The Anatomy of Melancholy
Frontispiece for the 1638 edition
|Illustrator||Christian Le Blon|
The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, and first published in 1621, has the full title:
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, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up
On its surface, the book is presented as a |medical textbook in which Burton applies his vast and varied learning, in the scholastic manner, to the subject of melancholia (which includes what is now termed clinical depression). Though presented as a medical text, The Anatomy of Melancholy is as much a sui generis work of literature as it is a scientific or philosophical text, and Burton addresses far more than his stated subject. In fact, the Anatomy uses melancholy as the lens through which all human emotion and thought may be scrutinized, and virtually the entire contents of a 17th-century library are marshalled into service of this goal. It is encyclopedic in its range and reference.
In his satirical preface to the reader, Burton's persona Democritus Junior explains, "I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy." This is characteristic of the author's style, which often supersedes the book's strengths as a medical text or historical document as its main source of appeal to admirers. Both satirical and serious in tone, the Anatomy is "vitalized by (Burton's) pervading humour", and Burton's digressive and inclusive style, often verging on a stream of consciousness, consistently informs and animates the text. In addition to the author's techniques, the Anatomy's vast breadth – addressing topics such as digestion, goblins, the geography of America, and others – make it a valuable contribution to multiple research disciplines.
Burton was an obsessive rewriter of his work and published five revised and expanded editions of The Anatomy of Melancholy during his lifetime. It has often been out of print, most notably between 1676 and 1800. Because no original manuscript of the Anatomy has survived, later reprints have drawn more or less faithfully from the editions published during Burton's life. Early editions are now in the public domain, with several available in their entirety from a number of online sources such as Project Gutenberg. In recent years, increased interest in the book, combined with its status as a public domain work, has resulted in a number of new print editions, most recently a 2001 reprinting of the 1932 edition by The New York Review of Books under its NYRB Classics imprint (ISBN 0-940322-66-8).
Burton defined his subject as follows:
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 forwardness 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 The four humours, 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.
For a short cut to the text, see the following insert:
- Nicholas Lezard (17 August 2001). "The Book to End All Books". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
- Émile Legouis, A History of English Literature (1926)
- The Complete Review discussion of The Anatomy of Melancholy
- William H. Gass, Introduction to The Anatomy of Melancholy, New York Review of Books 2001 ISBN 0-940322-66-8