Anatomy Of Melancholy: Democritus Junior To The Reader "All Poets Are Mad"

Robert Burton

"All Poets Are Mad"

Context: The seventeenth century was a time of intellectual ferment when scholars tried to master all they could of human knowledge. Burton called himself Democritus Junior, after the Greek philosopher of the fifth and fourth centuries B. C. who, besides studying the physical world and theorizing about atoms, held that the true end of life was happiness achieved through inner tranquility. Burton's book has no special theme or thesis, but into it he poured his immense sum of learning. A lengthy introduction, "Democritus Junior to the Reader," is a satirical catalog of the follies of mankind. Parts sound very modern: the injustice of a system where a lawyer gets more money in a day than a philosopher in a year, and where wise men are degraded and fools preferred. He gives his recipe for a New Utopia. Quoting Tully (Cicero), he writes: "I prefer silent Wisdom to talkative Folly," He gives his own opinions, sometimes footnoting them by references to ancient writers, many of whom are no longer mentioned in the most minute biographical volumes. Frascatorious (1483–1553) was an Italian physician and poet whose long poem about Syphilis gave that disease its name. Scaliger (1484–1558) wrote Poetics (published in 1561).

. . . I esteem a man wise, not according to his words but to his deeds. Make the best of him, a good orator is a turn-coat, an evil man, his tongue is set to sale, he is a mere voice, as he said of a nightingale, gives a voice without thought, an hyperbolical liar, a flatterer, a parasite, and as Amnianus Marcellinus will, a corrupting cozener, one that doth more mischief by his fair speech, than he that bribes by money; for a man may with more facility avoid him that circumvents by money, than he that deceives by glozing terms; which made Socrates so much abhor and explode them. Frascatorius, a famous poet, freely grants all Poets to be mad; so doth Scaliger, and who doth not? Either mad or making verses (saith Horace); (saith Virgil) it pleases one to be mad, i.e., to make verses; So Servius interprets it, all Poets are mad. . . .