Study Guide

The Anatomy of Melancholy

by Robert Burton

The Anatomy of Melancholy Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the seventeenth century, ideas and theories, old and new, clamored for attention and consideration; rational thought and science had not yet begun to classify, assimilate, accept, and reject the great mass of learning that had accumulated over the centuries since ancient times. More than that, each scholar attempted, in that age before specialization, to master all human knowledge. Such was the age in which Robert Burton, who styled himself Democritus, Jr., wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, which in many ways exemplifies the times in which it was written.

Burton was more than an educated man; he gave his life to learning, and much of his vast hoard of erudition found its way into his book. Ostensibly a study on melancholy, his work, before it was finished, absorbed into its pages most of the learning of Burton’s time, either through his examination of everything he could associate with melancholy or through his many digressions.

The Anatomy of Melancholy is difficult to categorize. Its organization is complex, almost incoherent. An outline for each of the three “partitions” of the book, complicated though each is, does not indicate all that Burton manages to cram into the pages. The device seems really to be Burton’s way of following a pseudoscientific convention, a style of his times. Perhaps the best way to categorize the book is to regard it as an informal and heterogeneous collection of essays on human dissatisfaction with the universe, as people of the seventeenth century understood the universe, and on ways in which that dissatisfaction could be cured. In that sense, at least, the book is a treatise on psychology, although the digressions Burton makes are so numerous and involved that the reader sometimes wonders whether the author may not have lost his way.

Burton assuredly has no special theme or thesis he is attempting to prove. One critic has said that all The Anatomy of Melancholy proves is that a seventeenth century classical education could produce an astounding amount of recondite learning. Burton presents no set of principles, scientific or otherwise, to be proved, but he does bring to his work a tremendous zest for learning. This sense of gusto often puts the contemporary reader at a disadvantage, for Burton lards his paragraphs heavily, perhaps no English writer more so, with tags of Latin prose and poetry. Too few contemporary readers have enough knowledge of Latin to enable them to read tags in that language. The quotations are from countless authorities, many of them long since forgotten. A typical page, for example, cites Leo Afer, Lipsius, Zuinger, Seneca, Tully, Livy, Rhasis, Montaltus, Celsus, and Comesius. This host of references, allusions, and quotations makes...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)

The Anatomy of Melancholy Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Chapple, Anne S. “Robert Burton’s Geography of Melancholy.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 33, no. 1 (Winter, 1993): 99-130. Examines the influence of the contemporary proliferation of maps and charts, for which Burton had a natural affinity, on the Anatomy, a work that Burton compared to an explorer’s task in its examination of uncharted territories.

Dewey, Nicholas. “Robert Burton’s Melancholy.” Modern Philology 68 (1971): 292-293. Notes the early shift in the preferred abbreviation of the title, from Melancholy to Anatomy. Dewey sees this shift as a move away from scholarly interest in the psychological and toward antiquarian delight in miscellaneous learning.

Gowland, Angus. The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Interprets the Anatomy within the context of Renaissance philosophy, describing Burton’s work as the culmination of that era’s medical, philosophical, and spiritual inquiry into melancholy.

Reid, Jennifer I. M. Worse than Beasts: An Anatomy of Melancholy and the Literature of Travel in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century England. Aurora, Colo.: Davies, 2005. Analyzes the derogatory portrayal of foreigners in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, and other travel literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Renaker, David. “Robert Burton’s Tricks of Memory.” PMLA 87 (1972): 391-396. Examines the means by which Burton was able to quote, though often inaccurately, from memory or from sketchy notes. Renaker examines the errors.

Schmelzer, Mary Murphy.’Tis All One: “The Anatomy of Melancholy” as Belated Copious Discourse. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Describes how Burton became frustrated when he modeled his book on Erasmus’s theory of “copious discourse” and chose instead to base the book on observation and experience rather than on theory or pure logic. This decision, Schmelzer argues, demonstrates the change in the intellectual climate of Western Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century.