Robert Burton – The Anatomy of Melancholy


When I was young and foolish (well, 36 and bored) I tried reading this in a week. That’s perversely missing the point, as we’ll see, but it removed the ‘curse’ of looking at a book this meaty and thinking ‘too much’. I don’t recommend this approach for everyone, but as a means to get the measure of the book and its intentions it helped me.

It’s a work by a seventeenth century scholar attempting to understand his own disposition towards… well, we don’t quite have the concept ‘melancholia’ the same way they did. It isn’t straightforward depression, or Sartrean nausée, or even endemic gloominess. The ancient Greeks had posited a system of ‘humours’ (liquids) supposedly in balance but in practice always slightly favouring one over the others due to one’s star-sign, rising planet and so forth. Particular herbs, gods, subjects of interest and gemstones associated with these were thought to be helpful in restoring balance.You can find traces of this in Shakespeare, once you know where to look. Burton was trying to collate all known information on Melancholia (the state resulting from excessive black bile), its treatment and possible useful side-effects. Yes, useful: one aspect of this is that it’s a form of brain-state conducive to great art, intensive study and feats of memory (and the historians of Mediaeval and Renaissance Ars Memoria have had a field-day with this, notably Dame Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers). However, this is a self-help book with a difference. By the nature of melancholy, reading a big, slow, painstakingly-detailed book at its pace rather than yours is, in itself, a remedy. So is spending decades writing one.

This is a book to re-read and digest slowly in your retirement. However, in order to re-read something you have to have read it a first time. I’m not the only one who’s tried to zoom through this work. A recent production by a Birmingham theatre company attempted to make it work on stage. My sprint-read was exactly the opposite of what this book’s for, as I now realise. Paradoxically, however, one of the primary causes Burton identifies for this condition is ‘over-much study’, so maybe I avoided that. As you might recall from last month, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn alludes to this book a lot. So do many other works, not always by name. In some ways this is the secret link between Albrecht Durer and Virginia Woolf, Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Dance to the Music of Time. I doubt that all of you will queue up to take it out but knowing that it exists is a backstage pass to a lot of literature and history.

By Tat Wood