(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Robert Burton 1577-1640

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Democritus Junior) English essayist, poet, and playwright.

Burton is remembered primarily for The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a voluminous treatise which examines the various causes of, and treatments for, melancholy. The work was immensely popular with seventeenth-century readers: Burton personally revised five editions, and a sixth was published posthumously. Drawing upon some 1300 sources from the Classical to the Renaissance periods to elucidate his subject, Burton's encyclopedic observations on the affliction of melancholy range from the absurdly humorous to the sublime. In the process, he created an enduring monument to Renaissance learning as well as a wellspring of inspiration for future literary figures. “Never was there such a pawn-shop for poets to borrow from as the Anatomy of Melancholy,” declared Oliver Wendell Holmes. Indeed, authors pious as John Milton, crude as Tobias Smollett, and satirical as Jonathan Swift did Burton the honor of “plundering” his Anatomy of Melancholy.

Biographical Information

Burton was born on February 8, 1577, in Leicestershire, England, the fourth of Ralph and Dorothy Faunt Burton's nine children. Anthony à Wood, in his biographies of Oxford attendees, describes the Burtons as “an ancient and genteel family.” Burton attended grammar school in Warwickshire, and at sixteen went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy and logic as a commoner (one who paid his own board). In 1599 he was elected to be a student of Christ Church, Oxford, where he would live for the rest of his life. Burton was slow to finish his bachelor's degree, taking nine years after starting at Brasenose, and some scholars attribute this delay to his own affliction with melancholy. He went on to pursue his Master of Arts, finishing in June 1605, and his Bachelor of Divinity, which he earned in 1614. After finishing his B. D., Burton was appointed the Clerk of the Market of Oxford, a post which involved checking the freshness of food to be sold in Oxford markets. By 1616, he had earned the vicarage of St. Thomas the Martyr, Oxford. During this time, Burton wrote a Latin play entitled Philosophaster (1617), which was performed during Shrovetide. Burton's celebrity was established with the publication of The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, and he devoted much of his intellectual acumen to guiding the work through several substantial revisions throughout the remainder of his life. In his later years, Burton continued to receive lucrative preferments. In 1624 he received the living of Walesby in Lincolnshire from the Dowager Countess of Exeter; two years later, he was named librarian of Christ Church library. Around 1631, Burton resigned his living in Walesby and accepted the post of rector of Seagrave, Leicestershire, from George, Lord Berkeley, who may have been Burton's student at Christ Church. In a life devoted to erudition, Burton was accounted by many as studious, serious, and widely read, which supports his claim in The Anatomy of Melancholy that he “liv'd a silent, sedentary, solitary, private life.” As his magnum opus also indicates, he was well educated in religion and the sciences, taking special interest in mathematics, philology, geography, astronomy, and astrology. Burton died in his chamber at Christ Church on January 25, 1640.

Major Work

The enduring reputation of The Anatomy of Melancholy occurs not only from its wide readership in Burton's lifetime, but also from the select elite who claimed it as an important influence, including Samuel Johnson, Lawrence Sterne, Charles Lamb, Lord Byron, and John Keats. Burton's avowed subject is melancholy, what might now be considered depression, but his extensive reading and devotion to scholarship expand the work to cover science, religion, philosophy and history as well. The work is preceded by a satiric preface entitled “Democritus Junior to the Reader” which is perhaps the most widely read section of the treatise in modern times. The preface includes Burton's utopia, the first originally written in English, in which he addresses marriage, primogeniture, war, and the essential imperfections of human nature. Overall, The Anatomy of Melancholy is comprised of three sections, or “Partitions”: causes and symptoms of melancholy; cures for melancholy; and “love-melancholy,” which also includes a substantial discussion of religious melancholy. The partitions are divided further into “Sections,” “Members,” and “Sub-Sections,” and each begins with a “Synopsis.” Despite the apparent attention to order, the structure of the treatise is marked by Burton's frequent digressions, a stylistic device considered by many scholars to reflect either the chaos of melancholy itself or, less often, Burton's lack of control as an author. The text is also comprised of thousands of quotations from authors both acknowledged and unacknowledged. Burton's task as the author of an anatomy was not to present his own findings but to present a thorough compilation of information on his subject, not unlike the chronicle historians of the late sixteenth century. Similarly, The Anatomy of Melancholy offers no coherent description of the disorder it seeks to analyze—that was not the role of the anatomist. As the earliest work of English psychology, the The Anatomy of Melancholy dissects the subject of melancholy and leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions. Moreover, many critics have suggested, the process of anatomizing itself—the cataloguing, the displays of erudition, the extremity of detail—was likely at least as important to both author and reader as a neat summation of the topic of melancholy.

Critical Reception

One of the most popular English books of the seventeenth century, The Anatomy of Melancholy has become the object of academic interest in modern times due to its influence on several prominent men of letters in the centuries following its publication. Johnson, who recommended the The Anatomy of Melancholy to many of his friends, including his famous biographer James Boswell, also relied on Burton as a resource for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Many authors, including Sterne, Keats, and Byron, best demonstrated their admiration for the work by borrowing from it for their own writings; Wood reports that “gentlemen who have lost their time and are put to a push for invention may furnish themselves with matter for common or scholastical discourse and writing. Several authors have unmercifully stolen matter from the said book without any acknowledgement.” Modern literary scholars were slow to develop an interest in Burton, focusing more often on either his own sources or his function as a source for other writers. As critics took a more serious interest in the application psychology and psychiatry to the study of literature, The Anatomy of Melancholy gained ascendancy. The late 1960s and early 1970s ushered in a new era in Burton scholarship when Joan Webber and Stanley E. Fish published landmark studies on Burton's use of prose and persona, inspiring further questions about the genre of the work, the function of the digressions, and the reliability of the narrator. Expanding on these influential analyses, later critics have suggested that the work is best read as, variously, a sermon, an attack on religious dissenters, and the basis of a new theory of knowledge. The breadth and variety of the work appears to support several positions: E. Patricia Vicari suggests that the style of the work derives from an oral tradition, while James S. Tillman, who views the work as a satire, emphasizes the work's neoclassicism. Both Devon L. Hodges and Jonathan Sawday depict Burton as uneasily straddling a divide between the humanist science of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the physical, experimental science ushered in by The Royal Society in the late seventeenth century. The scope of The Anatomy of Melancholy has also permitted a variety of studies attempting to articulate Renaissance views on topics other than psychology such as cartography, morality, and homosexuality.