Robert Burton’s contribution to literature was The Anatomy of Melancholy, a pseudoscientific investigation into and philosophical discussion of the possibilities of human happiness. This book was the only published work of a lifetime spent in scholarly and literary pursuits. However, if one counts the revised editions (1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, and 1651) of the work in which Burton’s continuing labors showed themselves, and if one considers the extraordinary length and depth of this book, Burton may be credited with having written more than many writers who produced numerous titles.
Burton was born in Lindley, Leicestershire, on February 8, 1577, the son of Ralph and Dorothy Burton. His preparatory education was at Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire, and Nuneaton grammar schools. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, as a commoner in 1593. Six years later he entered Christ Church College of Oxford. He received his B.D. degree from Christ Church College in 1614. Although he subsequently held various assignments as a clergyman, he remained at the college until his death. In 1616 he was appointed vicar of St. Thomas in Oxford, and in 1630 he was made rector of Segrave, Leicestershire, by his patron, Lord George Berkeley.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is a satirical study which pretends to be a study of moods from a medical point of view. Burton used the medical treatise as a device for cramming literary, philosophical, and historical allusions into one vast commentary on the changing modes of human character and emotion. From a discussion of the kinds and causes of melancholy, Burton proceeds to a “Second Partition” on the cure of melancholy; he then enlivens the book with fascinating and (to him) sometimes shocking material on “love melancholy.” Although the title page gave the name “Democritus, Jr.” as the author, Burton revealed his identity in a note to the reader, which was included in the first edition.
Burton also wrote a comic Latin play, Philosophaster, which entertained audiences at Christ Church when it was first presented in 1617. The work was not published until 1862. Like a later “anatomist of melancholy,” Sigmund Freud, Burton tried to predict the year of his own death. Unlike Freud, who found his fearful calculations incorrect, Burton died early in the year he had chosen, on January 25, 1640.