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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Robert Burton (1577–1640)

THERE are some books of which every reader knows the names, but of whose contents few know anything, excepting as the same may have come to them filtered through the work of others. Of these, Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ is one of the most marked instances. It is a vast storehouse from which subsequent authors have always drawn and continue to draw, even as Burton himself drew from others,—though without always giving the credit which with him was customary. Few would now have the courage to read it through, and probably fewer still could say with Dr. Johnson that it “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”

Of Robert Burton himself very little is known. He was born in 1577, a few years later than Shakespeare,—probably at Lindley, in Leicestershire; and died at Oxford in 1640. He had some schooling at Sutton Coldfield in Warwickshire, and was sent to Brasenose College at Oxford in 1593; was elected a student at Christ Church College in 1599, and took his degree of B. D. in 1614. He was then thirty-seven years of age. Why he should have been so long in reaching his degree, does not appear. Two years later he was presented by the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church to the vicarage of St. Thomas in the suburbs of Oxford. To this, about 1630, through presentation by George, Lord Berkeley, was added the rectory of Segrave in Leicestershire, and he retained both livings until his death. This is about the sum and substance of his known history. Various legends remain regarding him; as, that he was very good and jolly company, a most learned scholar, very ready in quotations from the poets and classical authors,—and indeed no reader of the ‘Anatomy’ could imagine otherwise. Yet was he of a melancholy disposition, and it is said that “he composed this book with a view of relieving his own melancholy, but increased it to such a degree that nothing could make him laugh but going to the foot-bridge and hearing the ribaldry of the bargemen, which rarely failed to throw him into a violent fit of laughter.” He says himself, “I write of melancholy, by being busie, to avoid melancholy.” He was expert in the calculation of nativities, and cast his own horoscope; having determined in which, the time at which his death should occur, it was afterward shrewdly believed that he took measures to insure the fulfillment of the prophecy.

His life was almost wholly spent in his study at Oxford. He was a wide and curious reader, and the book to the composition of which he devoted himself quotes authorities without end. All was fish which came to his net: divines, poets, astrologists, doctors, philosophers, men of science, travelers, romancers—he draws from the whole range of literature; and often page after page—scores and hundreds of pages,—is filled with quotations, sometimes of two or three words only, sometimes translated and sometimes not, an almost inextricable network of facts, of fancies, and of phrases. He says: “As those old Romans rob’d all the cities of the world, to set out their bad-sited Rome, we skim off the cream of other men’s wits, pick the choice flowers of their till’d gardens to set out our own steril plots.”

Yet when he sets about it, his handling is steady and assured, and he has distinctly the literary touch, as well as the marks of genius; having a very great quaintness withal. The title of his famous book is ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy. What It Is, with All the Kinds, Causes, Symptoms, Prognostics, and several Cures of it. In three Partitions. With their several Sections, Members, and Sub-sections, Philosophically, Medically, Historically Opened and Cut Up. By Democritus Junior.’ The first edition appears to have been issued in 1621. He continued to modify and enlarge it from time to time throughout his life; and for the sixth edition, which appeared some years after his death, he prepared a long address to the reader, describing his student life, accounting for his choice of subject, and full of quaint fancies and scathing criticisms of the ill habits and weaknesses of mankind.

“Melancholy” means with Burton Melancholia, but it means also all sorts of insanity, and apparently all affections of the mind or spirit, sane or insane. On the one hand he heaps up, in page after page and chapter after chapter, all the horrid ills to which flesh is heir, or which it cultivates for itself, and paints the world as a very pandemonium of evil and outrage. And anon the air blows soft and sweet, the birds sing, both brotherly love and domestic happiness are possible, and

  • “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.”
  • To the first volume is prefixed ‘The Author’s Abstract of Melancholy,’ beginning:—

  • “When I go musing all alone,
  • Thinking of divers things foreknown,
  • When I build castles in the ayr,
  • Void of sorrow and void of feare
  • Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet,
  • Methinks the time runs very fleet.
  • All my joys to this are folly,
  • Naught so sweet as melancholy.”
  • It does not need an expert to tell, after reading this, whence Milton drew the suggestion of ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso.’