited fresh touches and Burton found it hard to abstain. He pleads in excuse that “many good authors in all kinds are come to my hands since,” and his treatise is continually being made new by contributions that had been published since the last edition, while he explains of certain earlier books that they had not been seen by him till now.