1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Burton

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:272.



One of the most entertaining prose writers of this age was ROBERT BURTON (1576-1639-40), rector of Segrave in Leicestershire, and a member of Christ-church, Oxford. Burton was a man of great benevolence, integrity, and learning, but of a whimsical and melancholy disposition. Though at certain times he was a facetious companion, at others his spirits were very low; and when in this condition, he used to go down to the river near Oxford and dispel the gloom by listening to the coarse jests and ribaldry of the bargemen, which excited his violent laughter. To alleviate his mental distress, he wrote a book, entitled The Anatomy of Melancholy, which appeared in 1621, and presents, in quaint language, and with many shrewd and amusing remarks, a view of all the modifications of that disease, and the manner of curing it. The erudition displayed in this work is extraordinary, every page abounding with quotations from Latin authors. It was so successful at first, that the publisher realised a fortune by it; and Warton says, that "the author's variety of learning, his quotations from scarce and curious books, his pedantry, sparkling with rude wit and shapeless elegance, miscellaneous matter, intermixture of agreeable tales and illustrations, and, perhaps above all, the singularities of his feelings, clothed in an uncommon quaintness of style, have contributed to render it, even to modern readers, a valuable repository of amusement and information." It delighted Dr Johnson so much, that he said this "was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise." Its reputation was considerably extended by the publication of "Illustrations of Sterne," in 1798, by the late Dr. Ferriar of Manchester, who convicted that writer of copying passages, verbatim, from Burton, without acknowledgment. Many others have, with like silence, extracted materials from his pages. The book has lately been more than once reprinted.

Prefixed to the "Anatomy of Melancholy" is a poem of twelve stanzas, from which Milton has borrowed some of the imagery of his "Il Penseroso." The first six stanzas are as follows:—

[THE AUTHOR'S ABSTRACT OF MELANCHOLY.]
When I go musing all alone,
Thinking of divers things foreknown,
When I build castles in the air,
Void of sorrow, void of fear,
Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet,
Methinks the time runs very fleet.
All my joys to this are folly;
Nought so sweet as melancholy.

When I go walking all alone,
Recounting what I have ill-done,
My thoughts on me then tyrannise,
Fear and sorrow me surprise;
Whether I tarry still, or go,
Methinks the time moves very slow.
All my griefs to this are jolly;
Nought so sad as melancholy.

When to myself I act and smile,
With pleasing thoughts the time beguile,
By a brook side or weed so green,
Unheard, unsought for, or unseen,
A thousand pleasures do me bless,
And crown my soul with happiness.
All my joys besides are folly;
None so sweet as melancholy.

When I lie, sit, or walk alone,
I sigh, I grieve, making great moan
In a dark grove or irksome den,
With discontents and furies then,
A thousand miseries at once
Mine heavy heart and soul ensconce.
All my griefs to this are jolly;
None so sour as melancholy.

Methinks I hear, methinks I see
Sweet music, wondrous melody,
Towns, palaces, and cities, fine
Here now, then there, the world is mine,
Bare beauties, gallant ladies shine,
Whate'er is lovely is divine.
All other joys to this are folly;
None so sweet as melancholy.

Methinks I hear, methinks I see
Ghost, goblins, fiends: my phantasie
Presents a thousand ugly shapes;
Headless bears, black men, and apes;
Doleful outcries and fearful sights
My sad and dismal soul affrights.
All my griefs to this are jolly;
None so damn'd as melancholy.