Robert Burton

views updated May 14 2018

Robert Burton

The English scholar and clergyman Robert Burton (1577-1640) wrote "The Anatomy of Melancholy," an analysis of the symptoms, causes, and cures of the melancholic temperament.

Robert Burton was born at Lindley, Leicestershire, on Feb. 8, 1577. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1593 but transferred to Christ Church. In 1599 he was elected a fellow at Christ Church, where he remained until his death on Jan. 25, 1640. He received three degrees: bachelor of arts, master of arts, and finally bachelor of divinity in 1611. He presumably did some tutoring at Christ Church, and from 1626 he acted as its librarian. He served as vicar of St. Thomas's Church in suburban Oxford (1616-1640) and conducted some services there. He was a bright conversationalist, took delight in nature, and enjoyed visits to relatives and friends.

Burton's Latin comedy Philosophaster (written in 1605 and later revised) was performed successfully at Christ Church in 1618. But he devoted most of his life to composing and augmenting his major opus, The Anatomy of Melancholy. This work was first published in 1621, and later editions (1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, and 1651) incorporated Burton's revisions. Its modern relevance would be obvious if it were retitled "An Analysis of the Blues" or "The Psychology and Cure of Depression."

In the Anatomy Burton uses the device of a fictitious author, Democritus Junior. The utopia, which he includes in the introductory section and which is the first example of this genre to be written by an English author, shows acute awareness of economic abuses and practical remedies. He advocates a planned, capitalistic society which makes maximum use of resources of men and materials, and he cogently analyzes England's faults, treating them as a sort of national melancholia.

Burton then presents an exhaustive medical analysis of the disease of melancholy based on the old theory that a healthy body contains a proper balance of four "humors," or fluids: phlegm, blood, choler, and black bile. Imbalance makes a man phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, or, if the excess is black bile, melancholy. The melancholy man could be introspective like Hamlet, or mildly eccentric and able to enjoy a good cry like Jacques in Shakespeare's As You Like It, or healthily contemplative like Milton's II Penseroso.

Next, larding his text with quotations from "authorities," Burton explores the cures of melancholy. Underlying his jaunty erudition is common sense: be moderate in diet; enjoy sex reasonably and morally; get plenty of fresh air and exercise; keep the bowels moving; and avoid strain and worry or learn how to cope with them. The final section deals with the melancholy evoked by love, jealousy, and religion.

Burton's usual style is diffuse and amiable, but he is also capable of magnificent, carefully structured baroque prose—for example, the section "Man's Excellency." His style and persona owe a debt to Montaigne, his satire to Erasmus. His contents include a variety of prose genres, the equivalents of essays, character sketches, sermons, and treatises.

Burton's range is encyclopedic, including the new and the old science, medical lore of previous ages, geography, philosophy, and current literature. John Milton echoed him; Laurence Sterne pillaged his erudition; the Anatomy got Samuel Johnson "out of bed two hours earlier"; Lord Byron found it the easiest means of acquiring "a reputation of being well read"; Charles Lamb loved the "fantastic, great old man"; John Keats based "Lamia" on one of Burton's passages; and Sir William Osler praised the "golden compilation" as the greatest medical treatise written by a layman.

The Anatomy is a tome to be browsed in for delight or to be mined for 17th-century views on almost any subject, from witchcraft and attitudes toward women to theories on laughter and concepts of imagination and fancy. It is both a key to the early Stuart period and, because of its underlying common sense and humanity, a book for all times.

Further Reading

The three-volume edition of Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, edited by Holbrook Jackson (1932), retains Burton's quotations in Latin and inserts English translations of them. A well-chosen volume of selections from this work is Lawrence Babb, ed., The Anatomy of Melancholy (1965). Babb's Sanity in Bedlam: A Study of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1959) is an excellent introduction to the scholarship on Burton's work. Bergen Evans, The Psychiatry of Robert Burton (1944), dispels the old notion that the Anatomy is quaint erudition and finds Burton a sound psychologist and relevant today. William R. Mueller, The Anatomy of Robert Burton's England (1952), is useful on style and social ideas. □

Robert Burton

views updated May 09 2018

Robert Burton


British clergyman, author, and Oxford dean of divinity best known for his astute observations and descriptions of depressive disorders in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). This treatise, which influenced English writing, outlined the causes, symptoms, and cures of depression, although some of the etiologies were attributed to myth rather than fact. Similar in tone to Augustine's Confessions, Burton's self-reflective point of view provides insight into his own melancholia.