Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Robert Burton (15771640)
[Few books give a more distinct idea of the personality of their author than that given by the Anatomy of Melancholy. But the accounts which we have of that author and his history are somewhat meagre. He was born on 8th February 1577 at Lindley in Leicestershire, his family being of gentle birth and of some landed estate, and was educated at the grammar schools of Nuneaton and Sutton Coldfield. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1593, and was elected on the foundation at Christ Church six years later. He took orders, and was presented by the Dean and Chapter to St. Thomass, Oxford, in 1616, and later by Lord Berkeley to the rectory of Segrave in his native county. He constantly resided at Christ Church, but kept his livings till his death in 1640, a death which gossip, without any evidence, chose to consider self-helped, if not self-inflicted, partly because of his ambiguous epitaph, cui vitam dedit et mortem melancholia, partly because he had calculated his nativity so as pretty exactly to forecast the time. It has been pointed out that he actually died at sixty-threean age more usually fatal than any other. Despite his residence of full forty years in a single college, and of nearly half a century in the same university, almost nothing is known of him, and the few traditions or assertions about his melancholy, its occasional alleviations, his facility of quotation, and so forth, are vague, and in rather suspicious accordance with the notion which, as has been said, any one would form from his book.]
IT is a commonplace that in the most absurd error there may generally be discovered, if not some considerable ground or background of truth, yet some fragment of explanation. There is such an explanation for the absurd craze which has induced its monomaniacs to include Robert Burtons work among those, dating from the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the first of the seventeenth, which they father upon Francis Bacon, or a secret society headed by him. To no one possessing one grain of critical power of separation could the work of Shakespeare, of Bacon, and of Burton seem to come from the same hand. But each stands apart from all his other contemporaries in a certain combination, different in each, of universality of comprehension, with intense individuality of expression. Burtons form of this combination of gifts lay in the union of almost universal reading with the application of that reading to the setting forth and illustration of a peculiar temperament of mindthe temperament which is expressed by writers as ancient as the Preacher, and as modern as Schopenhauer. To dwell on the way in which, as far as matter goes, he deals with the subject of Melancholy would be here impossible. It is sufficient to say that he had read almost everythingclassical, mediaeval, and modern, theology, science (as science then went), law, history, poetry. He will quote Ovid one moment and Chaucer the next, a schoolman on this page, andrarest of all quotations to be found in his own contemporariesa contemporary playwright on that. The whole is cast into the form of a scientific investigation of the causes, symptoms, varieties, and cure of what he calls Melancholy. But as the manner of his age was (though no one else shows it in quite such perfection) the investigation passes into, or is continually accompanied by, an endless chain of citation from his innumerable authors. Nor is the fashion of this citation less peculiar than its abundance. For the most part the borrowed passages are not given singly to support and illustrate single sentences or paragraphs of the authors own. They run on into endless series with each other, or are twisted in alternate strands with Burtons own writing. Sometimes his sentences read as if a string of references in a footnote had by some inadvertence cropped up in the text; often as if the clauses were written in shorthandnotes for the authors own use in future extension or selection. Now he will give the original of his version, or a paraphrase in a note; now he will quote his author in Latin or another tongue, and follow this up with a sort of half-gloss, half-version in English. To a careless reader, or to one quite out of sympathy with Burtons own mood, the method may seem either a cumbrous conglomeration, due to lack of taste, skill, and energy, or the lost labour of elaborate eccentricity. Not so to any one who takes the trouble to master Burtons own introduction, or who starts in harmony with the spirit of the book. If the Anatomy of Melancholy be regarded as mere outpouring of commonplace books, with a pretext of unity in purpose and subject, it is no great thing. To be understood it must be regarded as at once the exhibition of a temperament, and the discussion of a case.
Burton occupied rather more than twenty years, from the time of his election to a position of learned ease, in shaping his book for its first appearance in 1621: he spent rather less than another twenty in refashioning and perfecting the work. Frequently as it has been reprinted, no attempt has ever yet been made to execute a critical edition, indicating the variations which were thus introduced by him on the four occasions when reissues were called for in his own lifetime. These alterations and additions are very numerous and very considerable, and the author not unfrequently draws attention to them in the text. But he has never, in making them, broken through the singular unity and control of treatment which the book shows. As far as the minutiæ of style are concerned, Burtons characteristics are well marked, and not very numerous. His method of quotation obliges him of necessity to immense sentences, or rather clause-heaps. But it is noteworthy that when he intermits citation and narrates or argues in his own person he is less, not more, given than his contemporaries to the long sentence, and frequently has a distinctly terse and crisp arrangement of the members of his paragraph. Of definite mannerisms he chiefly affects apposition, the omission of conjunctions and connecting words of all kinds, and a very curious and characteristic use of the demonstrative he and its cases, which covers with him a range of senses from that well-known person to anybody.
These details of form, however, though adding to the fantastic personality of the book, are as nothing compared to the idiosyncrasies of its matter and spirit. Apt as Burton is to digressindeed he has a formal defence of the practiceand enormous as is the range of his digression, he has contrived to make all this huge congeries of material subservient to his purpose of illustrating a new vanity of vanities, of combining, as it were, in one book the knowledge of Solomon, and his reflections on the futility of the things known and the knowing of them. Rigidly precise in appearance as is the scheme he lays out, its sweep and ramifications are so great and intricate that hardly anything introduced by him can be said to be absolutely irrelevant. He contrives to see all things in Melancholy, and yet to make his treatment of them anything but melancholic. Indeed with all his plunges in the balneum diaboli, all his love for quaint out-of-the-way knowledge, there is in Burton a strong vein of plain commonsense which is sometimes almost prosaic, in the transferred and uncomplimentary sense, and which emerges now and then, especially in his long and famous discourse of Love-melancholy. His own verse translations, too, are such mere doggrel for the most part that one almost suspects a trick and deliberation. But there are few things, indeed, that deserve censure in Burton, the perpetual refuge and delight of scholarly English readers, an unmatched storehouse of learning, and one not easily matched for wisdom, a writer who, by force of genius, has turned into an organic whole the hugest and most apparently heterogeneous stock of materials that ever an architect of letters set himself to build withal.