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Style Betrays Us

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton


The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton (edited by Angus Gowland) Penguin, pp.1376, £40.00

Robert Burton is one of the masters of English prose; he also happens to be one of the more idiosyncratic Latin writers of the humanist tradition—among the few British Latinists who could sound exactly like himself, without strain or awkwardness, in a dead language. Yet his Latin works are few and ephemeral. We remember Burton for a single massive work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, which seems such a perfect expression of a unique personality that we can forget what a practical, useful piece of writing it in fact happens to be. 

Burton’s Anatomy—an exhaustive study-cum-compendium of the definitions, causes, symptoms, cures, varieties, subspecies, pains, and occasional pleasures of this condition known to Baudelaire as “spleen,” and thought within the mainstream of ancient, mediaeval, and Renaissance medical science alike to result from an imbalance of “black bile” in the body—remains unparalleled as both a literary and a scholarly achievement. Sir William Osler, the founding physician-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and one of the original professors of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, described the Anatomy as “the greatest medical treatise ever written by a layman.” (A pedant might not observe that Burton was not strictly speaking a “layman” but a member of the Anglican clergy.)

To lose sight of the Anatomy’s scope, depth of learning, and seriousness of intent, is to do its author an injustice. We should not treat Burton’s most enduring accomplishment merely as an exercise in self-expression; nor should we regard his apparent high spirits and good humor as signs of anything other than cheerful sanity. But Burton’s is an unusual sort of sanity, and most of us have never seen anything like it. This is someone who clearly had no need of alcohol.

Many now dismiss Burton as a mere excitable eccentric who was fond of collecting information, then sharing it without paying attention to how interested his audience might be in his findings. To patronize him can be comforting. But Burton had a sure grasp of his readers’ patience and tolerance, and may have been wiser, more sound, and healthier in mind than you or I. The thought is enough to disturb the sleep of anyone who has tried in earnest to read The Anatomy of Melancholy and given up after a few pages in exasperated bemusement. 

To a modern reader, Burton’s Anatomy may seem to be the ravings of a man crazed by extended isolation in a well-stocked library. This is not a collection of essays, or anything else that fits into any current literary category. Nor does it feature many of the characteristics that we have come to expect from academic writing of any sort. Part of our problem with this work is really a problem with ourselves that begins from the artificial twentieth-century division between literary activities and whatever it is that academics do. But Burton was a scholar, not an “academic.”

The Anatomy seems at first glance to be a sort of anthology, or minutely indexed commonplace book, with extensive, opinionated commentary throughout. This is the impression you arrive at after flipping through a chapter or two. Even Burton’s most enthusiastic readers prefer to browse through the Anatomy instead of sitting at a desk and going through it systematically. Still, to read the entire work thoroughly, from start to finish, without skipping pages, is to come to a very different set of conclusions about Burton and what he accomplished. 

Burton was steeped and marinated in Latin literature: the fact that he wrote the Anatomy in English was something of an embarrassment to him:

One or two things yet I was desirous to have emended if I could, concerning the manner of handling this my subject, for which I must apologise, deprecari, and upon better advice give the friendly reader notice: it was not mine intent to prostitute my Muse in English, or divulge secreta Minervae, but to have this exposed more contract in Latin, if I could have got it printed.

The Anatomy of Melancholy can seem an outlandish curiosity when isolated from the profoundly classical Christian culture from which it arose. Today, Burton’s world seems wholly alien in any number of ways (except that three-volume compendiums in Latin were difficult to sell, then as now): even Christians with classical educations will struggle to imagine how the very project of the Anatomy might have once appeared to be unremarkable common sense.

So how does the Anatomy fit into the Western literary tradition? The oldest written texts in our tradition turn out to be lists. These are not necessarily interesting to read, but they are easy to consult, as long as they are short and adequately organized. The Greeks took a long time to develop superior literary forms that could conveniently preserve knowledge beyond the list. In pursuit of this end, poetry came before prose did. We often forget that verse is ultimately a mnemonic technology; verse is a vehicle never to be bettered for preserving and circulating words you can live by, or stories that teach you how to live, and tell you who you are. 

Prose followed in the fifth century B.C. as a means of mimicking the qualities of speech. The histories of Herodotus and Thucydides demonstrate many of the advantages of organizing a narrative in this form. But what if you want to record or disseminate material that can’t be shaped into a story? Plato’s dialogues have a different set of purposes from historical prose: they are meant to develop and analyze ideas—or rather, to record particular thoughts in a form that seems like a conversation. The limits here are self-evident. You can discuss any number of materials as long as you’re merely discussing them, and not trying to form them into an inventory.

Written texts in ancient Greece were encountered either as inscriptions on wood or stone, or as scrolls of papyrus. This is why classical literature is always divided into “volumes” or “books”: a single papyrus could comfortably accommodate a thousand or so legible lines of verse. But the papyrus scroll, as a technology, has no end of limitations compared to the codex—the “book” as we understand it today, consisting of individual pages bound together at the center, as opposed to a continuous roll of fragile material. You can flip pages in a codex, and skip material that you don’t want to read. Indexing is also relatively straightforward, and the codex-book is as easy to shelve systematically as it is to consult.

The codex-book thus brought with it into the world the possibility of a new genre: the encyclopedia. The most learned man in ancient Rome, Marcus Terentius Varro, set the pattern for encyclopedias; another pioneering encyclopedist is Strabo, whose Geographica demands a certain amount of patience. But perhaps the greatest of the early encyclopedists is Pliny the Elder. His immense Natural History, a compilation of data consisting of thirty-seven books divided into ten volumes, is impressive even simply as a feat of organization.

Perhaps Pliny’s most original follower, in literary terms, is the Florentine poet and savant Politian, whose Miscellanea (1489) is not only a monument of classical scholarship, but also the most bewildering masterpiece of Latin prose to have been published during the Renaissance. Politian was undoubtedly a genius, as a writer no less than a philologist. The Miscellanea inaugurates another new genre in prose, the scholarly miscellany, which is a random-seeming collection of material whose structure and organization may seem obvious only to the author. Yet miscellanies of this sort always maintain a rigorous internal logic. Sometimes you just need to know how to find it.

While Robert Burton might not have thought of himself as a follower of Politian’s, there are few other literary artists in our tradition whose creativity is so inextricably bound with learning, knowledge and scholarly accomplishment. We have never seen another example of a writer who could generate so much absorbing original material purely through the simple act of reading many books, thinking about them, and then letting his memory and imagination play freely with one another. Yet as with Politian’s Miscellanea, The Anatomy of Melancholy is scholarship, not creative writing: its literary form is driven by its intellectual purpose, and is not an end in itself.

Fairly little is known about Burton’s life, beyond some basic facts, and a few vivid anecdotes, not all of which ring true. He was born at Lindley Hall, Leicestershire, on 8th February 1577, the fourth of nine children. After initial schooling at Sutton Coldfield and Nuneaton he matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford in 1593, and was elected to a “Studentship” (or fellowship) at Christ Church, Oxford in 1599. He seems to have been better suited to Oxford than the real world, and held various administrative posts as well as a few ecclesiastical benefices, until he became Librarian of Christ Church at the end of August 1624. When he died, his impressive collection of books was split between Christ Church and the Bodleian Library.

The really important years in Burton’s life were 1621, 1624, 1628, 1632, and 1638: these were when successive editions were published of the Anatomy, with significant revisions and improvements each time. With each printing the work grew larger. Burton was a generous man, and an honest one as well: you see how scrupulous he was when it came to sharing as much information as possible with his readers, even in instances where it might not have initially been regarded as wholly relevant to the topics under discussion. Yet there is always method and discipline in Burton: he might digress, but he never rambles.

Burton tells you everything you need to know about himself in the first hundred and thirty or so pages of the Anatomy. This is one of the few literary or scholarly works in existence where all of the introductory material is essential to a full understanding of what is going on. 

You might be tempted to pass quickly over the frontispiece, and all the prefatory verses in English and Latin. Burton is a talker, not a singer, and he lacks the facility for rhythm that distinguishes the poet from the mere versifier. You would never think of committing any of these verses to memory. But the eloquence cannot be denied, and there is a distinctive attitude, approach, and personality in these lines that is impossible to miss even in the Latin. As Burton himself tells us early on, in the Anatomy’s prose introduction, “Democritus Junior to the Reader”:

It is most true, stilus virum arguit, our style betrays us, and as hunters find their game by the trace, so is a man’s genius descried by his works; multa melius ex sermone quam lineamentis de moribus hominum judicamus [“we determine men’s characters much more accurately from their conversation than their appearance”]; ’twas Cato’s old rule.

A little later, Burton quotes Seneca thus: “When you see a fellow careful about his words, and neat in his speech, know this for a certainty, that man’s mind is busied about toys; there’s no solidity in him.” Burton claims to prefer the carelessly to the carefully revealing. He cannot be lying; but how true is this?

Burton, for all his playfulness and sense of mischief, is not an ironical writer: he tends to mean precisely what he says. Only his is not a straightforward candor: he has so much material to impart that he cannot help overloading some sentences and paragraphs because it seems to him the most efficient way to communicate all of this to the reader. The double- and triple-meanings can be dizzying when you try to read too fast without digesting. This was not written by a lazy man; or if he was lazy by nature, he appears to have struggled mightily against his inclinations:

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, “no better care than business”, as Rhenis holds: and howbeit stultus labor est ineptiarum, to be busy in toys is to small purpose, yet hear that divine Seneca, better aliud agere quam nihil, better to do no end than nothing.

If Burton appears to disagree with himself at points, this in no way impugns his personal integrity, even when he appears to change his mind in the middle of a long (or short) sentence. He might not have noticed the fact himself (few of us do—only other people ever pick up on one’s own incoherence). Where he notices these contradictions, Burton declines to resolve them: there are more important qualities than neatness. 

There is a deep sense of honor beneath all the mess: no thought can be left incomplete; no knowledge can be taken for granted; no idea or concept should be dropped in passing. This punctilious consideration for his audience, and desire to be generously complete, can wear on some readers. But Burton notes that Seneca himself could not please all parties, or escape censure; why should he be any better in this respect, or any other? 

Burton claims to speak less in his own voice than in that of Democritus of Abdera, the Laughing Philosopher. It cannot be denied that there are few overt coincidences between the two men’s theological, metaphysical, ethical, moral, political, and scientific views; also, Burton’s knowledge of Democritus appears to have been limited principally to biographical data, anecdotes gleaned at second hand, and some forged letters purportedly by the physician Hippocrates. No work by Democritus survives intact; even if Burton did have occasional access to stray fragments of Democritus, his Greek was shaky and he would not have been able to study them in depth. As a persona, Democritus is represented as being always amused: this is the quality that Burton seeks to emulate in his own work. 

Towards the end of “Democritus Junior to the Reader”, as Burton draws ever closer to a magnificent conclusion, he defends his attitude thus:

If I have overshot myself in this which hath been hitherto said, or that it is, which I am sure some will object, too fantastical, too light and comical for a Divine, too satirical for one of my profession, I will presume to answer with Erasmus, in like case, ’tis not I, but Democritus, Democritus dixit [‘Democritus has said it’]: you must consider what it is to speak in one’s own or another’s person, an assumed habit and name; a difference between him that affects or acts a Prince’s, a Philosopher’s, a Magistrate’s, a Fool’s part, and him that is so indeed; and what liberty those old Satirists have had, it is a Cento collected from others, not I, but they that say it.

This is not merely rhetorical self-defense: “one may speak in jest, and yet speak in truth,” as Burton notes. The glory of The Anatomy of Melancholy is how he elevates this insight to an ideal. 

Too often the Anatomy is discussed as a wild, disorderly, haphazard collection of material. In truth, the whole treatise is minutely organized into three main “Partitions,” which are each subdivided further into “Sections,” “Members” and “Subsections.” The appearance of an unchecked stream of consciousness pouring out of the top of the author’s head is an illusion—a conjuring-trick. To examine the “Synopsis” of each “Partition” (the “Synopsis” functions as a detailed outline or table of contents), is to realize that The Anatomy of Melancholy is in fact tightly structured, and built on a solid balanced plan. The digressions are not random: they are carefully incorporated into a cohesive, coherent, yet organic-seeming whole. Burton is never as out of control as he seems. 

Sir William Osler was not alone in recognizing The Anatomy of Melancholy to be more than a mere repository for an awesome quantity of miscellaneous learning. Yet modern readers are rarely concerned with the intellectual value of the work: they tend to be less interested in Burton’s scrupulously referenced accumulations of evidence and his grounding in order and good sense, than in the vehemently opinionated garrulousness, anti-Catholic ranting, and demonstrations of irrelevant-seeming knowledge. But the more you read Burton, the less you condescend to his achievement: you begin to see the author’s deep piety, his prayerful reverence, and his unrelenting concern for the salvation of his readers. All the antic mirth and merriment is meant not merely as a distraction, but a means of diverting and directing you towards escaping melancholy, and ultimately saving your soul.

Burton’s most famous reader was Samuel Johnson. All readers of Boswell will recall how frequently the topic of melancholy comes up throughout the biography. Even if you have never read it, you have at least heard Boswell’s line about what the Anatomy meant to Dr. Johnson: “Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, he said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” Boswell was prone to bouts of depression; he was surprised to discover that Johnson, whom he revered as a sort of replacement father figure, struggled throughout his adult life with similar afflictions:

He mentioned to me now, for the first time, that he had been distressed by melancholy, and for that reason had been obliged to fly from study and meditation, to the dissipating variety of life. Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, and especially to shun drinking at night. He said melancholy people were apt to fly to intemperance for relief, but that it sunk them much deeper in misery. He observed, that labouring men who worked hard, and live sparingly, are seldom or never troubled with low spirits.

Johnson summed up the lessons of the Anatomy thus to Boswell: “The great direction Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this: be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify: If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.” The Life of Samuel Johnson must have introduced more readers to Burton than any other single source; the Anatomy itself was one of the most effective single remedies Johnson knew for melancholy:

JOHNSON: A man so afflicted, Sir, must divert distressing thoughts, and must not combat with them.

BOSWELL: May not he think them down, Sir?

JOHNSON: No, Sir. To attempt to think them down is madness. He should have a lamp constantly burning in his bed-chamber during the night, and if wakefully disturbed, take a book, and read, and compose himself to rest. To have the management of the mind is a great art, and it may be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise.

BOSWELL: Should not he provide amusements for himself? Would it not, for instance, be right for him to take a course of chemistry?

JOHNSON: Let him take a course of chemistry, or a course of rope-dancing, or a course of anything to which he is inclined at the time. Let him contrive to have as many retreats for his mind as he can, as many things to which it can fly from itself. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is a valuable work. It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation. But there is a great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind.

Throughout the gloom, frustrations, hardship, and disappointments of his own life, Dr. Johnson found Burton’s Anatomy a constant and reliable companion. Sterne mocked the Anatomy of Melancholy in Tristram Shandy. Yet he could not help copying (indeed plagiarizing) Burton, whose goodwill and exhilarating humor are as infectious as a case of the giggles. But in Burton, unlike in Sterne, there is no hysteria, sentimentality, or loss of self-control. He does not make you laugh so hard you cry; after all, The Anatomy of Melancholy is meant to restore your balance, not to upset it. At the very end, Burton quotes Saint Augustine’s reminder to repent while you are still in good health. This is because The Anatomy only feels giddily intoxicating. Compulsively readable, and even addictive in its way, at heart it turns out to be as grave, solemn and soberly moral as any number of more boring books.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic. 

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