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A hotch-potch, deceptively organised treatise on melancholy.
on 4 June 2000
Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy was the pinnacle of the trend for treatises in the 17th century. This wide-ranging tome speculates on the causes and effects of melancholy, and in so doing broaches many social and historical questions in an idiosyncratic and anecdotal style.
From time to time, Burton was afflicted by melancholy and he confesses in his introduction (Democritus to the Reader) that he wrote the Anatomy to relieve his own melancholy. It seems that the treatment was successful, because his contemporaries regarded him as a 'good-humoured pessimist'.
The Anatomy is the offspring of a bookish mind: Hallam states that it is "a sweeping of the miscellaneous literature from the Bodleian Library". Indeed, Burton devoured the Bodleian and the end result does have an air of jumble and deliberate confusion about it, but this is one of its greatest charms. However, it runs to half a million words, and is therefore, no haphazardly slapped together pamphlet.
The chapter titles of the book are intriguing enough in their own right: 'Self-Love, Pride, Vainglory'; 'Stories of Possession' and the reassuringly named 'Miseries of Scholars'! The latter chapter makes interesting reading for me - a poor, beleaguered 'scholar'. One quotation speaks particularly strongly "Hoc est cur palles? Cur quis non prandeat hoc est?", which Burton kindly translates as "Is it for this that we have pale faces and do without our breakfasts?" and perhaps more closer to the bone..."Quid tantum insanis juvant impallescere chartis?", which translates as "Why lose the colour of our youthful age by constant bending o'er the stupid page?". Yes. My thoughts exactly.
The work is divided into three main portions: the first defines and describes various kinds of melancholy; the second puts forward various cures; and the third analyses love melancholy and religious melancholy. Each has a distinct air about it; the first is quite straightforward and discursive in tone, beginning at the beginning with 'Man's Fall'. The second portion draws on many of the scientific hypotheses of the time, and old and new philosophies; and the last of the three is the most contemplative in mood, drawing more from conventionally literary sources. The end result is a lucky-bag, as Holbrook Jackson rightly states: "whether you are a plagiarist, legitimately predatory, or an adventurous reader, like Dr. Johnson, whom it 'took out of bed two hours sooner than he wanted to rise.'".