The Anatomy of Melancholy "To Set A Candle In The Sun"

Robert Burton

"To Set A Candle In The Sun"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: So vast an outpouring of learning, whimsy, wit, sentiment, and noble ideas has rarely been expressed with satire and irony in one book as the Reverend Robert Burton, clergyman and instructor at Christ Church College, Oxford, crowded into his Anatomy of Melancholy. It is further adorned with quotations from the Bible and from French, Latin, and Greek authors. It first appeared in 1621, followed by corrected and enlarged editions in 1624, 1628, 1632, 1636, and finally the one that the author promised would be the last version he would ever prepare, the edition that appeared posthumously, in 1651. It has been consulted ever since by poets such as Milton and Keats, dramatists such as John Ford, and novelists such as Sterne and Thackeray. Poetry, philosophy, unnatural Natural History, medicine, history, theology, and many other subjects occupied Burton's attention, the statements being attested by reference to at least two hundred authors. Perhaps the title should have been "An Analysis of Morbid Psychology." In that field Burton anticipated Freud. The first two Partitions deal respectively with the causes and the cures of melancholy. In the third part, the author discusses Love-Melancholy. It is divided into Sections, then into Members and Subsections. Its bachelor-author begins with a discussion of the development of love, a subject subdivided into the objects of a man's love, and a treatise on charity. The second section deals with "Heroical love," as a cause of melancholy; and its second subsection: How Love tyranizes over man. In this part, Burton discusses passions created in men. Remarking that Helen was not the first female that caused a war, he names three or four other guilty women. He then considers unnatural love, of many varieties, and finally comes to "that Heroical love" that is a frequent cause of melancholy. Chaucer and the Bible are cited to testify that all men have at least once known this sentiment. Many have discovered how easily it can burst its bounds. In developing this topic, the author first talks of the insatiable lust for women, but after pursuing the subject over several pages, he calls a halt. He can never exhaust this topic. It is foolish to cast the little light he can, in comparison with the blazing magnitude of the subject. As he puts it:

But to enlarge or illustrate this power and effect of love is to set a candle in the sun. It rageth with all sorts and conditions of men, yet is most evident among such as are young and lusty, in the flower of their years, nobly descended, high fed, such as live idly, and at ease; and for that cause (which our Divines call burning lust) this mad and beastly passion, as I have said, is named by our Physicians Heroical Love, and a more honorable title put upon it, Noble Love, as Savanarola styles it, because Noble men and women make common practice of it, . . .