Robert Burton Criticism - Essay

James Boswell (essay date 1776)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 wrong. He bid me have a lamp burning in my bedchamber, and take a book and read and so compose myself to rest. This I supposed was his own method. But I told him I seldom waked in the night. When I do at home, my excellent spouse consoles me with easy, sensible talk. He said to have the management of one's mind was a great art, and that it might be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise. His sage counsel I treasured up. He commended Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and said there was great spirit and great power in what Burton said when he wrote from his own mind. I fancied tonight that I was prepared by my revered friend for conducting myself through any future gloom.


  1. Boswell left the greater part of a line blank, intending to write down Johnson's counsel when he recalled it. What he cannot remember is what Johnson tells him he must never forget!

Hester Lynch Thrale (essay date 1782)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 Husband's Love by Silence—'tis printed in the Tatler;3 Johnson got his Story of the Magnet that detects unchaste Wives4 from the same Farrago, & even Shakespear I believe the Trick put on the Tinker Christopher Sly in the taming of the Shrew.5 See page 277. of Burton.6


  1. ‘The Author's Abstract of Melancholy’, at the beginning of the Anatomy, has the alternating refrain, ‘All my joys to this are folly / Naught so sweet as Melancholy’; and ‘All my griefs to this are jolly / Naught so sad as Melancholy’.

  2. Canto 2, ll. 193 ff. The corresponding section in Burton is Pt. I, Sec. 4, Memb. 1. Savage owes more, however, to Spenser's Despair (Faerie Queene, i. 9).

  3. See Burton, Pt. 3, Sec. 3, Memb. 4, subsec. 2. The story is versified by William Harrison, not Swift, in ‘The Medicine, A Tale—for the Ladies’, Tatler, No. 2.

  4. Rambler, No. 199.

  5. The source was, of course, the old play, The Taming of a Shrew. The passage in Burton which she finds similar is probably the story of a physician who cured a melancholy patient by putting him to bed in splendor (Pt. 2, Sec. 2, Memb. 6, subsec. 4).

  6. These observations, omitting Johnson's debt, appear in her letter to him, dated June 14 [1782], which she published in Letters to and from … Johnson (ii. 247): ‘You bid me study that book [Burton] in your absence, and now, what have I found? Why, I have found, or fancied, that he has been very cruelly plundered. …’ Since the date of this entry is May 19, and Johnson did not leave for Oxford until June 9, it is difficult to believe that this letter, too, was not made to order for publication.

George Gordon, Lord Byron (essay date 1807)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 Melancholy, the most amusing and instructive medley of quotations and classical anecdotes I ever perused. But a superficial reader must take care, or his intricacies will bewilder him. If, however, he has patience to go through his volumes, he will be more improved for literary conversation than by the perusal of any twenty other works with which I am acquainted,—at least in the English language.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (essay date 1883)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.)