Robert Burton Essay - Critical Essays

Burton, Robert


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.

Principal Works

Philosophaster, Comoedia, nunc primum, in lucem producta. Poemata, antehac sparsim edita, nunc in unum collecta (play) 1617

The Anatomy Of Melancholy, What It Is. With All The Kinds, Cavses, Symptomes, Prognostickes, And Seuerall Cvres Of It. In Three Maine Partitions with their seuerall Sections, Members, and Svbsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cvt Vp. With a Satyricall Preface, conducing to the following Discourse [as Democritus Junior] (nonfiction) 1621; revised editions 1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, 1651

The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, Now for the First Time with the Latin completely Given in Translation and Embodied in an All-English Text. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1927

Robert Burton's Philosophaster: With an English translation of the Same, Together with His Other Minor Writings in Prose and Verse (play, poetry, and prose) 1931

The Anatomy of Melancholy. 3 vols. (nonfiction) 1932

The Anatomy of Melancholy. 5 vols. (nonfiction) 1989-2000

Philosophaster (play) 1993


James Boswell (essay date 1776)

SOURCE: Boswell, James. In Boswell: The Ominous Years, 1774-1776, edited by Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, pp. 276-77. 1931. Reprint. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

[In this excerpt originally recorded in his journal in 1776, Boswell relates an anecdote which demonstrates the value that Samuel Johnson placed upon The Anatomy of Melancholy.]

Either this night or the one after he spoke to me of the melancholy to which I am subject, said that I had a very ticklish mind, and that I must divert distressing thoughts, and not combat with them. “Remember always,” said he, “———.”1 I said I sometimes tried to think them down. He said I was...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Hester Lynch Thrale (essay date 1782)

SOURCE: Thrale, Hester Lynch. In Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi), 1776-1809, edited by Katharine C. Balderston, Vol. 1, pp. 536-37. 1942. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

[In the following excerpt, Thrale acknowledges the widespread influence of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy on English literature.]

What a strange Book is Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy! & how it has been plunder'd! Milton took his Allegro and Penseroso from the Verses at the beginning,1 Savage his Speech of Suicide in the Wanderer2 from Page 216. Swift his Tale of the Woman that held water in her Mouth to regain her...

(The entire section is 365 words.)

George Gordon, Lord Byron (essay date 1807)

SOURCE: Gordon, George, Lord Byron. The Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, edited by Thomas Moore, p. 48. 1920. Reprint. Detroit: Scholarly Press, 1972.

[In the excerpt below from a list of his lifetime of reading, Byron recommends Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy as a seminal English-language work.]

I have also read (to my regret at present) above four thousand novels, including the works of Cervantes, Fielding, Smollet, Richardson, Mackenzie, Sterne, Rabelais, and Rousseau, & c. & c. The book, in my opinion, most useful to a man who wishes to acquire the reputation of being well read, with the least trouble, is Burton's Anatomy of...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

Oliver Wendell Holmes (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “Pillow-Smoothing Authors, With a Prelude on Night-Caps, and Comments on an Old Writer.” The Atlantic Monthly LI, No. cccvi (April 1883): 457-64.

[In the following essay, Holmes discusses the influence of The Anatomy of Melancholy on English literature and comments on the massive breadth of the treatise.]

Cotton Mather says of our famous and excellent John Cotton, “the Father and Glory of Boston,” as he calls him, that, “being asked why in his Latter Days he indulged Nocturnal Studies more than formerly, he pleasantly replied, Because I love to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin before I go to...

(The entire section is 4725 words.)

Rosalie L. Colie (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Colie, Rosalie L. “Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and the Structure of Paradox.” In Paradoxica Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox, pp. 430-60. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

[In the essay below, Colie argues that The Anatomy of Melancholy is deliberately paradoxical in many ways, including its contradictory subject matter, its conflicting genres, and its juxtaposition of opposites. Burton's “fragmenting of the categories of phenomena” in this manner, and his “identification of cause, symptom, and cure,” she maintains, universalizes melancholy “into the whole condition of humanity.”]


(The entire section is 9829 words.)

Joan Webber (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Webber, Joan. “Robert Burton: The Anatomy of Democritus, Jr.” In The Eloquent “I”: Style and Self in Seventeenth-Century Prose, pp. 80-114. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

[In the essay below, Webber discusses how the “I” persona of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy combines the two distinct modes of life and art by manipulating the reader through an anecdotal and gossip-oriented analysis of sources rather than through a methodical investigation of the facts.]

We have seen in Donne the Anglican's persistent effort to turn life into art and to find in art among other things a means to anticipate one's own death and look back upon...

(The entire section is 17309 words.)

Bridget Gellert Lyons (essay date 1971)

Lyons, Bridget Gellert. “The Anatomy of Melancholy as Literature.” In Voices of Melancholy: Studies in literary treatments of melancholy in Renaissance England, pp. 113-48. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

[In the excerpt below, Lyons examines the relations of Burton's work to other literary and expository works on melancholy and asserts that “one of the main achievements of the Anatomy as a work of literature is to portray the melancholy mind in action, even while it is occupied with melancholy as a formal subject.”]


The most ambitious literary treatment of melancholy in the seventeenth...

(The entire section is 14898 words.)

Stanley E. Fish (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Fish, Stanley E. “Thou Thyself Art the Subject of My Discourse: Democritus Jr. to the Reader.” In Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, pp. 322-52. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Fish detects a unity of style and substance in Burton's frequent digressions and shifts of subject in The Anatomy of Melancholy.]


The reader who manages to make his way through the preface to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy may be excused if he is unable to take its concluding sentences at face value:

but I presume of...

(The entire section is 18812 words.)

Ruth A. Fox (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Fox, Ruth A. “This New Science.” In The Tangled Chain: The Structure of Disorder in the Anatomy of Melancholy, pp. 45-53. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

[In the essay below, Fox examines the digressions from the conventional structure of the medical treatise in The Anatomy of Melancholy, proposing that the tension between the digressions and the more straightforward sections reflects an ambivalence about the reliability of knowledge.]

For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,
Cometh al this newe corn from yer to yere,
And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,
Cometh al this newe science that men lere.

—Chaucer, The...

(The entire section is 2490 words.)

Judith Kegan Gardiner (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “Elizabethan Psychology and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.Journal of the History of Ideas 38, No. 3 (July-September 1977): 373-88.

[In the essay below, Gardiner explores the dimensions of Burton's psychological method in The Anatomy of Melancholy, concluding that “Burton digests his medieval and Renaissance science and other material available to him to create a humanistic psychology that is both comprehensive and reasonably coherent.”]

In 1946 Louise C. Turner Forest wrote “A Caveat …” to warn against the dangers of applying Elizabethan psychology to literary characters. The psychological tracts of the...

(The entire section is 7071 words.)

James S. Tillman (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Tillman, James S. “The Satirist Satirized: Burton's Democritus Jr.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 10, No. 2 (1977): 89-96.

[In the following essay, Tillman compares Burton's satiric style in his preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy to Horatian and Juvenalian satire, emphasizing the classical origins of the work's rhetorical personae rather than seventeenth-century concerns about the self and the stability of the authorial voice.]

Although most critics of seventeenth-century literature are familiar with the rhetorical personae typical of various genres, such as the self-deprecating speaker of orations or the piping shepherd of pastorals, generic...

(The entire section is 3823 words.)

Devon L. Hodges (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Hodges, Devon L. “Anatomy as Reason and Madness.” In Renaissance Fictions of Anatomy, pp. 107-23. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Hodges considers The Anatomy of Melancholy to be a treatise poised between humanism and rationalism, focusing on how the work countenances the coexistence of madness and reason in seventeenth-century thought—a condition rejected by the eighteenth-century quest for “objective knowledge.”]

Compared with Bacon's dynamic, scientific project to inaugurate a new order of things, Burton's great lumpy Anatomy of Melancholy looks particularly hesitant and unfocused. And...

(The entire section is 7868 words.)

E. Patricia Vicari (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Vicari, E. Patricia. “Applied Divinity: The Anatomy as Priestly Counsel.” In The View From Minerva's Tower: Learning and Imagination in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy,’ pp. 121-48. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

[In the excerpt below, Vicari argues that the The Anatomy of Melancholy is best understood not as a medical treatise, but as a sermon. Vicari links the style of the work to the oral tradition and notes Burton's progressive treatment of melancholy as not merely a malady but a sin.]


Three related questions about The Anatomy of...

(The entire section is 14289 words.)

Anne S. Chapple (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Chapple, Anne S. “Robert Burton's Geography of Melancholy.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 33, No. 1 (1993): 99-130.

[In the following essay, Chapple examines how Burton's interest in the burgeoning field of cartography influenced The Anatomy of Melancholy, primarily focusing on the “foolscap” world map described in the preface.]

Observing map collectors in 1570, Dr. John Dee wrote, “Some, to beautify their Halls, Parlors, Chambers, Galeries, Studies, or Libraries … liketh, loveth, getteth, and useth, Maps, Charts, and Geographicall Globes.”1 Dee was writing at a time when only the wealthy could afford to own maps,...

(The entire section is 13393 words.)

Winfried Schleiner (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Schleiner, Winfried. “Burton's Use of praeteritio in Discussing Same-Sex Relationships.” In Renaissance Discourses of Desire, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, pp. 159-78. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

[In the essay below, Schleiner addresses Burton's treatment of same-sex relationships in The Anatomy of Melancholy, examining how Burton's use of the rhetorical device praeteritio might distinguish his own perspective from among his many sources.]

Discourse of same-sex desire is forbidden discourse in early seventeenth-century England; in some sense it could not and, therefore, does not exist. In another...

(The entire section is 8082 words.)

Jonathan Sawday (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Sawday, Jonathan. “Shapeless Elegance: Robert Burton's Anatomy of Knowledge.” In English Renaissance Prose: History, Language, and Politics, edited by Neil Rhodes, pp. 173-202. Tempe: Arizona State University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Sawday describes The Anatomy of Melancholy as the foundation of a theory of knowledge that never fully developed, particularly after the formation of The Royal Society in 1660 with its markedly different approach to scientific investigation.]


Has Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy always been a historical and critical puzzle? In 1945, when Douglas Bush...

(The entire section is 12442 words.)

Samuel G. Wong (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wong, Samuel G. “Encyclopedism in Anatomy of Melancholy.Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 22, No.1 (1998): 5-22.

[In the essay below, Wong considers The Anatomy of Melancholy in the context of the encyclopedic tradition, suggesting that Burton's self-deprecating portrait of the scholar is more subversive and more modern than has generally been assumed.]


This essay reconsiders the encyclopedism that is the most profound feature of Anatomy of Melancholy. As used here, encyclopedism suggests not only the vast display of learning that constitutes Anatomy but also the condition of a work...

(The entire section is 7525 words.)

Further Reading


Conn, Joey. Robert Burton and The Anatomy of Melancholy: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. 105 p.

Lists editions of Burton's works and focuses on criticism from the twentieth century, organized alphabetically by author.

Donovan, Dennis G., Magaretha G. Hartley Herman, and Ann E. Imbrie. Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. 530 p.

Bibliographic record of criticism and commentary on Burton and his peer Sir Thomas Browne, arranged by publication date and beginning in the seventeenth century....

(The entire section is 818 words.)