1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Burton

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:267-69.



The great, though whimsical author of the Anatomy of Melancholy was born at Lindley, in Leicestershire, 1576, and educated at Christ Church, Oxford. He became Rector of Seagrave, in his native shire. He was a man of vast erudition, of integrity and benevolence, but his happiness, like that of Burns, although in a less measure, "was blasted ab origine by an incurable taint of hypochondria;" and although at times a most delightful companion, at other times he was so miserable, even when a young student at Oxford, that he had no resource but to go down to the river-side, where the coarse jests of the bargemen threw him into fits of laughter. This surely was a violent remedy, and one that must have reacted into deeper depression. In 1621, he wrote and published, as a safety-valve to his morbid feelings, his famous Anatomie of Melancholy, by Democritus Junior. It became instantly popular, and sold so well, that the publisher is said to have made a fortune by it. Nothing more of consequence is recorded. of the author, who died in 1640. Although "Melancholy mark'd him for her own;" she failed to kill him till he had passed his grand climacteric. He was buried in Christ Church, with the following epitaph, said to have been composed by himself

Paucis notus, paucioribus ignotus.
Hic jacet Democritus Junior,
Cui vitam pariter et mortem
Dedit Melancholia.

"Known [by name] to few, unknown [as the author of the Anatomy] to fewer, here lies D. J., who owes his death [as a man] and his life [as an author] to Melancholy."

His work is certainly a most curious and bewitching medley of thought, information, wit, learning, personal interest, and poetic fancy. We all know it was the only book which ever drew the lazy Johnson from his bed an hour sooner than he wished to rise. The subject, like the flesh of that "melancholy" creature the hare, may be dry, but, as with that, an astute cookery prevails to make it exceedingly piquant; the sauce is better than the substance. Burton's melancholy is not, like Johnson's, a deep, hopeless, "inspissated gloom," thickened by memories of remorse, and lighted up by the lurid fires of feared perdition; it is not, like Byron's, dashed with the demoniac element, and fretted into universal misanthropy; it is not, like Foster's, the sad, fixed fascination of a pure intelligence contemplating the darker side of things, as by a necessity of nature, and ignoring, without denying, the existence of the bright; nor is it, like that of the "melancholy Jacques," in As you Like it, a wild, woodland, fantastical habit of thought, as of one living collaterally and aside to the world, and which often explodes into laughter at itself and at all things else; — Burton's is a wide-spread but tender shade, like twilight, diffused over the whole horizon of his thought, and is nourished at times into a luxury, and at times paraded as a peculiar possession. In his form of melancholy there are pleasures as well as pains. "Most pleasant it is," he says, "to such as are to melancholy given, to lie in bed whole days and keep their chambers; to walk alone in some solitary grove, betwixt wood and water, by a brook-side, to meditate upon some delightsome and pleasant subject; and a most incomparable delight it is so to melancholise and build castles in the air." Religious considerations have little to do with Burton's melancholy, and remorse or fear apparently nothing. Hence his book, although its theme be sadness, never shadows the spirit, but, on the contrary, from his dark, Lethean poppies, his readers are made to extract an element of joyful excitement, and the anatomy, and the cure, of the evil, are one and the same.

As a writer, Burton ranks, in some points, with Montaigne, and in others with Sir Thomas Browne. He resembles the first in simplicity, bonhommie, and miscellaneous learning, and the other in rambling manner, quaint phraseology, and fantastic imagination. Neither of the three could be said to write books, but they accumulated vast storehouses, whence thousands of volumes might be, and have been compiled. There is nothing in Burton so low as in many of the Essays of Mantaigne, but there is nothing so lofty as in passages of Browne's Religio Medici and Urn-Burial. Burton has been a favourite quarry to literary thieves, among whom Sterne, in his Tristram Shandy, stands pre-eminent. To his Anatomy he prefixes a poem, a few stanzas of which we extract.