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The Anatomy of Melancholy

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One of the major documents of modern European civilization, Robert Burton's astounding compendium, a survey of melancholy in all its myriad forms, has invited nothing but superlatives since its publication in the seventeenth century. Lewellyn Powys called it "the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing," while the celebrated surgeon William Osler declared it the greatest of medical treatises. And Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure. In this surprisingly compact and elegant new edition, Burton's spectacular verbal labyrinth is sure to delight, instruct, and divert today's readers as much as it has those of the past four centuries.

1392 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1621

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About the author

Robert Burton

59 books119 followers
Robert Burton was an English scholar, born in 1577. Entered Brasenose College, Oxford, 1593. Student of Christ Church, 1599; B.D., 1614 and Vicar of St. Thomas's, Oxford, 1616, and rector of Seagrave from 1630 until his death in 1640. Best known for writing The Anatomy of Melancholy.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 202 reviews
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
1,028 reviews17.7k followers
September 15, 2023
This incredibly “rich and strange” book - as Shakespeare might have called it - was my go-to literary comfort food in the late 60’s.

For I had “discovered” the richness and strangeness of Elizabethan writing.

Who now remembers the play “Friar Bacon and Bungay” (a riot, perhaps, to the guys in the “pit” of Elizabethan theatres, but nowadays too glaringly ham-fisted in its prejudices)? Who remembers Edmund Spenser’s sword-‘n-sorcery epic, The Faerie Queen (a triumphant apotheosis of an aggressively Protestant ruler)? Or who can recall Sir Phillip Sydney’s Arcadia (a fantasy trip into a Land of Milk & Honey which he wrote for his beloved Sis)?

Alas, not many.

But Robert Burton leads us to another side of the Elizabethan Age.

The darker side of ruminations on death and its aftermath, always imminent in an age of Smallpox and the Bubonic Plague, a time when raving lunatics freely roamed the streets, and chambermaids emptied their masters’ chamberpots unimpeded upon unwary heads, below, on the filthy streets.

This was another literary fruit of that primitive time: Depression.

Depression often drove Burton into vacant catalyptic trances of despair.

And writing this book was his great anodynic gift to us!

In it, he unearths - with his vast compendium of trivial knowledge of ancient myths, legends, herbs, and the great Elizabethan bequest to Pop Depth Psychology, the Humours - some great medicine for what ails us.

And Humours are not the funny kind. These are an Elizabethan answer to our modern theory of psychological types.

Melancholy, then, is the humour to which Burton was predisposed, like so many of us old-timers.

Me? Half Melancholy/Half Sanguine - but rarely Choleric - like most Canadians, conditioned as we are by decades of Liberal Socialism.

You will probably catch the drift of each of these humours, but if not, Google ‘em. This book is an unending rhapsodic rant of hermetic lore on the Humours.

Do you recognize yourself in one of them? As you know, Burton clearly saw himself most clearly in the Death’s Head Skull which graced(?) a prominent corner of his ornately carved desk. Like Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster or Derrida in his The Gift of Death (read my reviews).

Or like Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of the great modern epic, A Dance to the Music of Time (see my review of Hearing Secret Harmonies). Jenkins is understandably a Burton Junky in his depressively-oriented reading, and has become a world-recognized expert on his book, though all this is fictional, of course.

But, you know, Burton, Blanchot, Derrida and Anthony Powell ALL hear Secret Harmonies arising from their own depressive meditations.

And controlled skilfully with modern meds, modern depressive natures can find meditative release through reading.

One great benison of Goodreads!

So, friends, in recommending this great classic to you all, I can only say to you:


And with it on your night table, you’ll sleep MUCH better for reading it!
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,729 followers
September 4, 2017
Unius ætatis sunt quæ fortiter fiunt, quæ vero pro utilitate Reipub. scribuntur, æterna or a soldier's work lasts for an age, a scholar's for ever.
-- Vigetius, quoted in Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy


I was given this book five years ago by my best friend/college roomate for my birthday. He gave me a beautiful John C. Nimmo, 1886 edition with Morocco spine labels. The books were beautiful. Keith is a helluva friend. It took me almost a year, however, to start reading the books. In May of 2013 I bought a NYRB edition (a paperback with 1392 pages, weighing 42.7 oz) to ACTUALLY read (Those who know my know I do this quite often. I find myself in possession of a book I want to read, but it is too beautiful, too old, too tight, too expensive to actually read, so I buy ANOTHER to read). I also downloaded a $.99 Kindle edition so I could nibble on the book at my leisure. I was ready to start reading.

I recently made a new friend watching the eclipse in Idaho. He is an artist from L.A. who limits/restricts his art to materials collected during the last 3 seconds of a dying star. That is essentially how I decided to read this book nearly four years ago. Usually, I'll read a book in a day to a week. I'm focused, goal oriented, and driven. I have a book mark covered in Post-it® flags and I'm off. With this book, however, I wanted to float, drift, read slowly. So, I limited myself to reading only on Sundays and only (98% of the time) during church. Yes. I was essentially going to read a book about Melancholy right before and right after partaking of sacrament. It felt right. This limited me to reading about 5-7 pages a week. I originally wanted to read a member (the book is divided into 3 Partitions [or books]. Each partition is further divided into sections, members, subsections.) each week as recommended by William H. Gass. It didn't work that way. I'd read what I could during the hour I was sitting in Sacrament and that was it. Some weeks I read 7-10 pages, others 3 pages, and for about a year+ I didn't read hardly any at all. I spent almost all of 2016 watching a friend's two-year old during Church so his parents didn't go nuts. I used him to duck out of church, wander the halls, run to the car and drink a diet Dr. Pepper. He was my partner in crime. I fed him mints and candy and he reminded me weekly that I was now past my prime when it came to rearing young children.

So, essentially, it took me from May 2013 to October 2014 to read the first partition (439 pages not including notes). It took me from October 2014 until October 2015 to read the second partition (261 pages not including notes). And it took me from October 2015 until September 2017 to read the third partition, with a significant break in 2016 (432 pages not including notes).

But enough wind-up, onto my review, well, before my review I think Burton's poetic summary/Argument of the book is the best:


These verses refer to the Frontispiece, which is divided into ten compartments that are
here severally explained.
Ten distinct Squares here seen apart,
Are joined in one by Cutter's art.


Old Democritus under a tree,
Sits on a stone with book on knee;
About him hang there many features,
Of Cats, Dogs and such like creatures,
Of which he makes anatomy,
The seat of black choler to see,
Over his head appears the sky,
And Saturn Lord of melancholy.


To the left a landscape of Jealousy,
Presents itself unto thine eye.
A Kingfisher, a Swan, an Hern,
Two fighting-cocks you may discern,
Two roaring Bulls each other hie,
To assault concerning venery.
Symbols are these; I say no more,
Conceive the rest by that's afore.


The next of solitariness,
A Portraiture doth well express,
By sleeping dog, cat: Buck and Doe,
Hares, Conies in the desart go:
Bats, Owls the shady bowers over,
In melancholy darkness hover.
Mark well: If't be not as it should be,
Blame the bad Cutter, and not me.


I'th' under column there doth stand
Inamorato with folded hand;
Down hangs his head, terse and polite,
Some ditty sure he doth indite.
His lute and books about him lie,
As symptoms of his vanity.
If this do not enough disclose,
To paint him, take thyself by th' nose.


Hypocondriacus leans on his arm,
Wind in his side doth him much harm,
And troubles him full sore, God knows,
Much pain he hath and many woes.
About him pots and glasses lie,
Newly brought from's Apothecary.
This Saturn's aspects signify,
You see them portray'd in the sky.


Beneath them kneeling on his knee,
A superstitious man you see:
He fasts, prays, on his idol fixt,
Tormented hope and fear betwixt:
For hell perhaps he takes more pain,
Than thou dost heaven itself to gain.
Alas poor soul, I pity thee,
What stars incline thee so to be?


But see the madman rage downright
With furious looks, a ghastly sight.
Naked in chains bound doth he lie,
And roars amain he knows not why!
Observe him; for as in a glass,
Thine angry portraiture it was.
His picture keeps still in thy presence;
'Twixt him and thee, there's no difference.


Borage and Hellebor fill two scenes,
Sovereign plants to purge the veins
Of melancholy, and cheer the heart,
Of those black fumes which make it smart;
To clear the brain of misty fogs,
Which dull our senses, and Soul clogs.
The best medicine that e'er God made
For this malady, if well assay'd.


Now last of all to fill a place,
Presented is the Author's face;
And in that habit which he wears,
His image to the world appears.
His mind no art can well express,
That by his writings you may guess.
It was not pride, nor yet vain glory,
(Though others do it commonly,)
Made him do this: if you must know,
The Printer would needs have it so.
Then do not frown or scoff at it,
Deride not, or detract a whit.
For surely as thou dost by him,
He will do the same again.
Then look upon't, behold and see,
As thou like'st it, so it likes thee.
And I for it will stand in view,
Thine to command, Reader, adieu.

Are you starting to see? No, I think I need to continue my review.

THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY (or Democritus goes Wild)

Before Burton begins his disection of melancholy, he needs to introduce himself. But wait, before that, we need him to abstract melancholy for us, again in verse:


When I go musing all alone,
Thinking of divers things
When I build castles in the air,
Void of sorrow and void of fear,
Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet
Methinks the time runs very fleet.
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
When I lie waking all alone,
Recounting what I have ill done,
My thoughts on me then tyrannise,
Fear and sorrow me surprise,
Whether I tarry still or go,
Methinks the time moves very slow.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so sad as melancholy.
When to myself I act and smile,
With pleasing thoughts the time beguile.
By a brook side or wood so green,
Unheard, unsought for, or unseen,
A thousand pleasures do me bless,
And crown my soul with happiness.
All my joys besides are folly,
None so sweet as melancholy.
When I lie, sit, or walk alone,
I sigh, I grieve, making great mone,
In a dark grove, or irksome den,
With discontents and Furies then,
A thousand miseries at once
Mine heavy heart and soul ensonce,
All my griefs to this are jolly,
None so sour as melancholy.
Methinks I hear, methinks I see,
Sweet music, wondrous melody,
Towns, palaces, and cities fine;
Here now, then there; the world is mine,
Rare beauties, gallant ladies shine,
Whate'er is lovely or divine.
All other joys to this are folly,
None so sweet as melancholy.
Methinks I hear, methinks I see
Ghosts, goblins, fiends; my fantasy
Presents a thousand ugly shapes,
Headless bears, black men, and apes,
Doleful outcries, and fearful sights,
My sad and dismal soul affrights.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
None so damn'd as melancholy.
Methinks I court, methinks I kiss,
Methinks I now embrace my mistress
O blessed days, O sweet content,
In Paradise my time is spent.
Such thoughts may still my fancy move,
So may I ever be in love.
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
When I recount love's many frights,
My sighs and tears, my waking nights,
My jealous fits; O mine hard fate
I now repent, but 'tis too late.
No torment is so bad as love,
So bitter to my soul can prove.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so harsh as melancholy.
Friends and companions get you gone
'Tis my desire to be alone;
Ne'er well but when my thoughts and I
Do domineer in privacy.
No Gem, no treasure like to this,
'Tis my delight, my crown, my bliss
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
'Tis my sole plague to be alone,
I am a beast, a monster grown,
I will no light nor company,
I find it now my misery.
The scene is turn'd, my joys are gone,
Fear, discontent, and sorrows come.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so fierce as melancholy.
I'll not change life with any King,
I ravisht am: can the world bring
More joy, than still to laugh and smile,
In pleasant toys time to beguile?
Do not, O do not trouble me,
So sweet content I feel and see.
All my joys to this are folly,
None so divine as melancholy.
I'll change my state with any wretch,
Thou canst from gaol or dunghill fetch;
My pain past cure, another hell,
I may not in this torment dwell!
Now desperate I hate my life,
Lend me a halter or a knife;
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so damn'd as melancholy.

Are you catching on yet? Falling in love with Burton? Alas, we should probably continue with the ACTUAL review:

Burton introduces himself. Actually, he introduces his persona, his pseudonym Democritus now.

Seek not after that which is hid; if the contents please thee, "and be for thy use, suppose the Man in the Moon, or whom thou wilt to be the Author;" I would not willingly be known.

Burton is ready to go. He has his Man in the Moon ready to start, but he REALLY wants to take a moment and explain his methods, his reasons, his purpose, his hope, his humility, his own sadness. If you decide, dear reader of this review to go no further, at LEAST read Democritus Junior to his Reader. His introduction is hilarious. It is discoursive, mocking, beautiful, digressive, inclusive, absurd, and practically stream of conscious (if dear reader your subconcious could stream both Latin and Greek at will) and gives you a beautiful peek of what is to come. He "skim[s] off the cream of other men's wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens to set out our own sterile plots."Burton/Democritus, Jr. shows EXACTLY how he plans to use both Greek and Latin masters. He writes like I hope I review and Seneca having both our sad backs (numquam nimis dicitur, quod nunquam satis dicitur*)

* I could have provided a translation for you but depending on the edition of Burton you will be reading, you may or may not get a translation. You probably need to just get used to Google Translate.

THE FIRST PARTITION [Causes and Symptoms]

First one thing I found myself doing as I read Burton: collecting words. For example:

amanuenses, fustian, mountebanks, quacksalvers, maltsters, costermongers, quadrature, sottish, vizards, pettifoggers

I could do this all day folks. Words and more words. One of the benefits of reading Burton electronically is I was able to quickly look up esoteric words I wasn't familiar with. But many required more than my iPhone's standard dictionary could handle. I would highlght them and save them for some quiet time, alone fondling my O.E.D. So, not only can Burton out do you with Latin and Greek, Democritus Jr's English can kick your ass too.

In the first partition Burton starts wide. (Section 1) He examines diseases in general, narrows down to diseases of the mind, digresses into anatomy where he examines the anatomy of the body and the soul. He then seeks to define Melancholy which quickly leads him into examing in the next section (Section 2) the Causes of Melancholy (God, spirits, witches & magicians, stars, old age, inheritance, bad diet, etc. He looks into the imagination, envy, malice, hatred and spends a lot of time (and this was one of my favorite sections) on the Love of Learning (or overmuch Study) and quickly digresses into the Misery of Scholars and why the Muses are Melancholy. Moving on to (Section 3) Burton examines the Symptoms of Melancholy. He looks at the body, the mind (fears, sorrow, etc), the influence of humours. He spends a bit of time looking at women and their own form of melancholy and ends section 3 by examining the more immediate causes of melancholy. In (Section 4) Burton starts examining the Prognostics of Melancholy, but before he goes too far... Partition One ends. God be merciful to us all!

THE SECOND PARTITION [The Cure of Melancholy]

Unlawful cures? Rejected.
Saints cures? Rejected.
Physician, Patient, Physic
Retention and Evacuation
Digression of Air
Air rectified
Exercise rectified
Waking rectified
Passions rectified
Mind rectified
Medicinal Physic
Herbal Alternatives
Purging Simples
Prepartives adn Purgers

He looks at them all. This was, if I had to pick, my least favorite section. This partition, by design almost, was constructed in a way to make it difficult for Burton to run off track, to digress, and the BEST parts of AoM are when Burton bolts off on a tangent. But that reminds me of another thing I loved about this book. I've brought up his vocabulary in the last partition, so in this partition I'm going to sing his praises for his quotes. Like Montaigne, one of the absolute thrills of reading Burton is the accumulation of quotes Burton has. Before Bartlett had his book of quotations, one of the appeals (I would have to imagine) of reading someone like Burton in the late 1600s or early 1700s was his wide variety of Greek and Latin quotes. For example (and these aren't my favorite, just a few fruit I picked quickly from the pages):

periisset nisi periisset - had he not been visited, he had utterly perished
Omnia appetunt bonum - all things seek their own good,
Quod supra nos nihil ad nos - what is beyond our comprehension does not concern us
Genius Genio cedit et obtemperat - one genius yields and is overcome by another.
nam et doctis hisce erroribus versatus sum - for I am conversant with these learned errors
Plures crapula quàm gladius - this gluttony kills more than the sword
omnivorantia et homicida gula - this all-devouring and murdering gut
Tam inter epulas fortis vir esse potest ac in bello - as much valour is to be found in feasting as in fighting

THE THIRD PARTITION [Love/Love-Melancholy - Religous Melancholy]

I'm going to take a break here. I will return to finish my review of the last partition. My family is starting to wake, however, and I've been scratching at this for the last couple hours.

Profile Image for Nathan "N.R." Gaddis.
1,342 reviews1,372 followers
May 20, 2017

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 Subsections,
Philosophically, Medically, Historically Opened And Cut Up.
By Democritus Junior.
With a Satirical Preface, Conducing To The Following Discourse.
A New Edition, Corrected, And Enriched By Translations Of The Numerous Classical Extracts.
By Democritus Minor. To Which Is Prefixed An Account Of The Author.

Readers of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy will know who they are.

They are melancholic. They are erudite. They revel in learning. They know that the world is their books. They can step out of their 21st century vanity and return to a 17th text and feel at home. They know that science changed but did not advance with Sir Bacon (side of eggs, please). They know that Burton will feel more modern and kin-like than what is passed off as the Latest Thing today. They will understand that our neuronal superstitions today are no advancement over the theory of humours. They will, in all likelihood, be brimming with black bile. They will be readers who will nevernever find too many words between the covers of a book.

Okay, so I press Burton’s book into the hands of readers-of-novels. Fine. But it’s “not” a novel ; it’s an essay. Fine. We have our own version of Burton’s Anatomy today, a novel called, popularly, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition ; or simply, DSM-V.

“Book of Lamentations: A new dystopian novel in the classic mode takes the form of a dictionary of madness”, By Sam Kriss ::

“If on a friend’s bookshelf
You cannot find Joyce or Sterne
Cervantes, Rabelais, or Burton,

You are in danger, face the fact,
So kick him first or punch him hard
And from him hide behind a curtain.”
― Alexander Theroux

Some tweeker on goodreads has apparently objected (behind my back) to my posting of this little poem on my profile. The objection was somehow to the identification of some books as “required” reading. Of course Joyce and Sterne and Cervantes and Rabelais and Burton are required reading for the educated reader. Absolutely no apology needed for this. If you don’t want to be an educated reader you may perfectly happily persist in your dumb pleasure reading. The rest of us want more than stupid tweeks to the genital region. Odd thing is though, these five authors have produced (some of) the most pleasurable texts in the history of letters. Those unable to enjoy these books need to have some education applied to their pleasure centers.

Theroux provides a modicum of explanation:
The narrower your description, the more cliched and uncommunicative, the more of the object you leave behind. Art is simply being able to communicate an object in its entirety, and it is just beyond the realm of human capability. The proponents of the encyclopedic novel, the so-called novel of learning, Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes—and Burton in his book—have nevertheless had great fun trying to refute this. -- RoCF Interview, 1991.

Censure of reviewers; or why read Burton
No reviewer on goodreads, in order that we may promote decorum, may use the terms 'intellectually masturbatory' or 'self-indulgent' or ‘unnecessarily digressive’ or the like unless and until said reviewer has read the entirety of Burton's Anatomy.

Emily Colette Wilkinson and her Difficult Books has this to say about our Anatomy:
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (1621): This is a dense, digressive, wonderfully learned, quasi-autobiographical, quasi-psychological exploded encyclopedia of all things melancholic and otherwise—a mishmash of case studies (a man who thought he was turned to glass), citations from contradictory ancient and modern authorities (c. 1620), quotations from the Bible, essays on geography and climatology, observations on the deficiencies of the Catholic Church, recommendations of study as a cure for melancholy (and then reflections on study as a cause of melancholy), a utopia. Burton described his Anatomy as: “a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, without art, invention, judgement, wit, learning, harsh, raw, rude, phantastical, absurd, insolent, indiscreet, ill-composed, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry…” Indeed, such it is, and for this intellectually dense disorder, the book can be baffling and dizzy-making (esp. if you read the NYRB edition, the most readily available, which has very close-set type and does not translate all of Burton’s Latin). Burton’s long, loose, Latinate sentences can also be rough going. But it is very much worth a try. Burton is an endearingly humble narrator who, while he calls himself an ignorant smatterer, might teach you to accept the incurable madness— melancholy— fallenness—of humankind.

For some readers, The Anatomy will be maddeningly difficult. For others it will be pleasurably difficult beyond all measure. For myself, it was mental rest. Mine was the kind of reading which is often described as “letting the prose just flow over you.” My reading was one of phrases, quotations, lists, words, names, daydreams, and melancholy, but not of sentences. No question that my reading was not a close reading. One need not analyze a friend to death with every conversation. Just listen. Just dance.

The most widely available edition of Burton’s Anatomy is the NYRB paperback with an introduction by William H. Gass, published in 2001. It is perfectly serviceable even if it is far from a perfect edition. It reproduces a text from 1932 which is unnecessarily unwieldy, having removed Burton’s notes from the margins to the end of each partition where one tends to ignore them; the Latin is mostly translated by the editor when Burton provides no paraphrase, but when things get a bit sexually racy the translation fails to appear; no attempt was made to provide a modern table of contents (which should not replace Burton’s own beautiful Synopses); there are famously many typos which persist from Burton’s own days (First Edition, 1621); and most unfortunate of all, a critically established edition of The Anatomy has finally been produced by Oxford University Press (1989) which could have been taken as the foundational text for this edition. That OUP edition (in six volumes including commentary) is library-only at its price in the multiple hundreds of dollars range. One can only hope that OUP is planning an edition for the masses based upon their critical text.

But and so when you find yourself at a bookery, pass by those editions which expurgate the Latin and the Greek. Those editions are clearly bastardizations of this masterpiece. Like reading War and Peace with the French expurgated. It matters not whether you read Latin or Greek. Without it resting on the page for your eye to pass over, you have not experienced Burton's erudition. Here’s what is often (mis)called irony: Burton made the decision, at the behest of his publisher, to write in English that his book be more marketable to the growing reading public. He would have preferred to have written in Latin, and so would have we. Had he written in Latin, everything would have needed translation and we would have a more “accessible” text, Englished. As it is, we need not be tempted with things like popular appeal; his Latin citations stand.

The selected essay for your consideration will be found under Partition The First, Section 2--Causes of Melancholy; Membra 3--Passions and perturbations of the mind; Subsection 10--Discontents, Cares, Miseries, etc., Causes. Whatever. In the NYRB edition it would be found on page 271. Here in the edition at Gutenberg.

But, hell, browse the well-hyperlinked index over there at Gutenberg, whatever tweeks yer fancy.

Tu vero cavesis edico quisquis es, ne temere sugilles Auctorem hujusce operis, aut cavillator irrideas. Imo ne vel ex aliorum censura tacite obloquaris (vis dicam verbo) nequid nasutulus inepte improbes, aut falso fingas. Nam si talis revera sit, qualem prae se fert Junior Democritus, seniori Democrito saltem affinis, aut ejus Genium vel tantillum sapiat; actum de te, censorem aeque ac delatorem aget econtra (petulanti splene cum sit) sufflabit te in jocos, comminuet in sales, addo etiam, et deo risui te sacrificabit.
Iterum moneo, ne quid cavillere, ne dum Democritum Juniorem conviciis infames, aut ignominiose vituperes, de te non male sentientem, tu idem audias ab amico cordato, quod olim vulgus Abderitanum ab Hippocrate, concivem bene meritum et popularem suum Democritum, pro insano habens. Ne tu Democrite sapis, stulti autem et insani Abderitae.
Abderitanae pectora plebis habes.
Haec te paucis admonitum volo (male feriate Lector) abi.

[To The Reader Who Employs His Leisure Ill
Whoever you may be, I caution you against rashly defaming the author of this work, or cavilling in jest against him. Nay, do not silently reproach him in consequence of others' censure, nor employ your wit in foolish disapproval or false accusation. For, should Democritus Junior prove to be what he professes, even a kinsman of his elder namesake, or be ever so little of the same kidney, it is all up with you: he will become both accuser and judge of you in his petulant spleen, will dissipate you in jest, pulverize you with witticisms, and sacrifice you, I can promise you, to the God of Mirth.
Again I warn you against cavilling, lest, while you culumniate or disgracefully disparage Decmocritus Junior, who has no animosity against you, you should hear from some judicious friend the very words the people of Abdera heard of old from Hippocrates, when they held their well-deserving and popular fellow-citizen to be a madman: 'Truly, it is you, Democritus, that are wise, while the people of Abdera are fools and madmen.' You have no more sense than the people of Abdera. Having given you this warning in a few words, O reader who employ your leisure ill, farewell.] -- p124-5 (NYRB), Englished by the editor.

And for you perverts, here is how the length of The Anatomy shakes out.

439 pages -- Democritus To The Reader and other front matter (125 pages) & First Partition.
261 pages -- Second Partition
432 pages -- Third Partition
Which amounts to 1132 pages. The remainder of its 1424 pages (292) consists of 6817 endnotes, (which are painlessly skippable), introductions, a glossary, and an index; unless you’ve got that ‘every damn page’ project in mind.

Gutenberg has a serviceable electronical edition Here.

[Hope, ye unhappy ones; ye happy ones, fear.]

Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,049 reviews4,118 followers
Shelved as 'getting-even'
November 18, 2012
While Nathan “N.R.” is in Bermuda sluicing sand out of his thong (remember, he’s over twenty-five stone and has seven buttocks), let’s talk sensibly about this book, but mostly, about English pre-1800s. Reading any English novel of the 1700s or earlier is extremely unpleasurable. The language is sufficiently, infuriatingly different to our present-day English, or even 19thC English, forcing the reader to re-learn an old style used by our forefathers. Verily, words order are, often truly commingled and comixtured; alas, unreadable to the untrained civilians accustomed not whose eyes to this are; therefore acute diminishment pleasure there is found to be in these most partickularly infuriating forms older of English there is; irrespective of wisdom thereon imparted therefore and verily futuis foramen unum in caput meum. Works in translation from the period are rendered into more modern forms of English. Until someone commits canonical heresy “updates” the language in these sorts of texts, I won’t be reading this, despite my curiosity. Philistine, am I? No. Just not mentally unbalanced.
Profile Image for Andrew.
2,024 reviews730 followers
August 18, 2014
The days are long. I live in the tropics, in a city with a reputation for unparallelled liveliness. Bangkok does marathon clubbing nights, casual sex, performance art, political rallies, and obsessive Instagramming, not 1500-page tomes on melancholy.

I sit on the terrace with my coffee and my Robert Burton and I feel less alone, I feel less alone with my introversion, knowing that there's someone else with a gargoyle perched on their shoulder who thought he could write his way out of it.

The name “anatomy” is telling. Burton thought he was writing a medical text. Which is why he spent 200 pages prescribing milk-vetch and ground up lapis lazuli and what have you.

The only thing I know how to compare the Anatomy to is David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. It's not so much a book as a catalog of depressions, with all that implies, ratcheting from the brilliant to the moronic, to the flawed, the bitter, the boring, and back to ultimate transcendence. It's so fucking massive it can't be anything other than an uneven mess. Wallace noosed himself before he could edit his big thing. Burton had the misfortune to live in an era before word processing software.

The difference is that Burton survived, and he provided the advice that modern shrinks offer-- even if you can't defeat melancholy entirely, you can hold it back. Don't be afraid to live and love, go out, etc. etc., which despite its being an appalling cliché, is no less true. I set down the Anatomy of Melancholy, call Annabelle and see if she wants to go get a drink.
Profile Image for Gregsamsa.
73 reviews354 followers
July 11, 2018

Back before the practitioners of the "Scientific Method" spread all their lies, human medicine was based on more sound and simple principles. In the olden days, when they weren't being obscured by deceitful conspirators, the Four Humours were known to be the vital fluids sustaining our life functions. All human maladies could be traced to an imbalance in these internal liquids, except for obvious stuff like a broken leg or getting hit by lightning, which anyone would know was a clear case of God's immediate judgement because you aren't living right.

Yellow Bile (YB), Black Bile (BB), Phlegm(PH), and Blood (BL) are these four. The personality you have is largely determined by their ratio. Let's see how!

1) Which of the reactions to the quote below is most similar to your own? Write it down. Which is least? Write it down, too.

"Lycanthropia... or wolf-madness, when men run howling about graves and fields in the night, and will not be persuaded but that they are wolves, or some such beasts. Aetius and Paulus call it a kind of melancholy; but I should rather refer it to madness as most do."

YB) Who the hell is he to decide what's melancholy or madness?
BB) Imagine the torment suffered by such souls. Who profits from demonizing them?
PH) Meh. Who's to say a wolf-man is less than a man-man, or where/whether there's a distinction between melancholy and madness?
BL) Perhaps there is something to learn from these strange characters once we cure them.

Write down the abbreviations (YB, BB, PH, BL) you chose, most agreed-with and least. Do the same for following quotes.

Initially, Burton was going to write about multiple maladies, applying the science of the time. Unfortunately he began his project with Melancholia and never quite climbed back out of that pit, even after standing on several volumes of thousands of pages.

"It is a wonder to see, how many poor, distressed, miserable wretches one shall meet almost in every path and street, begging for an alms, that have been well descended, and sometimes in flourishing estate, now ragged, tattered, and ready to be starved, lingering out a painful life, in discontent and grief of body and mind, all through immediate lust, gaming, pleasure and riot."

YB) Why would "well descended" people seem less prone to vice (oh please!), and aren't you jumping to cause-effect conclusions?
BB) Perhaps what is called "wretchedness" is a true knowledge held by those who don't gird their reality with la-la smiley-face billboards, and abject circumstance is actually the nasty petty penalty imposed by arbitrary mores at odds with such honesty?
PH) There's always gonna be people like that, in one way or another. That's just how it is.
BL) There are solutions to this as long as we care enough and are prepared to intervene, as opposed to allowing self-flattering myth do the mental work for us.

A good chunk of this book's reknown rests not only on the frequently delightful turns of phrase, but on how by turns it is dangerously progressive and riskily backwards, straddling an intriguingly blurry line in the history of human knowledge:

"That we must pray to God, no man doubts; but whether we should pray to saints in such cases, or whether they can do us any good, it may be lawfully controverted. Whether their images, shrines, relics, consecrated things, holy water, medals, benedictions, those divine amulets, holy exorcisms, and a sign of the cross, be available in this disease?"

YB) Gawd, I thought that list would never end!
BB) Who's to know what would really work, especially when the stuff he's suspicious of stems from what he acts like is a given?
PH) Everyone needs to do what's best for themselves, or what they can do, which likely isn't much. Never has been.
BL) All of these things probably work, in their own way. We are capapble of finding new ways that work better to replace the things that don't.

Buy this book and pull from it randomly. Value: Don't you think current ideas enliven themselves as such when we listen through another era's ears? Especially with stuff like gender:

"Bashfulness and blushing is a passion proper to men alone, and is not only caused for some shame and ignomy, or that they are guilty unto themselves of some foul act committed, but... from fear, and a conceit of our defects; the face labours and is troubled at his presence that sees our defects, and nature, willing to help, sends thither heat, heat draws the subtiliest blood, and so we blush."

YB) Bravo for describing blushing and disguising that description as explanation. I wish Nature helped your explanation instead of being it.
BB) But these things are felt by all, so isn't the difference in how darkly and deeply these feelings penetrate us, relative to our outer darkening, that speaks truly of how we are?
PH) Duh.
BL) We can take sight of such clues and grasp them as warning or welcome; it is a self-centered view that would limit the function to the stage of performance while ignoring the audience.

NOW: If you have written down all your most-agreed and least-agreed abbreviations, you are ready to evaluate your personality!

If you have two of each of the abbreviations, YB, BB, PH, and BL, then you are a totally balanced human being with no medical concerns whatever!

If not, you are imbalanced. Ill. Your fluids need to be released so their flawed proportions may be corrected as Nature replenshes them. These are leeches. Hold still. I said


Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,889 reviews1,416 followers
January 1, 2014
Reality should be snared, at least where it is convenient. Burton demanded browsers and I obliged. I did not read this book sequentially. Nor was any effort made to complete this book cover-to-cover. It was read in a flourish of skips and delights: anti-oedpian piercing and parsing. Gazes, gouges and gatherings, baby. I will return to this for the rest of my life.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 6 books302 followers
April 23, 2021
This book sat behind my chair after I had it bound, for forty years, and I read from it every few days. A great book, but a dipper: too dense to plow through, Latin quotations and all, but rewarding in pieces, like the Bible and, say, Gilbert White (Natural History of Selbourne). Originally one of the four "humors" like "Blood/ Sanguinary" that determine personality--"sanguine" being out-going, optimisic-- "Melancholy" or black bile broadens here to include what we call "psychology" or psychotropic disease, for instance, "love melancholy," which Freud placed squarely as the foundation stone of psychiatry--and now, arguably, results in crossing and transgressing gender.
But Burton also reflects on the scholar's work, more poorly paid than "one who curls hair."

Grand discussions, say, of whether fatty meat is unhealthy, or how to avoid heart problems. Constipation has a long chapter in Pt II, but Pt one has, halfway through, a long discussion of specific foods and their effects--sort of Master Chef meets Dr. Oz. "Generally, all such meats as are hard of digestion breed melancholy. Artaeus lib7 cap5 reckons up heads and feet, bowels, brains, marrow, fat, skins...They are rejected by Isaac, lib2.part.3...Milk, and all that comes of milk, as butter and cheese, curds, etc. increase melancholy (whey only excepted, which is most wholesome); some except asses' milk" (Vintage '77. p219).
A Ch on Fish, Sallets (sic) Herbs. He cites maybe 9 writers, mostly in Latin, and sides with those (Livy?) against feeding people meadows--what cows eat; and, surprisingly, against Fish--which the Carthusians ate exclusively, and led, RB thinks along with their solitariness, to their melancholy.
Burton begins with general observations: "The Turkes deride us, we them; Italians Frenchmen, accounting them light-headed fellows." He seems to relate the mind or soul to melancholy's effects here.
The two other Galenic humors not so far mentioned are choleric and phlegmatic. Many law-enforement programs now focus on the choleric, and half of all TV-advertised medicines treat the phlegmatic.
A general observation for our time: "Nimirum insanus paucis videatur:Maxima pars hominum morbo iactatur eodem." When all are crazy, who can distinguish the mad?
Profile Image for The Dazzling Stranger.
121 reviews186 followers
June 4, 2022
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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.

The original and gargantuan title above hints at the fantastical mosaic of analysis within. A chronicle or almanac; a smelting pot come cauldron of foul humours and tragedies, arcane studies, superstition, science and medical discovery. It's hailed as 'a major document of European culture’ and was so successful in Robert Burton’s lifetime it went into six editions.

This spectacular labyrinthian compendium is as word feast of a book. It had me rapt in its ebullient and exuberant lyrical flow of ye old language. The sentences are a subtle fusion of meaning, motion and emotion and are superbly fused, expressing the wonder, amazement and fascination of the inquisitive orator.

And cue the superlatives…

The preface is nearly the length of an ordinary book and is in itself an alchemy of riches amidst an abundance and myriad of stratas.

The width of the world is measured within this book's pages and once I acclimated to the writing style I was really moved by and in awe of it’s breadth and of Robert Burton’s equally gigantic effort and achievement. The book is fathoms deep. And to me, through its dense, labyrinthian, elaborate and archaic old world language and rich historical references is the most intimate and humane books I've ever experienced. It is infinitely fascinating, entertaining, surprising, disturbing, enlightening and beguiling.

The book’s theme is melancholy but it encompasses —through lavish quotes; citations and digressions—to glance at every human interest or endeavour. This is the book-of-books and a commentary of the entire human race—a euphoric and enlightening journey through each and every latitude and longitude in the known universe. I bid ye fair travels, intrepid reader.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,101 followers
March 4, 2019
The penultimate Self-Help book. The medical man's history primer of Galen and Astrology. The completionist's guide to a completely exhaustive and exhausting compendium of (now) obscure references, to Latin, and frankly inexplicable inclusions.

If he went out of his way to design for us a perfect way to exhaust us with his knowledge of poverty, nobility, love, the Humors, the Galenic qualities of all kinds of foodstuffs, and do it with more in-text annotations than actual text, doing it all in that peculiar idiom common to any English text coming out before the advent of the DICTIONARY, then I think he succeeded. Admirably.

And let me tell you... Robert Burton defeated me.

He set out to give us the full wide range of depression in this academic treatise that fills to the height of 1620's modern medicine, stoops to the depths of hundreds of poetical sources, revolts us in explaining just HOW one might get depressed... and teaches us how to fight our own depression by making us come up with a thousand and one reasons why we ought to stop this FREAKING ENORMOUS BOOK and JUST STOP... thereby relieving our -- by now -- enormous melancholy.

I made it half-way through. I found myself negatively enjoying practically every new step in this amazingly long-winded treatise. I could not find a single aspect about it that made me want to continue.

Not the science, not the beginnings of psychology, not the weird historical curiosity.

I was defeated. I am sad to say, after 29 hours of Librivox and epub slogging, that I will now DNF.


I may laugh myself to sleep. The relief is palpable.
Profile Image for Geoff.
444 reviews1,232 followers
Want to read
May 17, 2013
As Nathan "Nautical Rigging"* Gaddis would say, "the check is in the mail."

*Variations I considered:

-Nauseating Rigormortis
-Necromaniacal Reprobate
-Nifty Ratcatcher
-Nearly Rabelais
-Nice Rebound!
-Nasty Ricecake
-Normal, Reasonable
-Natal Reading
-NAFTA Reformer
-Nested Russian-doll
-Naissant Rabbi
-Narcoleptic Raccoon
-Nectariferous Riodinidae
-Nemoral Rabbit
-Nephroidal Ragamuffin
-Nominative Rhotic
-Noumenal Reality
-Nuciform Rostrum
-Nubiform Retina
-Neuropathic Recluse
-Nude Rugbier
-Necrotic Rosicrucian
-Nebulous Riddle
etc. etc. etc.
Profile Image for Jim Elkins.
334 reviews355 followers
July 24, 2022
The Struggle of Logic Against Depression

I have finally finished a careful reading of Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," along with a wonderful book by Ruth Fox, "The Tangled Chain: The Structure of Disorder in the Anatomy of Melancholy."

This is part of my ongoing project to read maximalist fiction -- really, to read the longest, most complex books I can find. There is a tradition according to which Burton belongs with Milton and Shakespeare in the 17th century canon. I haven't been able to discover the origins of this judgment (I suspect someone like Harold Bloom) but it seems wholly appropriate. Even though Burton's book is nominally what is now called nonfiction, it is an act of imagination comparable to Milton and Shakespeare. If it's read as a first-person text, and not a 17th century medical treatise, it can sound to 21st century ears as a memoir, or a "theory-text," or a kind of "essay-novel" in the tradition of Musil. (Autobiographical voicing is intermittent throughout; see for example, 1.4.1.) In other words: there is no reason not to include it in the roster of indispensable English writing.

I have interrupted these notes with three parentheses: on editions of the book, on the frontispiece, and on postmodern literary criticism of Burton. I thank Victoria Musvik and others for helpful responses to a version of this text posted on social media, summer 2017.)

(The first parenthesis: the NYRB edition pictured here is not a good one to read. The print is small and the margins are clipped. After a lot of searching I found the Tudor Publishing edition edited by Dell and Jordan-Smith, printed in 1927, in hardcover. I bought a copy for only $10. It's well printed and easy to read; it's 1,000 pages long, so it's bulky but not difficult to hold. There are also editions with Burton's extensive Latin intact, but unless you are fluent in Latin, those are only impediments; Burton did not imagine his Latin guarded his text against anyone -- except in one passage, where he makes fun of scholars by putting a page in Latin, pretending they couldn't read it. There is also the multi-volume Cambridge Press edition, which is madly expensive, and not at all necessary unless you're interested in looking up Burton's sources, almost all of which were also written in Latin.)

Perhaps an initial thing to say about the book is that it cannot be read without laughing, and that the comedy is unintended. It's an inevitable effect of the three centuries that have passed since the book was written. It's absolutely full of outlandish, crazy, unbelievable anecdotes and odd usages of English.

Yet the book is as prodigious as Shakespeare or Milton when it comes to striking ideas and writing, and I annotated nearly every one of my edition's 1,000 pages. Most of those passages are also inadvertently funny, but that doesn't make them less fascinsting. To cure rabies, it's only necessary to go to a bath and picture a dog in the bath: the conceit (why would a dog bathe?) is enough to overcome the insanity of rabies ( A good cure for farting is to put a bellows "into a clyster pipe" and pump the wind out ( Horse leeches are good for hemorrhoids (2.4.3). These days people can hardly be bled, but it was once possible to take "six pounds of blood" and people wouldn't mind (

The language and ideas are often stupendous. At one point he argues that it is no harm to be a stranger who travels and has no home, and he gives a list of things that are strangers to one another, including rain, which is "a stranger to the earth" (2.3.4). Later he remarks that the ground "covets" showers, because it loves them ( He has a barely controlled fascination with stagnant water, which is expressed dozens of times in the book, each time with a different poetry:

"The worst... is a thick, cloudy, misty, foggy air, or such as comes from fens, moorish grounds, lakes, muckhills, draughts, sinks, where any carcasses or carrion lies, or from whence any stinking fulsome smell comes" []

And he is of course wonderful in his repeated conjurings of different kinds of melancholics:

"...little by little... Melancholy, this feral friend, is drawn on, & as far as it reaches its branches toward the heavens, so far does it plunge its roots to the depths beneath; it was not so delicious at first, as now it is bitter and harsh: a cankered soul macerated with cares and discontents, a being tired of life, impatience, agony, inconstancy, irresolution, precipitate... into unspeakable miseries. They cannot endure company, light, or life itself... Their bodies are lean and dried up, withered, ugly, their looks harsh, very dull, and their souls tormented, as they are more or less intangled..." []

It would be possible to go on quoting until I'd quoted most of the book: the same is true of Milton or Shakespeare. For me, however, the principal interest of the book for me is its structure. Burton offers a "Synopsis" at the start of each of the book's three "Partitions" (parts). The Synopsis is in the form of an outline organized in bracketed paragraphs { { {. If the three Synopses were printed all together, in a reasonable font size, they might be 10 feet long. He divides each of his Partitions into Sections, each Section into Members, each Member into Subsections, and in the text, each Subsection has a number and a title (some fairly long).

(Second parenthesis: it is worth remarking that the famous frontispiece is a simple-minded and inaccurate synopsis: I studied it as a student, because it's the book's only visual element, but it doesn't begin to approach the text's concerns. It is difficult to sustain interest in the frontispiece if you are engaging the entire text: claims made about the frontispiece tend to lose force in the course of actual reading. "The Anatomy of Melancholy," like "Finnegans Wake," has attracted a scholarship of readers who have not worked their way through the entire text: in Burton's case the "tell" is a reliance on the frontispiece.)

This is daunting enough, but the interest comes in the fact that these Synopses do not make logical sense. In a rationally organized table of contents, each division (here, for example, each Section) would be equal to each other Section. But in Burton's Synopsis, some Sections are subheadings of other Sections. The entire organization is a chaos, and it is therefore impossible to use as a guide in reading: instead a reader is at the mercy of Burton's often unconvincing synopses and introductions.

Ruth Fox's book is a brilliant untangling of Burton's sense of reason and logic: it belongs in the tradition of Empson in that every sentence counts, and the book is argued from first to last. In that sense it's a sort of antidote to Burton: slim, well-organized, nothing superfluous. She makes the fascinating point that in the Third Partition on Love-melancholy, the last of the book's three parts, Burton inverts his own system of organization. Here is part of her analysis:

"...the logic of the first two Partitions is one of cause an effect, of action and reaction, so that Partition I states the thesis--definition, causes, symptoms, and prognostics--of the disease, while Partition II--under its single topic, cure--provides the antithesis to all of the topics of I. In I and II the three kinds of 'definite' melancholy are treated as subtopics of the cause-cure analysis.... But in Partition III he changes the base of his analysis, using now as his major organizational scheme not the logic of thesis and antithesis, but that of division... To put it another way, the roman numerals of the outline of Partitions I and II become the arabic numerals in the outline of Partition III." [pp. 124-25]

The entire structure and logic of the outline is inverted: subheading become headings.

The Synopses are an important example of the way the book is continuously getting away from Burton. Fox concludes: "Burton's book sets out to cure melancholy, and does so by being an ordered form of disorder, an answer to imperfection which contains imperfection but defines it by art." (pp. 271-72)

(Third, longest parenthesis: the scholarship on the three Synopses to the book's three Partitions tends to stress their dysfunctional elaboration; see for example David Renaker, "Robert Burton and Ramist Method," Renaissance Quarterly 24 (1971). Angus Gowland, in "Rhetorical Structure and Function in The Anatomy of Melancholy," Rhetorica 19 (2001), accuses Renaker and Fox of being "unfamiliar with Renaissance presentational techniques," but that's unfair because Fox doesn't simply argue that the Synopses are dysfunctional; she proposes specific ways in which they can be read. Gowland says in several places that other scholars are anachronistic or uninformed (including Stanley Fish), but his accusations are symptomatic, because his own analysis is strongly anachronistic in its imputation of a postmodern sensibility to Burton. Gowland conjures Burton as an author who is mainly concerned with "self-consciously" (p. 22) inverting rhetorical devices in order to produce a complex text, making medicine "subject to an uncertainty" that "undermines its scientific status" (p. 33), and subverting "conventional relationships between author, text and reader" (p. 16). All these, in my reading, are projections onto 17th century material (cp. also p. 22). It's not that the rhetorical concerns of the late Renaissance cannot be found in Burton's text: it's that the author was not out to produce an object of complex interest for scholarly study. He was trying, sometimes desperately, to solve problems for himself. He was struggling to make sense, and rhetorical intricacy came in tow. Producing a Burton who was fascinated with complexity makes the desperation of the text invisible, and renders its truth claims as textual effects. But I'll leave that issue, because it's a criticism as old as objections to the sophists.)

There are more issues of logical order and argument in this book than any other I know, including Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" (thinking of its numbering system, which Wittgenstein only briefly explained) or Musil's endless novel (thinking of the overflow of the novel into the essay, and vice versa). Burton tries desperately hard, in as many ways as he can, to control his subject, but melancholy keeps spreading: in one passage, everyone is a melancholic and "no mortal man is free" from it (; in another, melancholy and madness are nearly equated; in another, all of melancholy is a fault of love.

The fact that Burton probably died by suicide necessarily haunts all readings of this book. In the book, suicide comes up several times (see for example 1.4.1), but most especially toward the end, where he speaks of despair. For him that is a special condition, particularly hard to bear, because the person who experiences it suffers from a partial, and therefore faulty, understanding of god. He may be able to reason very well, in fact better than anyone around him, and that makes his condition especially intractable. One woman "rose from her bed, and out of the window broke her neck into the street" ( Another, a lawyer from Padua, out-argued his doctors, making the case "against himself, and so he desperately died" (

"The Anatomy of Melancholy" is a labyrinth that shifts and changes as it is read. (For Fox, this organic, unfinished quality is what makes it, paradoxically, able to present itself as art, and therefore as a cure.) As a document of a fierce struggle against solitude, despair, unreason, confusion, depression, and suicide, it has no rival.
Profile Image for Feliks.
496 reviews
October 16, 2018
It is fully--as its learned reviewers and commentators claim--one of the great documents of human civilization. I didn't expect it to be as wonderful a reading experience as it is--usually any book this dense turns out to be a slog. Like Montaigne or Browne. But I'm now convinced, this is one of the most awesome intellectual experiences you can enjoy via a book. Its a carnival ride. This is now one of my all-time favorite books; and certainly the best possible example of the 'what book is best for being marooned on a deserted island?' variety.

If you're looking for a way to become familiar with western history, this is one of the most efficient means, and (although you may doubt it at first, when you see how thick and heavy this thing is) it is a lot more fun than reading a formal, academic history-textbook where culture is divided into neat, clean, discrete, easy, time-periods.

The truth is, that's not how real history functions. There are no distinct, arbitrary breaks between one time-period and another. In living culture, art and science and events and people and ideas all overlap and everything is inter-twined. This book is crucial in that it illuminates the vernacular perspective--the people's perspective--of the succeeding, descending ages and epochs...and reveals them through anecdote and rumination and musing. This is the way one would learn about history if we actually had 'elders' anymore who were learned and who would take us on their knee and fill our heads with lore and quotes.

That's what Burton basically does, here in this work. A torrent! A deluge! A cataract of reference and factoid and catechism come coursing through this man's quill pen. I have never seen more variety of information contained on a single page than what is present in this work. Every paragraph is sprawling, overflowing with homilies and epigrams, latin phrases, old wive's tales, rubrics, pearls and chestnuts and artifacts of homespun history and formal history combined. You encounter rapid-fire bon-mots and 'little asides' from the time of Christ, from the Renaissance and the Reformation. Quips from Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Bacon, and Newton nestle cheek-by-jowl with mutterings and chatter from legendary astronomers, forgotten alchemists, Mongol tribesmen, and dead Roman generals. Greek myths, medicinal tracts, chemical treatises, magical incantations, blood-curdling oaths. Papal edicts, genealogies, military manuals, kitchen recipes, gardener's tricks. Famous medical cases, royal decrees, Merovingian riddles, medieval parables, verses, personal letters, parliamentary laws .. sermons, hymns, rituals, folklore, fables. The record of every manner of human folly and foible imaginable--its all here. The history of Europe in your lap.

In one chapter, Burton will swarm you with everything known--at the time of his writing--about the effects on the human body of foul air from swamps, fens, thickets, and marshes; from that he wanders off into a discourse about how each European nation constructs their window-mullions; from there he chats about weather patterns, and from there, perhaps picks over the habits of birds; or probes the controversy about 'whether the air in our sky is the same as the air breathed by souls in heaven'. From there, a dozen more equally dusty topics. Its just a cavalcade of odd bits of knowledge--heaped up in gargantuan quantities--and rained down upon the reader--clobbering the head of every curious student in a way that is marvelous and staggering. Its really the equivalent of reading fifty books at once. Every student --struggling with history classes or term papers-- should keep this tract at their desk, to quickly quote from. Its also one of the history's great repositories of interesting vocabulary terms.

Sure, at first you may find it tough going--the first 1/3 is devoted to the 'health of the body' --and reading about catarrh and ague and dropsy and gout and spleen and bile, may feel silly to some. But the second half of the book eloquently treats of the 'health of the emotions'. Moods, temperaments, doldrums. This encompasses all that is still highly relevant to us, as feeling beings: the life of one's passions. Love and hate. What pleases us, what satisfies. Ardors; kisses and sly glances, betrayals, revenge, drunkenness, rages; why women weep; why men philander; why people get gloomy. Stay the course, because eventually you will find it zips by and its really fun and rewarding. I've noticed that Burton never repeats himself from one chapter to the next, and he never goes back over a lengthy anecdote or fable--this is what makes the narration so sprightly and brisk!

Every curious mind, everyone who is interested in life; everyone who is interested in love and humor and sex and health and fortune, should set themselves the task of completing this stupendous read. This book covers it all. Huzzah! Three cheers!
Profile Image for Scribble Orca.
213 reviews379 followers
Shelved as 'to-be-consideread'
February 13, 2013

The long and winding road or there and back again or Ode to Melancholy or:

Slips soft and curling....
notes of music wind
like silk caresses through my mind
and eyes see far-flung places
melted and meshed with faraway faces
again with inspiration born
of the breathless sigh that escapes my lips:
I have come to know so well your enslaving bliss
how you enchant my senses so that I exist
only in the moment when
vivid dreams spun in timid hope
evaporate as mist-like motes
above the drowning waters
of too intense desire:
and my soul for one brief instant breathes
the fire of annihilating ecstasy.


I write this melancholic whirl
of thoughts and feelings tangled as the curls
of hair upon my head
and fragile as the spider's web
are my tears which slip,
pearls of shining wistfulness,
in silent trails along my cheek
which longs to press against your coarse
unshaven face, so tired and yet
as enigmatic as if we had met
just yesterday.
Profile Image for Wes Allen.
51 reviews51 followers
June 2, 2020
I may get around to a formal review, or I may not. Readers much wiser than I have shared their thoughts on this monument already. I leave you with two bits of advice: 1) read this book and 2) don't rush through it.
Profile Image for Chris Via.
467 reviews1,490 followers
April 8, 2023
Despite William Gass's name being front and center on the cover, it was long into the text before I realized that he happened to have penned the introduction to this, my inaugural book choice of 2017 and last year's inaugural read, the Dalkey Archive edition of William Gaddis's The Recognitions, which also happens to have an introduction by none other than Gass. Coincidence or fate? Either way, I'm thankful to have finally meet the acquaintance of Robert Burton. I'm also thankful that New York Review Books has made available a one-volume edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, however unwieldy it may be.

Read full review here: http://chrisvia.wordpress.com//2017/0...
Profile Image for James Henderson.
2,044 reviews166 followers
September 2, 2011
This is a book that I view as a reference work in the sense that it can be read or reread a bit at a time and turned to as if to reference a topic. The table of contents is maddeningly unspecific in its title, for example there is an eighty page section titled simply "A Digression of Remedies Against Discontents". However, there is a sufficiently detailed index to allow the reader some hope of finding more specific comments about "goblins' or "grasshoppers" or "green-sickness." The last of these refers to a symptom of "love-melancholy":

"The green-sickness therefore often happeneth to young women, a cachexia [Weight loss, wasting of muscle, loss of appetite, and general debility that can occur during a chronic disease] or an evil habit to men, besides ordinary sighs, complaints, and lamentations, which are too frequent." (Pt. III, 133)

I refer to it as the need arises whether due to my own melancholy or to a reference in another work. This is a massive creation of genius and a lifetime of thought. Much of the book consists of quotations from various ancient and mediæval medical authorities, beginning with Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Hence the Anatomy is filled with more or less pertinent references to the works of others. A competent Latinist, Burton also included a great deal of Latin poetry in the Anatomy, and many of his inclusions from ancient sources are left untranslated in the text.
Burton seemingly has collected everything written about melancholy and, combined with his own musings on the subject, has provided the reader an immense edifice - one with selections too numerous to catalog here - and one that still entertains and educates centuries later. It deserves my continuing devotion and meditation on its content and meaning.
Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,259 followers
Shelved as 'intermittently-reading'
November 16, 2012
This is one of the greatest things ever. Vincit omnia facetiarum. Or something like that. As another Goodreader pointed out, there likely exists nobody who has read every single page of this mammoth wonder—but damned if I'm not going to give it my very best effort to be able to say that I did! prior to making the transition to particulate dust.
Profile Image for Shyam.
226 reviews160 followers
March 30, 2023
——quæ primum exordia sumam?
[. . . what opening words should I choose?] —Virgil. 4 Aen.

quicquid dixeris minus erit, &c. [whatever you say will be inadequate, etc.]

Cui soli patuit scibile quicquid erat,
[To whom alone, all that was knowable was revealed.] —Pars epitaphii ejus [Part of his {Peter Abelard's} epitaph]

I am not poor, I am not rich; nihil est, nihil deest, I have little, I want nothing: all my treasure is in Minerva's tower. DJR
--2023 Edit
"For others it will be pleasurably difficult beyond all measure. For myself, it was mental rest. Mine was the kind of reading which is often described as “letting the prose just flow over you.” My reading was one of phrases, quotations, lists, words, names, daydreams, and melancholy, but not of sentences. No question that my reading was not a close reading. One need not analyze a friend to death with every conversation. Just listen. Just dance."Nathan "N.R." Gaddis

[Note about editions: I read this for the second time from the all-English edition edited by Floyed Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith. My particular copy was published by Tudor (1927) but there are copies available from other publishers also. I would highly, highly recommend this edition: the translation of all Latin passages and the removal of the specific book/chapter references within the text makes it immensely readable and, in my opinion, is the best way to experience this work.]
Perhaps you've found out some information about this work and it has piqued your interest, or maybe you're looking for a reason to read it...

I think the first paragraph-proper of Nathan's review accurately describes the type of person who would enjoy this work:
They are melancholic. They are erudite. They revel in learning. They know that the world is their books. They can step out of their 21st century vanity and return to a 17th text and feel at home. They know that science changed but did not advance with Sir Bacon (side of eggs, please). They know that Burton will feel more modern and kin-like than what is passed off as the Latest Thing today. They will understand that our neuronal superstitions today are no advancement over the theory of humours. They will, in all likelihood, be brimming with black bile. They will be readers who will nevernever find too many words between the covers of a book.

But if that doesn't sound like you then perhaps you'll find the following reason enough to convince you: in reading this, you'll be taken on an encyclopaedic flight through the 17th Century library, readings, and learnings of this Oxford Don, Divine, Vicar, Rector, and Scholar.

A flight through divers branches of knowledge, emotions, people, lands far and wide...
Another reason you may want to read this is to mine it for quotations.

There are a lot to be had; I would urge you to do as Lord Byron (and I) did and keep a pencil at hand and annotate away.
Once you get past quite possibly the longest preface ever (130+pp.), the fun begins.

It's essentially a collection of discursive essays with the common thread of Melancholy running throughout.

Burton uses the subject of (the then epidemical) Melancholy as a springboard to talk about all manner of subjects, and to quote extensively from seemingly every Author he has read.

And boy has he read.

But the quotes do not just display his studiousness; the quotes are perfect. You can easily start to overlook this, but it's evident throughout the work.
Bold below: Sections
Italicised below: (selections of) members, sections, and subsections.
I thought this might help display the range of topics Burton discusses.

The First Partition sets Melancholy in context via a Digression of Anatomy &c.. Burton then talks about Causes(God, Parents, Bad Diet, Bad Air, Immoderate: Exercise, Solitariness, Idleness etc., Passions of The Mind, Pleasures Immoderate, Self-Love, Vainglory, Pride etc., Love of Learning, Non-Necessary Causes &c.), Symptoms (: in the Body, in the Mind, from Education, of Windy Melancholy, Maids', Nuns' and Widows' Melancholy &c.), and Prognostics.

In The Second Partition, Burton talks of Cures(Unlawful & Lawful &c.), Rectifications (of: Diet, Exercise of Body and Mind, Retention & Evacuation, Help from Friends &c.), Remedies against Discontents (against: Poverty & Want, Servitude, Sorrrow for Death of Friends, Envy & All Other Affections, Melancholy Itself &c.), Medicinal & Chirurgical Remedies (Physic, Herbal, Precious Stones, Metals, Minerals, Compound Alternatives &c.), and Particular Cures for Specific Types of Melancholy (Blood-letting, Procuring Sleep, Expelling Wind &c.)

In The Third Partition: Love and Its Objects (Honest Objects, Charity &c.), Love Melancholy (Love's Power and Extent, Causes of heroical Love, Other Causes, Artificial Allurements, [Importunity and Opportunity of Time, Place, Conference, Discourse, Singing, Dancing, Music, Amorous Tales, Objects, Kissing, Familiarity, Tokens, Presents, Bribes, Promises, Protestations, Tears etc.], Symptoms or Signs of Love-Melancholy, Prognostics, Cures: (By Counsel and Persuasion etc., Philters, Magical and Poetical), The Last and Best Cure , Jealousy (Causes: Idleness, Melancholy, Impotency, long Absence, Beauty, Wontonness etc., Symptoms: Fear, Sorrow, Suspicion, strange Actions, Gestures, Outrages, Locking Up, Oaths, Trials, Laws etc., Cures &c.), and Religious Melancholy ( Its Object God, Causes: From The Devil, by miracles, apparitions, oracles. His Instruments or factors, Politicians, Priests, Impostors, Heretics, blind guides. In them simplicity, fear, blind zeal, ignorance, solitariness, curiosity, pride, vainglory, presumption etc., Symptoms: love to their own sect, hate of all other religions, obstinacy, peevishness, ready to undergo any danger or cross for it; Martyrs, blind zeal, blind obedience, fastings vows, belief of incredibilities, impossibilities etc., Cure, Despair, Causes of Despair, Etc., Symptoms of Despair: Fear, Sorrow, Suspicion, Anxiety, Horror of Consciencem Fearful Dreams and Visions, Prognostics of Despair: Atheism, Violent Death, etc., Cure of Despair)

Some links you may find useful:
I. In Our Time Discussion
II. Complete Contents, including all Partitions, Members, Sections, and Subsections
III. Burton's original, beautiful Synopses of all three partitions can be viewed in the gallery on on this page

My Favourite Parts

Pt. 1. Sec. 2. Mem. 3. Subs. XV.Love of Learning, or overmuch Study.
With a Digression of the Misery of Scholars, and why the Muses are Melancholy.

Pt. 2. Sec. 2. Mem. IV. Exercise Rectified of Body and Mind

The Entirety of the First & Second Sections of the Third Partition:
Pt. 3. Sec. 1.Love and Its Objects
Pt. 3. Sec. 2.Love Melancholy
Profile Image for Bryn Hammond.
Author 13 books355 followers
March 17, 2016
At one point (ahead of his section on symptoms) Burton cautions melancholics not to read his book, for fear of the contagion of ideas -- just such as he discusses for the melancholic imagination. I see this book called a perpetual delight for its charms of prose and its magpie learning, but it is about the ills of the human condition and, you know, quite sad. It may be a companion to melancholics; it may be close to the bone and hard to read. I have just perused his pages on suicide (within the section on Prognosis for the melancholy condition): they are poetry, truly, but in the way of a lament; they are a howl that masquerades as a disquisition.
May 30, 2008
The first partition, Democritus to the Reader, is a rare gem and serves as a map of the text as a whole. If you don't have much time, this section is sufficient in familiarizing yourself with Burton's work. If you have insomnia however, or nothing else to do, dig deeper. Burton's inspections of depression, anxiety, fundamentalism, obsession, the insatiable desire to know our origin, love, political corruption, hypocrisy, sex, and overindulgence are refreshing and just as pertinent today as they were in the 17th century.
Profile Image for Nathan "N.R." Gaddis.
1,342 reviews1,372 followers
November 29, 2021
Almost to the day nine years later I finish reading this masterwerk, this brick this tome from whenst I read it the first time. And let me tell you. THIS is the edition of this timeless work we have all been waiting for. Smash that piggy=bank and stack up those dimes and haul home for yourself this wonderful beautiful edition of what will only sooth what aches in your soul.
Profile Image for M.L. Rio.
Author 2 books6,458 followers
April 7, 2019
To be fair to Burton I quite enjoyed pieces of this but if I handed something so bloated and repetitive to my agent she's just shoot me and I would not blame her. (Oh, to be a man with an Oxbridge degree in 1621.)
Profile Image for Savonarola.
48 reviews14 followers
April 5, 2020
With a Satirical P R E F A C E, conducing us to the following Discourse.


Hey, you: I bet that you’re pretty curious why I’ve taken the stage under the name Burtonius Junior, huh? I admit that it seems a little silly, and the arrogating pretension of pseudonymity is obviously chock-full of folly, but as a wise man once said, interdum stultus bene loquitur, and don’t forget that omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulci, and besides, what right have you to know my name, especially with yours obscured to me? If you insist on that, gentle reader, it seems to me to be the case that it must needs be to the greatest possible advantage of everybody involved if you were to eftsoons avaunt, whithersoever thy feet guide thee, preferably to that damp grotto, that devil’s gate, damnably grotesque, from which the sorry likes of you must surely be bred and bled into this world. Should you not enjoy the present text, ‘tis clearly not for you, and I resolve, if you like not my writing, go read something else. For what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts, and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader; what vast tomes are extant in law, physic, and divinity, for profit, pleasure, practice, speculation, in verse or prose, etc., like so many dishes of meat served out for several palates, and if you reject my cooking, you shall admire someone else’s; and he is a very block that is affected by none of these.

All I can say is that I have precedents for it, for this my review, and if you think my style shoddy, or affected, or overly vulgar, bear in mind that this is merely a confused company of notes, writ out as I do ordinarily speak, stript of fustian phrases and the like, effudi quicquid dictavit genius meus. I am not one of those base and illiterate scribblers who write reviews by bricolage, very parrots, as if they were apothecaries, making new mixtures by plagiaristically pouring out of one vessel into another. I know nothing more contemptible in a writer than the character of a plagiary. Such “literary” critics (universally confuted and contemned) may be able to talk up anything, to praise Rowlings, to square circles, but in so doing they become mere outsides, empty advertisers, encomium mills, and they understand not the state of their own souls, nor what is right in this life. Our whole course of life is but a matter of laughter, a seminary of folly; in a word, every man for his own ends, and failing that, every man to the tippling-inns, to the ale-houses. Should you complain of this state of affairs, or think me mad for being clear-sighted, I say to you, justum ab injustis petere insipientia est, which is to say, get thee to Anticyra!

But I apologize; I have taxed thee too heavily, and beg thy pardon, for am I not the same, or even worse, naught but a bedlamite, Rabelais my physician, Swift my dean, Sterne my divine, Pynchon my technical writer? I am as foolish, as mad as anyone, blindly carried by momentary passions like some Pavlov’d dog, and I find myself so easily and suddenly derailed into raillery, into the bitterest invective, with the slightest change of breeze or ebb in serotonin: difficile est satiram non scribere. I hope only to lay myself open—to turn mine inside outward—to dainty damsels with sweet looks, to gorgeous countesses full of pride and pelf, and perhaps even to the occasional earnest seeker after wisdom. So since I am manifestly as foolish as thee, lectori male feriato, let it be forgotten and forgiven, and let us continue on to the First Partition, since by my reckoning, if you have kept hold of this Ariadnic thread thus far, Gordianly knotted as it is, you have most likely been sufficiently conduced to the following Discourse.


Robert Burton was a bookman first and last. His famous doorstopper, the Anatomy of Melancholy, is the legitimate offspring of a bookish mind, and although it is largely a distillation of authors, it is nonetheless an original work, a rhapsody of rags, a cosmos of quotations. Its core readership has long had the nature of an amiable conspiracy—the book discreetly passed about by enjoyably furtive coteries of Burtonians as though it were dangerous samizdat.

Although no hapless publisher could ever dream of Burton becoming popular, he has perhaps more readers now than he’s ever had; it’s surely less difficult to access or acquire than it must have been when there was no new edition for over a century: Johnson and Sterne had to read their Burton in old copies.

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is really an anatomy of everything, but more especially of humanity, and of himself, and of the “thou thyself” (or you, his reader and my reader) whom our lovable bookman quickly declares “the subject of my discourse.” Although no individual reader could possibly suffer from every species of melancholy that Burton describes, especially given that in Burton’s time melancholia was nearly synonymous with madness in general, all of humanity’s ills are nonetheless potentially the reader’s; the essential form of human experience does not differ from individual to individual, and Burton’s Anatomy ultimately takes the form of a satire against mankind.

It is clear enough that Burton’s prose is shot through with irony, but it is not so clear where his irony leads. Subvert as he will, Burton refuses to take account of his work of destruction, as if it did not finally matter whether his book, its beholders, or the policy of the times were absurd or reasonable, or indeed whether that the distinction were worth making. The implication seems to be that where folly is universal and unavoidable, it might as well assume a mask of equanimity and purpose.

Burton’s Anatomy is decisively a Menippean (or, Varronian, or, Lucianic) satire, and as tragedy and epic and other monological genres enclose, Menippean satires conversely open up, anatomize, disclose. The serious forms comprehend man; the Menippean forms are based on man’s inability to know and contain his fate. To any vision of a completed system of truth, the menippea suggests some element outside the system, much like William James’ “ever not quite.” This genre presents a challenge, open or covert, to literary and intellectual orthodoxy, to all those who would institutionalize and systematize language and understanding. The notion of a privileged person, class, or occupation is alien to the satiric logic of the genre.

I would steal a line or three from William Gass’ introduction, too, if his introduction didn’t have all of the identifying features of a hurried excretion. Throughout this First Partition, I’ve pillaged from the following:
—Holbrook Jackson’s introduction to his 1932 edition of the Anatomy
—Kevin Jackson’s introduction to his 2004 selection from the Anatomy
—A quick snippet from Brian Greenspan’s lovely thesis “Postmodern Menippeas: The Literature of Ideas in the Age of Information”
—Most importantly, I’m indebted to Philip Hoyt Holland’s thoroughly praiseworthy Ph.D. thesis, “Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Menippean Satire, Humanist and English”

I keep getting secondhand Bakhtin, too, so consider Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, and Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism seems significant too, and I suppose I should at least mention Bloom’s Anatomy of Influence, but I most highly commend and recommend Holland’s thesis, noted a moment ago.

In the Second Partition of the present review, I will try my hand at a modicum of originality, beyond my mild talent for cobbling together paraphrased plagiarisms, as seen both here and in the P R E F A C E.


While I’m evidently very fond of him, it’s difficult not to grow tired of some of the hackneyed praises of Burton that are endlessly bandied about.

How many times can we stomach Burgess’ suggestion that Burton’s writing is like talk (isn’t all writing talk?), or the Samuel Johnson bit about the book being all that could get him out of bed early, or those repeated reminders that Milton, and Sterne, and Keats, and Beckett, and probably Swift, all shamelessly pilfered ideas and turns of phrase from him?

Melville likely drew from him, too, but since his personal copy of the Anatomy was bowdlerized, and since Melville did draw from Sterne, whose influence is often indistinguishable from Burton’s, it’s hard to tell; we also see Borges using him for epigraphs, and allusions to him in Infinite Jest, and Joyce discussing him with literary friends, and further…but why do I even begin to list all of this? This sort of litany is exactly what I was just complaining of: let’s leave this path behind, and saunter elsewhere.


How about my ebullient update when I first approached finishing the book:

I'd wandered away awhile, but Burton always awaits with open arms.
I finished the Second Partition today. It ends weakly (unlike the First, or the Preface) but is still strong overall, and is just as heavily marginalia'd.
I've begun the Third, on Love Melancholy, and it is beautiful. From the endless variety of ills, to the endless variety of cures, to, now, the endlessness of love.
Burton is my Virgil.

You’ll have to excuse such excesses on my part—it’s purely aesthetic. It’s play, or stylistic experiment. But it reflects well enough my macro-understanding of the book, despite glorifying my fondness of it.

I will leave out my thoughts on Democritus Junior’s Satirical Preface; my thoughts should be evident enough from my own P R E F A C E in the guise of Burtonius Junior, and besides, the majority of readers read and discuss the Preface and nothing else.

Burton’s First Partition is unavoidably the most negative, even aside from beginning with a discussion of the fall of man, and ending with a discussion of suicide, because in presenting so many potential causes for human sorrow in very long lists with very thorough citations without ever addressing cures or recourses, the human soul seems plunged into a patently hostile deterministic universe, in which we not only mostly lack free will, but are also incredibly vulnerable and fragile, every slightest thing having the capacity to utterly destroy our happiness. Burton here precedes Schopenhauer and Lovecraft.

This is one of the elements that most influences (as an overall theme rather than a discrete plagiarism) Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the Anatomy’s foremost inheritor, from its very first line. If Moby-Dick is Ecclesiastes at length, then Tristram Shandy is the Anatomy in short. Much of Sterne’s book consists of Tristram explaining all the ways in which his life has been led to be awful, all those little developmental domino effects that went on to make him the man he is, from the sexual habits of his parents at the time of his conception, to the astrological moment of his birth, to the flattening of his nose, to the issues involved in the assignment of his name, and so on. This is done light-heartedly, obviously, and we should be thankful that Sterne’s work has retroactively brightened, or otherwise helped us see the light in, this bleak corner in Burton. Sterne reminds us of levity, which equips us to acknowledge our humble smallness, our lack of control, and yet simultaneously say, sure, be that as it may—life remains a joyous thing, and tallying our ills is silliness. Sterne draws from Burton’s digressiveness and etceterativity, too, which is also a hallmark of the larger Scriblerian tradition, as in Swift and Fielding, but why should I meddle with that, which is already the subject of many volumes? Let us carry on.

Burton’s Second Partition, in contrast to his First, is markedly optimistic. We see not only a sprawling variety of cures and consolations, but also proto-Sternean, proto-Jamesian praise of variety itself, novelty-seeking and variety-seeking not just appetites to be satiated for one’s health, but also the very lifeblood of human experience. Despite Burton’s melancholic and/or philosophical sympathy for the Ecclesiastesish view that there is nothing new under the sun, that there is never anything fundamentally novel, the kind of emphasis on variety that I am here delineating is not incompatible with the Ecclesiastesish outlook, because the very same human smallness that leads to the vulnerability we see in the First Partition also implies that the world’s breadth is inexhaustible for any one individual. We are fundamentally incapable of knowing everything, or of going everywhere, but this is good, because the world is therefore, for each person, overflowingly abundant. There is always some new delight to be had, or some new sorrow which is itself delightful in its newness, and one of the greatest threats to the good life, at least in dusty scholars of the Burtonian sort, is entrenched, habitual tedium. As Sterne puts it in his defense of digression:

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;——they are the life, the soul of reading!—take them out of this book, for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;—one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;—he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All-hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

But I may have a temperamental bias, one shared by Burton and Sterne and James. It is an existential tenor which may well be shared by all who are attracted to Menippea. Although Menippean satire is typically identified by its sense of philosophia ludens, its gamboling play with language and knowledge, and its attendant scorn for certainty, I feel that the genre is perhaps too often taken for being a kind of ideological position, rather than being driven by a particular kind of need in a particular kind of personality. Clearly everybody needs some degree of variety for life to remain livable, but it may be that proponents and practitioners of Menippea have this inclination more than others, that they are novelty-seekers in the clinical sense, or to invoke that contemporary Anatomy of Melancholy we call the DSM-V, that they are literature’s historical record of the ADHD type. The ability of the Menippean to dig and dig and dig in strange places does not suggest discipline, but rather, bursts of passionate hyperfocus.

[I ran out of room: continued in the comments.]
Profile Image for Chuck LoPresti.
164 reviews79 followers
October 1, 2013
This is possibly the greatest piece of scholarship I've ever read. As advertised, what you'll get is a very heavy book that exhaustively investigates melancholy with an extensive compendium of quotes. So if you share Walter Benjamin's opinion that: "Quotations in my work are like wayside robbers who leap out armed and relieve the stroller of his conviction." you might share my lack of...well....conviction. Perhaps I'm just a bit irritated by what was one of the longest books I've read. When Burton suggested, "I could dedicate entire chapters to this thought." I recoiled in horror at what I could only interpreted as a threat.

I did a bit of research prior to reading and what sold me was the promise of great prose. At no time during my read did I ever marvel at the prose. I was also promised comedy - I consider myself a great fan of comedy in all forms and apart from the phrase "purgative cock-broth" I was bereft of any such jocularity. Had I witnessed Monty Python lampoon this bible of quotes as they had done with Proust - I might have been more tickled. If you want exhaustive deep thought, a bunch of quotes AND some great prose - I'd suggest Montaigne's essays. They are superior in every way. If it's pure scholarly English prose you seek - I think Sir Thomas Browne molly-whops Burton.

The extended medical passages are a complete poseur-disposer and only the bookish will make it to the end. If you do - you deserve to never feel melancholy about anything again because it will take dedication and effort that most will never muster to master this mister. I don't feel completely bad about taking selfish pride in sticking it out - and I have to think that most readers that make it will share this feeling. No dizzard will finish this book.

If you are reading this for the self-improvement or philosophical value - read Marcus Aurelius or Montaigne instead. Cicero is quoted so often that you will receive an honorary minor in Tullyism from me if you can prove you finished.

I would like to have a well-read scholar like Burton as a friend. I've learned much from him. But I imagine that a friendship with Burton would involve several evenings ended with me awkwardly trying to close the door while Burton continues to string quotes together. I'd rather drink with Rabelais.
Profile Image for Patrick Oden.
Author 12 books28 followers
Want to read
June 22, 2008
A brilliant, witty, insightful book on the nature and causes of depression, written in the early 17th century. Very thorough. Dr. Johnson used to read this regularly. It's great in small doses. Helpful if you know Latin. Burton peppers his considerations with a generous amount of classical quotes. This makes for a little disjointed reading if you, like me, don't know Latin.
Profile Image for Zachary Tanner.
Author 6 books54 followers
January 8, 2021
Four stars because I found nothing of comfort in the Cures for Love-Melancholy section, but incredible book to latch onto through a seven-month major depressive episode, when it’s read a book or self-destruction, deserving a place on the suicide hotline shelf beside The Book of Job, The Golden Ass, and The Illuminated Blake. I may have been let down, but I’m still here. Thanks Burton!
Profile Image for Cook Rundle.
7 reviews2 followers
February 22, 2017
A rotundity of rants, references and quotes, similes, metaphors and anecdotes, all composed in verse and prose deliciously verbose.

Writing under the pen name of Democritus Junior, Burton begins his introduction thus:

GENTLE Reader, I presume thou wilt be very inquisitive to know what antic or personate actor this is, that so insolently intrudes upon this common theatre, to the world's view, arrogating another man's name; whence he is, why he doth it, and what he hath to say; although, as he said, … I am a free man born, and may choose whether I will tell; who can compel me? If I be urged, I will as readily reply as that Egyptian in Plutarch when a curious fellow would needs know what he had in his basket, … It was therefore covered, because he should not know what was in it. Seek not after that which is hid; if the contents please thee, "and be for thy use, suppose the Man in the Moon, or whom thou wilt to be the Author;" I would not willingly be known. Yet in some sort to give thee satisfaction, which is more than I need, I will show a reason, both of this usurped name, title, and subject. And first of the name of Democritus; lest any man by reason of it should be deceived, expecting a pasquil, a satire, some ridiculous treatise (as I myself should have done), some prodigious tenant, or paradox of the earth’s motion, of infinite worlds, in infinito vacuo, ex fortuita atomorum collisione, in an infinite waste, so caused by an accidental collision of motes in the sun, all which Democritus held, Epicurus and their master Leucippus of old maintained, and are lately revived by Copernicus, Brunus, and some others. Besides, it hath been always an ordinary custom, as Gellius observes, “for later writers and impostors to broach many absurd and insolent fictions under the name of so noble a philosopher as Democritus, to get themselves credit, and by that means the more to be respected,” as artificers usually do, … [who sign the name of Praxiteles on a new statue of their own]. ‘Tis not so with me

No Centaurs here, or Gorgons look to find
My subject is of man and humankind.

Thou thyself art the subject of my discourse.

Whate’er men do, vows, fears, in ire, in sport,
Joys, wand’rings, are the sum of my report.

This already exhibits much of what is to come in the way of style: a highbrow conversational and whimsical tone, quotes in Latin (much of which I’ve excised) with annexed English translation, apt and quaint anecdotes, and references to just about anything that sprung to mind from the breathtaking breadth of his reading. Indeed, as Holbrook Jackson wrote in his introduction to the 1932 edition:

Robert Burton was a bookman first and last. He lived among books and upon them, and devoted the greater part of his life to the writing of an epitome or quintessence of the books of all times. His treatise is the legitimate offspring of a bookish mind, and although it is largely a distillation of authors it is an original work. The Anatomy looks like a crude assembly of quotations and it is indeed a vast mobilization of the notions and expressions of others, yet it is not they but the rifler who is revealed on every page, it is he, not they, who peeps from behind every quotation. The reason is clear. He is an artist in literary mosaic, using the shreds and patches he has torn from the work of others to make a picture emphatically his own. Books are his raw material. Other artists fashion images out of clay, contrive fabrics and forms of stone, symphonies of words, sounds, or pigments. Burton makes a cosmos out of quotations. He raids the writings of the past, which he often finds neglected or in ruins, and reassembles them in a structure of his own, much as the ruins of Rome were pillaged by the builders of the Renaissance and worked into the temples and palaces of a new civilization.

That’s surely right but shouldn’t mislead. Though he’s always Robert the rifler, he's also Robert the reporter, Robert the retorter, Robert the reproacher and others besides. The favourite has to be ‘Robert the ranter,’ who can be seen here lashing out at school divinity’s perverted admissions criteria, which, he urges, is one reason why its practitioners tend to corrupt their profession.

What can we expect when we vie with one another every day in admitting to degrees any and every impecunious student drawn from the dregs of the people who applies for one? They need only to have learnt by heart one or two definitions and distinctions, and to have spent the usual number of years in chopping logic – it matters not what progress they have made or of what character they are; they can be idiots, wasters, idlers, gamesters, boon companions, utterly worthless and abandoned, squanderers and profligates; let them only have spent so many years at the university in the capacity, real or supposed, of gownsmen, and they will find those who for the sake of profit or friendship will get them presented, and, what is more, in many cases with splendid testimonials to their character and learning. These they procure on leaving from persons who unquestionably jeopardize their own reputation by writing them. For (as one saith) doctors and professors think of nothing save how from their various professions, and especially those which are irregular, they may further their own advantage, and benefit themselves at the expense of the State. Our annual university heads as a rule pray only for the greatest possible number of freshmen to squeeze money from, and do not care whether they are educated or not, provided they are sleek, well groomed, and good-looking, and in one word, men of means. Philophasters innocent of the arts become Masters of Arts, and those are made wise by order who are endowed with no wisdom, and have no qualifications for a degree save a desire for it. Theologasters, if they can but pay, have enough learning and to spare, and proceed to the very highest degrees. Hence it comes that such a pack of vile buffoons, ignoramuses wandering in the twilight of learning, ghosts of clergymen, itinerant quacks, dolts, clods, asses, mere cattle, intrude with unwashed feet upon the sacred precincts of Theology, bringing with them nothing save brazen impudence, and some hackneyed quillets and scholastic trifles not good enough for a crowd at a street corner. This is that base and starveling class, needy, vagabond, slaves of their bellies, worthy to be sent back to the plough-tail, fitter for the pigsty than the altar, which has basely prostituted the study of divinity. These it is who fill the pulpits and creep into noblemen’s houses. Having no other means of livelihood, and being incapable both mentally and physically of filling any other post, they find here an anchorage, and clutch at the priesthood, not from religious motives, but, as Paul says, ‘huckstering the word of God.’

Smashing. Pray, more. This time, a description of ‘hard students’ who are given to melancholy from ‘overmuch study’:

[T]hey are most part lean, dry, ill-coloured, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies. If you will not believe the truth of this, look upon great Tostatus’ and Thomas Aquinas’ works, and tell me whether those men took pains? Peruse Austin, Hierome, etc., and many thousands besides.

He that desires this wished goal to gain,
Must sweat and freeze before he can attain,

and labour hard for it. So did Seneca, by his own confession; “Not a day that I spend idle, part of the night I keep mine eyes open, tired with waking, and now slumbering to their continual task.” Hear Tully: “Whilst others loitered, and took their pleasures, he was continually at his book”; so they do that will be scholars, and that to the hazard (I say) of their healths, fortunes, wits, and lives. How much did Aristotle and Ptolemy spend? Unius regni pretium they say, more than a king’s ransom; … How many poor scholars have lost their wits, or become dizzards, neglecting all worldly affairs and their own health, esse and bene esse [being and well-being], to gain knowledge for which, after all their pains, in this world’s esteem they are accounted ridiculous and silly fools, idiots, asses, and (as oft they are) rejected, contemned, derided, doting, and mad! Look for examples … Go to Bedlam and ask. Or if they keep their wits, yet they are esteemed scrubs and fools by reason of their carriage: “after seven years’ study,”

Dumb as a statue, slow he stalks along,
And shakes with laughter loud the gazing throng.

Because they cannot ride an horse, which every clown can do; salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe and make congees, which every common swasher can do, … they are laughed to scorn, and accounted silly fools by our gallants. Yea, many times, such is their misery, they deserve it: a mere scholar, a mere ass.

Who do lean awry
Their heads, piercing the earth with a fixt eye;

My poor fellows, ohone. “They toil and moil but what reap they?” Not much. And Burton will go on to bemoan it bitterly, especially when it comes to students of divinity:

This being thus, have not we fished fair all this while, that are initiate divines, to find no better fruits of our labour? [Is it for this we have pale faces and do without our breakfasts?] Do we macerate ourselves for this? Is it for this we rise so early all the year long, “leaping” (as he saith) “out of our beds, when we hear the bell ring, as if we had heard a thunderclap?” If this be all the respect, reward and honour we shall have, [break your pens, Thalia, and tear up your books], let us give over our books, and betake ourselves to some other course of life. To what end should we study? What did our parents mean to make us scholars, to be as far to seek of preferment after twenty years’ study, as we were at first? Why do we take such pains? [Why lose the colour of our youthful age by constant bending o’er the stupid page?] If there be no more hope of reward, no better encouragement, I say again, [break your pens, Thalia, and tear up your books]; let’s turn soldiers, sell our books and buy swords, guns, and pikes, or stop bottles with them, turn our philosophers’ gowns, as Cleanthese once did, into millers’ coats, leave all, and rather betake ourselves to any other course of life than to continue longer in this misery. [It is better to sharpen toothpicks than to beg the favour of the great with literary productions].

By Apollo, if that doesn’t charm you, you’re a marvelous vulgarian, there’s no way around it, get thee gone, away from books, drop pens, pick up bricks, sing hymns and swing hammers. Others, onwards. This time, on the plight of the poor:

[I]f he be poor, “all his days are miserable,” he is under hatches, dejected, rejected, and forsaken, poor in purse, poor in spirit,…. Though he be honest, wise, learned, well-deserving, noble by birth, and of excellent good parts; yet, in that he is poor, unlikely to rise, come to honour, office, or good means, he is contemned, neglected, [his wisdom is worthless, he starves for all his learning, he is a troublesome friend]. “[I]f he speak, what babbler is this?” … [We are worthless chicks of luckless fowls], if once poor, we are metamorphosed in an instant, base slaves, villains, and vile drudges; for to be poor is to be a knave, a fool, a wretch, a wicked, an odious fellow, a common eye-sore, say poor and say all: they are born to labour, to misery, to carry burdens like juments, [to eat dung] with Ulysses’ companions, and as Chremylus objected in Aristophanes, salem lingere, [to] lick salt, to empty jakes, fay channels, carry out dirt and dunghills, sweep chimneys, rub horse-heels, etc. (I say nothing of Turks’ galley-slaves, which are bought and sold like juments, or those African negroes, or poor Indian drudges, [who daily succumb on the roadside under their burdens, for they do the work of oxen and asses among us], etc.) They are ugly to behold, and though erst spruce, now rusty and squalid, because poor, [dirty luck naturally brings on dirty living], it is ordinarily so. “Others eat to live, but they live to drudge,” … a servile generation, that dare refuse no task. … Sirrah, blow wind upon us while we wash, and bid your fellow get him up betimes in the morning; be it fair or foul, he shall run fifty miles afoot to-morrow, to carry me a letter to my mistress; Sosia ad pistrinam, Sosia shall tarry at home and grind malt all day long, Tristan thresh. Thus are they commanded, being indeed some of them as so many footstools for rich men to tread on[.]

He’s well aware that his rumblings and flippant philippics might give offense, and seeks in his introduction to mitigate the effects with the following prefatory apology:

If hereafter, anatomizing this surly humour, my hand slip, as an unskillful prentice I lance too deep, and cut through skin and all at unawares, make it smart, or cut awry, pardon a rude hand, an unskillful knife, ‘tis a most difficult thing to keep an even tone, a perpetual tenor, and not sometimes to lash out; [it is hard not to write a satire], there be so many objects to divert, inward perturbations to molest, and the very best may sometimes err; [sometimes that excellent Homer takes a nap], it is impossible not in so much to overshoot; [over such a long work a little sleep is permissible]. But what needs all this?

Indeed, what needs it?

Also amusing: here and there Burton will bolster a tirade with a quote, then dash out from behind his author to deliver a sharp-tongued taunt before moving on, as he does here, in quoting Sylvius scolding those who gawk in admiration at the aristocracy:

What dost thou vaunt of now? “What dost thou gape and wonder at? Admire him for his brave apparel, horses, dogs, fine houses, manors, orchards, gardens, walks? Why, a fool may be possessor of this as well as he; and he that accounts him a better man, a nobleman for having of it, he is a fool himself.” Now go and brag of thy gentility. (Emphasis mine)

And on he goes with pomp, writing with wild flair and fire sheets and sheets on the various causes and remedies of melancholy, the latter of which can get quite frightful.

I ask all Calibans, “Art thou afeared?” Is your folly a result of head-melancholy? (Well, ‘sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices that….’) Then we had better bore your brains. That’s right, I am to perforate your pate, leave your brainplate punctate, allowing your humour-vapours to sing with howlings upon their egress-outings. (What?!) Prithee, if poltroons, pouting eunuchs, and lilly-livered ninnies insist on incredulity, then hear mine author speak. Here's Burton the chirurgeon:

Cauteries and hot irons are to be used “in the suture of the crown, and the seared or ulcerated place suffered to run a good while. ‘Tis not amiss to bore the skull with an instrument, to let out the fuliginous vapours.” Sallust Salvianus, “because this humour hardly yields to other physic, would have the leg cauterized, or the left leg, below the knee, and the head bored in two or three places,” for that it much avails to the exhalation of the vapours.

Quite so. And sometimes, between discussions, he will offer scintillating transitions as he does here, when breaking from cures of melancholy into curious musings on matters utterly unrelated to the main theme, merely for a writer’s recreation:

As a long-winged hawk, when he is first whistled off the fist, mounts aloft, and for his pleasure fetcheth many a circuit in the air, still soaring higher and higher till he be come to his full pitch and in the end when the game is sprung, comes down amain, and stoops upon a sudden: so will I, having now come at last into these ample fields of air wherein I may freely expatiate and exercise myself for my recreation, awhile rove, wander round about the world, mount aloft to those ethereal orbs and celestial spheres, and so descend to my former elements again.

A long-winged hawk, ‘when he is first whistled off the fist.’ How lovely. (The metaphor is especially apt since the digression is ‘On Air.’) And after circling and circling to the height of his flight?

But hoo! I am now gone quite out of sight, I am almost giddy with roving about: I could have ranged farther yet, but I am an infant, and not able to dive into these profundities or sound these depths, not able to understand, much less to discuss. … [M]y melancholy spaniel’s quest, my game, is sprung, and I must suddenly come down and follow.

Metaphor closed, digression ended, main theme resumed.

Often the transition will be terse and simple, as with, “But I digress;” but more often also quaint, as with, “But see the mischief,” used to introduce the ramifications of a just-discussed cause of melancholy. Here’s one that’s especially memorable. This he writes after laying out the Symptoms of Maids’, Nuns’, and Widows’ Melancholy:

But where am I? Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with nuns, maids, virgins, widows? I am a bachelor myself, and lead a monastic life in a college, [it is certainly very foolish of me to speak thus], I confess ‘tis an indecorum, and as Pallas, a virgin, blushed when Jupiter by chance spake of love matters in her presence, and turned away her face, me reprimam [I will check myself]; though my subject necessarily require it, I will say no more.
And yet I must and will say something more, add a word or two, [in favour of maids and widows], in favour of all such distressed parties, in commiseration of their present estate.

But, of course. And he goes on accordingly.

At any rate, by sampling Burton’s masterpiece I’ve tried to entice its potential readers. No doubt this ‘review’ would have benefited from restructuring and other amendments, but due to life’s cares and affairs I was “enforced, as a bear doth her whelps, to bring forth this confused lump; I had not time to lick it into form, as she doth her young ones, but even so to publish it as it was first written, [whatever came uppermost], in an extemporean style, as I do commonly all other exercises, [I poured out whatever came into my mind], out of a confused company of notes and wrote with as small deliberation as I do ordinarily speak, without all affectation of big words, fustian phrases, jingling terms, tropes, strong lines, that like Acestes’ arrows caught fire as they flew, strains of wit, brave heats, elogies, hyperbolical exornations, elegancies, etc., which many so much affect.”

I could quote you an ocean of ink besides, but I trust that the above is enough—because enough is enough. Read The Anatomy. Read it. It was Keats’ favourite book, who read it “carefully, with pen in hand, scoring the margins constantly,” as I did, and you should, and she will, and he will, and he, and he, and he. So it is hoped. Enjoy.
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6,910 reviews565 followers
May 12, 2011
In 1621 the priest and scholar Robert Burton published a book quite unlike any other. The Anatomy of Melancholy brings together almost two thousand years of scholarship, from Ancient Greek philosophy to seventeenth-century medicine. Melancholy, a condition believed to be caused by an imbalance of the body's four humours, was characterised by despondency, depression and inactivity. Burton himself suffered from it, and resolved to compile an authoritative work of scholarship on the malady, drawing on all relevant sources.
Despite its subject matter the Anatomy is an entertaining work, described by Samuel Johnson as the only book 'that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.' It also offers a fascinating insight into seventeenth-century medical theory, and influenced many generations of playwrights and poets.
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