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

§ 4. Influence of The Anatomy

From the first, The Anatomy of Melancholy found a ready audience, and its vogue, to judge from the number of editions absorbed, lasted for half a century. As its success was due to its having suited, rather than originated, the taste of the time, it is not always easy to trace its direct influence. Resemblances have often been pointed out between Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso and “The Author’s Abstract of Melancholy,” verses which Burton prefixed to his third and following editions. John Rous, the Bodleian librarian, was a friend of Burton as well as of Milton. It has been suggested that the song in Fletcher’s Nice Valour was Milton’s immediate source and that Fletcher owed hints to Burton. The authorship of the play is matter of controversy, and Fletcher himself died three years before Burton’s verses were printed. The anonymous Vulgar Errors in Practice Censured (1659) shows extensive borrowings. The author copies without much intelligence and goes astray through mechanically repeating Burton’s references. Greenwood’s Philalethes, that appeared in 1657, makes considerable use of The Anatomy, but the extent of his acknowledgment is greater than Anthony à Wood’s statement implies. At the close of the century, the passion for accumulating authorities was growing fainter, and Burton’s book was less in touch with the prevailing literary tone. Indebtedness to The Anatomy was now less likely to be detected. Archbishop Herring, in an often-repeated passage, asserted that the wits of queen Anne’s reign and the beginning of George I’s were not a little beholden to Burton. Swift, it would seem, had some acquaintance with him. However little in accordance with literary fashion, The Anatomy could hardly fail, if only by reason of its title, and the more obvious peculiarities of its contents, to attract the attention of any curious reader who encountered it; and, in the middle of the century, two athuors of importance fell under its fascination. Samuel Johnson, whose wide reading and hypochondriacal taint instinctively drew him to The Anatomy, was emphatic in its praise, and affords another instance of admiration extended at the same time to Browne and Burton. The influence of The Anatomy is apparent in several passages of Johnson’s talk and writing, although Burton was not among the English authors from whom the examples for his dictionary were selected. His definition of oats, his conversational comparison of a ship to a prison and the Vergilian quotation by which he points the miseries of a literary life, are all reminiscent of Burton.

But one name in eighteenth century literature is inseperably linked with his. Sterne’s cast of mind inclined him to reading that which was curious and away from the common track, and he turned over The Anatomy with a special gusto. To the literary taste of the day, Burton was obsolete, and Sterne freely transferred his thoughts and phrases to Tristram Shandy. Ferriar’s list of passages is far from exhaustive. At the end of the century, the real revival of Burton began. He was a favourite with Coleridge, Lamb and Southey. Coleridge annotated his friend’s copy of The Anatomy. Lamb, besides producing an imitation which has deceived some readers, though with less excuse than was the case with Crossley’s imitation of Sir Thomas Browne, gives frequent tokens of his fondness for Burton, with whose thought and expression, as with those of many seventeenth century writers, he was in close sympathy. Southey was a diligent reader of The Anatomy and noted many passages from it in his commonplace book. The year 1800 saw the first reprint of The Anatomy since 1676, and the book thus became more accessible. Keats, with his Lamia, gave the passage of Burton that suggested the poem, and a volume of the edition which he used, containing notes from his hand, has been preserved. Byron praised it as the most entertaining of literary miscellanies. But criticisms on Burton are too often evidence that the book has been thought of as an amusing collection of isolated anecdotes, a vast quarry for quaint phrases and quotations, and seldom viewed in its purpose and entirety.

Thackeray, who, in Pendennis, had represented captain Shandon as putting The Anatomy to base uses of journalism, made it the favourite reading of Martin Lambert in The Virginians—a book over a great part of which the spirit of Burton is felt to brood. But the second volume of The Virginians is largely made up of essays, and it is in the essay of to-day, if anywhere, that the influence of Burton yet lingers.