ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY by Robert Burton
Introduction, New York Review of Books edition 2001
Introduction by William Gass
i.] Of all the habits that were hard to break, being bookish was perhaps the most difficult. Now, in addition to the scriptures, there would be all the classical authors you had the opportunity to cite—he honour of the first quote in Burton’s address to the reader goes to Seneca—thereby showing generosity in the ‘loan’ of the resources of your library and by your readiness to ‘spread the word’, just as you also took good care to gather books and manuscripts, diligently copying passages from the volumes which had to pass through, rather than remain in, your hands. Guided by a genius, the pages of a commonplace book could be transformed into an original and continuously argued text as Ben Jonson did with Discoveries—a form which Burton’s Anatomy sometimes resembles though it never mimics.
ii.] These new authorities, who often elbow Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to one side, supply evidence of two kinds: first, of the breadth of the author’s learning, and second, of the rightness of his opinions, because the facts that matter are still those mostly found in books, not those picked like posies out of a meadow or distilled in an alembic; moreover, the words themselves are magical; you cannot have too many of them; they are like spices brought back from countries so far away they’re even out of sight of seas;…
iii.] To ridicule superstition or succumb to it, embrace the new learning or belabour it, celebrate change or condemn it, relate every tale or tell none; or, more characteristically, to quote, testify, enlarge upon every subject with such serious thoroughness there could be no response but laughter: in Robert Burton these impulses blew like winds…
iv.] …this nonconformist clergyman, this quiet monkish man who would pursue secular studies behind the walls of a famous college, a skeptic whose credulity was a welcome you could count on, a pessimist and melancholic whose great celebrational comedy will last as many years as its thousand pages.
v.] Yet when one’s nose is in a book it is as alive and alert as if it smelled smoke in the house or anticipated the serving of soup—more so, because it is bent over concepts; it is breathing Forms; it is becoming acquainted with minds. For Burton, learning is the disease that will cure his other ailments the way consolidating your debts will bring due only one—still crushing—lump sum payment.
vi.] …what, after all, was the vernacular to Dante, Descartes, and Hobbes but a paddle to the place across the rumps of the schoolmen and punish their inhibiting pedantries?
vii.] Robert Burton would also seek a popular public, but under a protective nom de plume, in the shelter of a life whose movements rose and fell as calmly as a cork amidst the tumults of the times.
viii.] But it is the life and character of Democritus (taken from authorities as unreliable as ancient) that our coy author wishes to suggest bear a semblance to his own, and that his epithet, ‘the laughing philosopher,’ is one Burton also deserves: the sage’s quiet, solitary regularities, his ardent devotion to his studies, the elevation that philosophy confers upon his occupations, such as Burton’s ministry allowed, and with an interest in mathematics they could share, the enjoyment of rueful laughter, as well as a fondness for the rhetoric of skepticism—the same with men like Montaigne, Lipsius, and Muret, who left their busy lives to dwell in sheltered cells where their amusement at human behaviour would disturb not even the sobriety of birds.
ix.] When the mind enters a madhouse, Burton shows, however sane it was when it went in, and however hard it struggles to remain sane while there, it can only make the ambient madness more monstrous, more absurd, more bizarrely laughable by its efforts to be rational.
x.] ‘Strong lines’ referes to a preference orators had, in that time, for balance, gnomic terseness, and an elevation of thought and diction which could seem, when it failed, to yield the artificial, riddling, and bombastic;…
xi.] …it is the width of the world that can be seen from one college window that amazes me; what a love of life can be felt by one who has lived it sitting in a chair.
INTRODUCTION TO THE 1932 EDITION
xii.] His life was uneventful. ‘I have lived,’ he says, ‘a silent, sedentary, solitary, private life, mihi & musis in the University as long almost as Xenocrates in Athens, ad senectam fere, to learn wisdom as he did, penned up most part in my study.’
xiii.] Diligence and an enjoyment of drudgery can accomplish miracles in the spare time of a busy life.
xiv.] As he was by many accounted a severe student, a devourer of Authors, a melancholy and humorous Person; so by others, who knew him well, a Person of great honesty, plain dealing and Charity. I have heard some of the Ancients of Christ Church often say that his Company was very merry, facete and juvenile, and no man did surpass him for his ready and dextrous interlarding his common discourses among them with Verses from the Poets or Sentences from classical Authors, which being then the fashion in the University, made his Company more acceptable.
xv.] It is the face of a character such as England often produced in those days and sometimes even now: a competent, thoughtful, self-sufficient face, with a hint of shyness which might indicate a preference for a sheltered life rather than a life of adventure, unless it were adventures among books. And from this composite presentment we may safely infer a genial yet reclusive, diffident yet self-opinionated man, who might be friendly but not demonstrative, tolerant yet irascible, and who would suffer fools sadly rather than gladly.
xvi.] 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 civilisation.
xvii.] The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of those books which possess something like human character and behaviour, the kind of book which seems to have grown.
xviii.] Few books are more definitely or more curiously imbued with their authorship. The Anatomy is Burton, and Burton the Anatomy. To read it is to read him: to read him is to talk with him, to know him as we know the great persons of fiction…
xix.] The appreciation of Burton is a test of bookishness…
xx.] I am not concerned at the moment with his defence, even if it were necessary, which it is not, for there is no reason why any one should read him unless he wishes to do so. Burton is for the Burtonian.
xxi.] But it is necessary to refer to the misrepresenters, both ancient and modern, because many of them have sinned ignorantly. Critics and commentators have not always taken the trouble to read, still less understand the book, hence much popular nonsense, of which Hallan’s description of the Anatomy as ‘a sweeping of the miscellaneous literature from the Bodleian Library,’ and Lowell’s
A mire ankle-deep of deliberate confusion,
Made up of old jumbles of classic allusion,
are typical specimens.
Burton has been oftener damned with faint praise than scoffed at by the ignorantly learned.
xxii.] An old Burton has a charm, [T.E. Brown] admits, but only ‘in an old library; old dust embalms it, old memories haunt it. It is worth seeking there’: and he thinks it ought to be read there in situ. ‘Neglect, decay,’ he admonishes, ‘must be the fate of all such ponderous eccentricities. And to smarten them up, and turn them out spick-and-span, radiant and raw, into the forum of literature, is a doubtful sort of proceeding. They belong to the cave, and scholars are their natural friends and custodians. Leave them to the scholars.’
xxiii.] Byron tells Moore that it is the most useful book ‘to a man who wishes to acquire a reputation of being well read, with the least trouble.’