Anatomy of Melancholy

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton appeared in 1621. It is one of the most curious books ever written in English, and one of the unlikeliest literary masterpieces ever written.

The full title of the first edition, The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Historically, Opened and Cut up. In contemporary language, an Anatomy of Melancholy would likelier be called A Treatise on Clinical Depression. At the outset, then, Burton proposes to give us a medical textbook. And in large measure, that is what it is: Burton applies his large and varied learning in the Scholastic manner to the subject of melancholia. Each section piles on ancient and medieval medical authorities, from Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen forward, and adds to these ancient examples a great deal of Latin poetry. Burton defines his subject this way:

Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality. . . . This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed.

So far, it seems an unlikely candidate for a book with lasting literary value. But Burton is unable to prevent his attention from wandering, and his digressions are the reader's gain. He opens with a long address titled Democritus Junior to the Reader, in which he confesses his personal predisposition to melancholia. So his writing this book was as much a self-diagnosis and self-therapy as it was an endeavour to inform. Psychology, physiology, astronomy, astrology, demonology, meteorology, and theology are all pressed into service to elucidate his topic, which is no less than a catalogue of the various sorrows and frustrations that human beings are heir to.

Noteworthy sections besides Democritus Junior to the Reader are his discourses on the melancholy of scholars, the melancholy of lovers, and his counsels as to how one can fall out of love. And in the midst of all of this, he also finds the place to propose his own Utopia. The Anatomy of Melancholy has been admired by many subsequent writers, from Samuel Johnson and Charles Lamb to Stanley Fish.

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