*The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, 1621

Robert Burton

Robert Burton



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The Anatomy of Melancholy

by Robert Burton, 1621; subsequent revised editions
Robert Burton (1577–1640) was one of the most prolific essayists of the 17th century.
He published only one book; yet that book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, was his life’s work. Nor did that single volume cramp the range of his style, which flowed, he wrote in his preface, “now serious, then light; now comical, then satirical; now more elaborate, then remiss, as the present subject required, or as at that time I was affected.” Burton’s claims for the variety of his style are not exaggerated. The title of the work suggests a twofold narrowness of focus, yet Burton somehow escapes the confines of both types of
The first restriction is a structural one suggested by Anatomy: an anatomy is both analytical and synthetic, distinguishing a thing into its constituent parts, and highlighting relationships of each to each and each to the whole. Such a genre suggests a clinical, scientific style, which Burton supplies where necessary: “The upper of the hypochondries, in whose right side is the liver, the left the spleen; from which is denominated hypochondriacal melancholy.” Yet within each of the compartments of the anatomy Burton feels free to indulge a more personal, subjective style, echoing his preface, wherein he urges the reader not to read his book, for “‘Tis not worth the reading” and “thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself.” Further freedom comes from the nature of anatomy: interconnecting all aspects of melancholy not only allows but requires Burton to touch on a variety of subtopics.
The limitation of the major topic presents the second restriction, one of content. Yet in Burton’s treatment, to write about melancholy is to write about the human condition, the subject of all great writing. To discuss melancholy is to discuss war, love, religion, imagination, sorrow, fear, or virtually any other essential element of human nature.
Within the rigid structure of the anatomy Burton has imbedded essays on topics as manifold as Montaigne’s or Bacon’s.
While Burton’s style may vary from scientific to personal, one element is constant: his prose is macaronic, playing Latin off against English. To some extent, this is true of almost all Jacobean prose: Latin intrudes more or less naturally in the works of educated writers of all European languages in the 17th century. Yet what is remarkable about Burton’s Latinity is that it confines itself to parenthetical quotations and, sometimes, to word order: it has comparatively little effect on his diction. The Latinate “inkhorn” terms so prevalent in the writings of his contemporaries appear much less frequently in Burton’s, and those that do tend to be personal favorites used habitually rather than nonce-words. For every constringe, clancular, or calamistrate in Burton’s prose, we find half a dozen Anglo-Saxon colloquialisms such as gubber-tushed, fuzzled, or dizzard. The native vocabulary increases his verbal range, as English, in his century as in ours, has by far the largest vocabulary of any European language: to confine oneself to Latinate diction, even with inkhorn neologisms, is to narrow one’s range severely in comparison to English. Burton’s sentence structure also tends to be less Latinate than that of many contemporaries; rarely subordinating, his clauses and phrases tend to progress by apposition or accretion.
Structurally Burton’s style illustrates the early 17th-century reaction to the Elizabethan imitations of Cicero’s Latin style. Ciceronian prose triumphed in the periodic sentence, lengthy constructions filled out by subordinate clauses and balanced antitheses. Burton and many of his contemporaries (particularly John Donne in his sermons, and Sir Thomas Browne) imitated the contrasting Silver Age style of Seneca and Tacitus, characterized by epigrammatic concision. The epigrammatic unit of Burton’s Senecan style, however, was usually the clause, not the sentence, making his sentences as long as any Ciceronian period, but less symmetrical. The lack of balance and parallelism created the illusion of spontaneity; parallelism is obviously an artistic choice, whereas a Burtonian list or parenthesis sounds like a sudden outburst.
The impression of spontaneity and colloquialism in Burton’s prose is all the more delightful for its ironic context: The Anatomy of Melancholy is a bookworm’s distillation of a long life spent in libraries. The word “anatomy” suggests a logical order which this particular anatomy demonstrates only on the surface, in its table of contents and chapter headings. Within an individual topic, which can often be considered a separate essay, Burton’s organizing principle seems to be not logical connection but rather free association. One anecdote suggests another, tangentially related, which suggests another, related more to the second than the first, so that a section might end quite a distance from its starting point. This syntactical looseness makes Burton’s prose sound quite modern to many 20th-century critics.


The Anatomy of Melancholy, What It Is, 1621; revised editions, 1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, 1651; edited by Holbrook Jackson, 1932, and Thomas C.Faulkner, Nicolas K.Kiessling,
and Rhonda L.Blair, 3 vols., 1989–94
Further Reading
Babb, Lawrence, Sanity in Bedlam: A Study of Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy”, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1959
Browne, Robert M., “Robert Burton and the New Cosmology,” Modern Language
Quarterly 13 (1952):131–48
Burgess, Anthony, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” Horizon 12, (Autumn 1970):48–53
Colie, Rosalie, “Some Notes on Burton’s Erasmus,” Renaissance Quarterly 20 (1967):335–41
Evans, Bergen, The Psychiatry of Robert Burton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1944
Fox, Ruth A., The Tangled Chain: The Structure of Disorder in the “Anatomy of Melancholy”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976
Gardiner, Judith Kegan, “Elizabethan Psychology and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 38 (1977):373–88
Gottlieb, Hans Jordan, Robert Burton’s Knowledge of English Poetry, Berkeley:
University of California, 1937
Korkowski, Bud, “Genre and Satiric Strategy in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy” Genre
8 (1979):74–87
Mueller, William R., The Anatomy of Robert Burton’s England, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952
Osler, Sir William, “Robert Burton: The Man, His Book, His Library,” Oxford
Bibliographical Society, Proceedings and Papers 1 (1912–26):162–90
Simon, Jean Robert, Robert Burton (1577–1640) et “L’Anatomie de la Mélancolie”, Paris: Didier, 1964
Traister, Barbara H., “New Evidence About Burton’s Melancholy,” Renaissance
Quarterly 29 (1976):66–70

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