Four hundred years of melancholy—why Robert Burton’s masterpiece speaks to our pandemic age

Admirers including Samuel Johnson and Nick Cave have sought solace in a work that covers madness, demons, erotic obsession and the benefits of bathing

August 11, 2021
A Victorian image of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Credit: Alamy
A Victorian image of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Credit: Alamy

It has become increasingly difficult to ignore our great capacity for experiencing and describing psychological pain. To many observers across the globe, mental illnesses and disorders are now alarmingly prevalent, and talk of crises, unprecedented surges and epidemics has become widespread amongst clinical experts and in the media. Living through a viral pandemic and enforced lockdowns has further concentrated attention on mental wellbeing. Conversations about emotional health proliferate. As with the cliché about the Eskimo words for snow, our abundant vocabulary testifies to the variety and intractability of our disturbances, and also to our enduring need to work through them with language.

This phenomenon has deep roots. Sadness, anxiety, lethargy, dejection, discontentment, torpor, perplexity, horror, shame, suspicion, anguish, diffidence, weariness, languishing, misanthropy, despair: such emotions and dispositions live in our present, but they have long been observed in human nature. Four hundred years ago, surveying a world that had evidently succumbed to similar debilitating passions, the Oxford scholar Robert Burton declared an epidemic of melancholy. In his view, melancholy had become “a disease so frequent… in our miserable times, as few there are that feel not the smart of it.” For Burton, who himself suffered from melancholy, the condition was then “so grievous” and “so common,” that he felt compelled to “show the causes, symptoms and several cures” of “so universal a malady, an Epidemical disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and mind.”

The result was The Anatomy of Melancholy, unquestionably the greatest work on this subject in English literature. It is a book that guides its reader through the territory with wit, compassion and curiosity. Its many admirers over the centuries have included John Milton, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip Pullman, Patrick Keiller and Nick Cave.

As befits its subject matter, the Anatomy is enormous. By the time of the sixth edition, published posthumously in 1651, Burton’s sprawling masterpiece had expanded to more than half a million words. It also included over 13,000 quotations, drawn from learned and popular sources stretching back to antiquity, illustrating and lamenting our psychological dispositions, self-destructive passions and moral pathologies, surveying the causes and consequences of our curious susceptibility to melancholy, and offering a bewildering range of possible cures.

Anyone encountering Burton’s book for the first time today will be struck by its idiosyncrasies. It is both serious and humorous. The main subject is medical, but the subtitle signals that melancholy will also be treated “philosophically and historically.” It opens with an extended satire, in which the laughing (possibly unhinged?) philosopher Democritus Junior ridicules the madness of the world. He doesn’t spare the reader: “Thou thyself art the subject of my discourse.” The main treatise then applies the structure of medical pathology—kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, cures—to different forms of melancholy. This structure, however, incorporates a variety of different kinds of writing, including poetry, history, moral philosophy, theology, geography, astrology and mythology. Despite attempts to assign the book to a specific genre, it resists categorisation.

Burton’s personality is stamped on every page, in prose that is eccentric and unmistakable: conversational, expansive, expressive and frequently digressive. Many sentences end only with an “et cetera,” suggesting that more could always follow—and in later editions often did. The text is punctuated with splenetic outbursts (especially against Burton’s pet hate, the idle aristocracy), but these are often accompanied by self-doubt and self-reproach: “Thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself.”

There is serious moralising, but also irony, scepticism, and absurd comedy. Erudition is ostentatiously displayed, with technical terminology, bibliographic citations and notes. He switches into Latin to cover subjects deemed unsuitable for the uneducated (such as pederasty, bestiality and necrophilia). But all this is tempered with anecdotes, poetic verses and flights of fancy.

The Anatomy is perhaps most famous, however, for its astonishing range. Melancholy was a condition with many forms (its symptoms were much more numerous and diverse than those of modern depression); and historically curious readers have long revelled in the obscure, even arcane, depths of its discussions of madness, demons, pharmaceutical recipes, erotic obsession, astral influences, religious mania, the benefits of bathing and many other topics.

Books become “classics” in different ways. But one undoubted feature of such works is their ability to serve as conduits between the past and the present, relating the worlds in which they were created to new readers. The Anatomy is fully a classic in this sense: it has never exhausted what it has to say. For contemporary readers, it is perhaps most immediately resonant on the social conditions of melancholy. For Burton and his contemporaries, it was a disease of solitude. Humans were naturally sociable creatures; disruption of social bonds and deprivation of company exposed the melancholic to the vagaries of the imagination. Left unchecked by conversation with others, the mind would degenerate in a downwards spiral of irrational fantasy, disturbing thoughts and social alienation.

Solitude also inclined the body towards idleness, sluggishness and more mental agitation. If the solitude was enforced, it was “very irksome” and “most tedious” to those used to living in “some great family or populous city.” For Burton, however, the most dangerous kind of solitude was voluntary. The desire to retreat from a troubling world, he wrote, works “like a Siren,” drawing the mind into its own thoughts and dream-like meditations. Giving in to “melancholising” in this way, however, was a kind of pathological habituation. Once addicted to “vain meditation and solitary places,” the melancholic became unable to endure human company, and eventually could “ruminate of nothing but harsh and distasteful subjects.” The initial pleasures of solitude were turned into bitter pains.

Inevitably, some parts of the Anatomy seem strange now, like echoes of conversations from a lost world. Classical allusions, adages and quotations, philosophical doctrines, folklore and social mores from the past come and go, often without explanation, along with references to books rare even in the 17th century. Most of the medical teachings are obsolete. Yet the subject of the book, psychological suffering in all its forms, is still with us. And so, despite the many advances in clinical psychology, is our need—poorly served in medical environments dominated by pharmacology, and by self-help literature that defaults too frequently to vapid banality—to grasp meaning in the experience of pain.

When Burton anatomised melancholy, writing both to assuage his own condition and to help others, he came to realise that a permanent cure for the condition was much more of a hope than an expectation. But what he called the “playing labour” of reading and writing about the subject enabled him to engage and empathise with the vast store of spiritual, moral, social and poetic values and meanings attached to mental suffering through history.

This suggests the most compelling explanation for why, after finishing the first edition of his book, he returned to it again and again until the end of his life. Reading and writing about melancholy protected against idleness in solitude; but, more importantly, they yielded companionable “fellow-feeling” for the troubles and flaws of others, and some understanding of these as meaningful, shared attributes of a permanent human condition. Perhaps this was the best way of living with his own melancholy.