The Anatomy Lesson



“I am not an instructor in love, and what I say is merely reading”: So confesses Robert Burton (1577-1640) in the final partition of The Anatomy of Melancholy. A career Oxonian whose university fellowship forbade marriage, he was never more aware of the gap between word and world than in his dissection of love melancholy. (Cutting short a calescent classification of kisses, he bristles, “But what have I to do with this?”) Is “mere reading” enough? In treating of melancholy proper, his method is to stud his supple prose with a bookman’s borrowings, from ancient verse and scraps of scripture to the latest materia medica. Afflicted himself, he wrote about melancholy in order to avoid it; the quotations not only buttress his theories, but offer philosophical company. In the heat of the third partition, Burton the bachelor’s limpid notes can make it sound like he’s wooing the very Venus:

All our invention tends to it, he notes. And, Kissing is never finished and is always fresh. And, Night alone, that one occasion, is enough to set all on fire. And, That one woman was worth a kingdom, an hundred thousand other women, a world itself.

He periodically affects disgust, and bruits misogyny in a coarse catalog of female infirmities (inspiring Keats to declare, “I would give my favourite leg to have written that”). But if all inventions tend to love, then his must as well. Despite his withdrawal from the amorous arena, despite his reiterations of that singular state, he could not help but be like that invisible part of the world so affected by Hero’s lute. As Burton translates, “The air itself is in love.”


“As a long-winged hawk, when he is first whistled off the fist”: So flies Robert Burton out the window of his Oxford study, after listing some cures for melancholy (specifically, “retention and evacuation”). His body remained seated, but his mind took leave to rove the whole world over.

Born in nearby Leicestershire, Burton never went far afield. He entered the university at 16 and was appointed librarian and tutor at Christ Church College in 1614. When he tells the reader to pity the man who “from his cradle to his old age beholds the same still; still, still the same, the same,” it’s clear which man he means.

But in the “Digression of the Air,” the man who has only traveled “in map or card” can domineer, for six enormous paragraphs (each a long-winged beat), a world scaled at 1:1. The queries proliferate. He wants to know everything—how the Caspian Sea exonerates itself, what lies at the center of the earth, whether there is life on other planets. He would investigate the veracity of Marco Polo’s accounts, see “those inner parts of America,” and judge whether the stars in the Milky Way look like “so many nails in a door.” The citations pass beneath like the tops of trees, and even though he muses on the location (and exact dimensions) of hell, the passage is pure recreation. For the only time in the vast Anatomy, melancholy seems far away. When the planet linked to black bile (melaina chole) appears, there are no hysterics. In fact, it scans delightfully well: “Saturn in thirty years absolves his sole and proper motion.”


“And for those other faults of barbarism, Doric dialect, extemporanean style, tautologies, apish imitation, a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies, confusedly tumbled out, without art, invention, judgment, wit, learning, harsh, raw, rude, phantastical, absurd, insolent, indiscreet, ill-composed, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry; I confess all (’tis partly affected), thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself”: So Burton, under his pen name Democritus Junior, overwhelms while castigating his own and only book. It comes from the Anatomy‘s preface, a novel-length throat-clearing that is as much barricade as invitation. The very music of the passage—the rhapsodic almost-anagram, and the glum daisy chain of those final adjectives transcending the filth it pretends—insinuates arrogance in the self-loathing. The confession is at once sincere and toothless.

It charms in equal measure, the way prefaces are supposed to. The wide-ranging nature of the disease itself (to say nothing of the fractally hyperbracketed synopses at the start of each partition) may have boggled some readers. “So that, take melancholy in what sense you will,” Burton advises, “truly or metaphorically, ’tis all one.” Read it, he says, as you like it.

And his Melancholy, composed throughout his lifetime, was in truth six books crammed into one, a sort of proto-DSM that was prose analogue of the disease itself and his own psychogram. He completed the first version on December 5, 1620, the same week the Pilgrims reached America; its popularity and his own energies engendered a lifetime of revision, with his final touches (including a utopian blueprint) appearing a dozen years after his death. “No labour in the world like unto study,” he sighs, taking up his pen anew. Melancholy was his symptom and his cure, and its own recirculating cause.

The physician and scholar Sir William Osler called Burton “the great authority on morbi eruditorum,” the diseases of educated people. Excessive study, Burton warned, dries one up, invites “gouts, catarrhs, rheums . . . and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting.” Scholars emerge from their chambers lacking all social graces, and then must court ignorant patrons (“a debauched, corrupt, covetous, illiterate crew”). All that awaits is that cheerful trio, “want, poverty, and beggary.”

Men turn into their own books, “like so many hide-bound calves in a pasture.” In Burton’s only other work of note, the antic play Philosophaster (1606), a character describes a visit to Oxford’s library, “wherein many dead are found, unhappily held by chains.”


“By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters, which may be so infinitely varied, that the words complicated and deduced thence will not be contained within the compass of the firmament”: So commended Democritus Junior (né Robert Burton) a contemplative cure for melancholy. In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges prefixed part of this sentence to his story “The Library of Babel,” then vexed it to nightmare. Its monstrous Babel-oteca holds not only every book ever written, but every book it is possible to write—from unthinkable narratives (“the true story of your death”) to acres of insanitizing combinations (“the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last”). Those who seek ciphers go vividly mad—or at least fall into “excessive depression.”*

Reading, then, is a futile, even dangerous activity. If, as Burton deduced of love, “the beginning of this disease is the eye,” then worse infections can also enter by that route. His preface warns those afflicted by melancholy to skip the descriptions of symptoms, lest they sprout within the reader. And later he mentions “an especial antidote against jealousy” that he will not commit to paper; instead, “when I meet you next I will peradventure tell you what it is in your ear.”

Truly or metaphorically, ’tis all one: Borges went functionally blind the year he was appointed director of the National Library; Democritus, the Greek philosopher after whom Burton followed pseud, was said to have put out his eyes “because he could not abide to see wicked men prosper” (as Burton has it) or “so that the spectacle of reality would not distract him” (as Borges comments). It is worth asking whether there is a difference.


“They do incline, but not compel; no necessity at all”: So Burton indicts stars as a cause of melancholy. Though the charge is minor, Burton himself was nevertheless “a curious Calculator of Nativities” (as Anthony Wood noted in 1721) who predicted his dying day. After he expired on January 25, 1640, “at, or very near that time” foretold, some whispered that he had hanged himself rather than leave the world in error. His burial was Christian. “He left behind him a very choice library of Books,” Wood reports. As if for proof, a monument above his remains bears the fatal table, along with the epitaph he composed: “Known to few, unknown to fewer, here lies Democritus Junior, to whom Melancholy gave life and death.”

The true story of his death cannot now be known, of course. But calendrical coincidences heat the imagination, and it is hard not to read his hic jacet as one of history’s shorter suicide notes. Or perhaps it should be considered a postscript, to that of history’s longest.

*If my reader will grant that the story is a conscious gloss on the Anatomy (and if my faithful factchecker will “take five”), perhaps it can be said: The repeating “MCV” is indeed a cipher—for the Anatomy itself. In those letters, one sees (indeed cannot but see) the Roman for 1105. This is close enough to the length of Burton that we may (a) surmise the existence of an edition of exactly this length, or (b) prune the present New York Review Books reprint (based on the 1932 Everyman’s edition). Minus the notes and index, the raw page total is 1132, an overage of 27. But toting up and deleting the material prior to the preface (14) and the three synopses (13) make the numbers agree.

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