Robert Burton (1577-1640), English writer, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, son of a country gentleman, Ralph Burton, was born at Lindley in Leicestershire on the 8th of February 1576-7. He was educated at the free school of Sutton Coldfield and at Nuneaton grammar school; became in 1593 a commoner of Brasenose College, and in 1599 was elected student at Christ Church, where he continued to reside for the rest of his life. The dean and chapter of Christ Church appointed him, in November 1616, vicar of St Thomas in the west suburbs, and about 1630 his patron, Lord Berkeley, presented him to the rectory of Segrave in Leicestershire. He held the two livings "with much ado to his dying day" (says Antony à Wood, the Oxford historian, somewhat mysteriously); and he was buried in the north aisle of Christ Church cathedral, where his elder brother William Burton, author of a History of Leicestershire, raised to his memory a monument, with his bust in colour. The epitaph that he had written for himself was carved beneath the bust: Paucis notus, paucioribus ignotus, hic jacet Democritus Junior, cui vitam dedit et mortem Melancholia. Some years before his death he had predicted, by the calculation of his nativity, that the approach of his climacteric year (sixty-three) would prove fatal; and the prediction came true, for he died on the 25th of January 1639-40 (some gossips surmising that he had "sent up his soul to heaven through a noose about his neck" to avoid the chagrin of seeing his calculations falsified). His portrait in Brasenose College shows the face of a scholar, shrewd, contemplative, humorous.
A Latin comedy, Philosophaster, originally written by Robert Burton in 1606 and acted at Christ Church in 1617, was long supposed to be lost; but in 1862 it was printed for the Roxburghe Club from a manuscript belonging to the Rev. W.E. Buckley, who edited it with elaborate care and appended a collection of the academical exercises that Burton had contributed to various Oxford miscellanies ("Natalia," "Parentalia," etc.). Philosophaster is a vivacious exposure of charlatanism. Desiderius, duke of Osuna, invites learned men from all parts of Europe to repair to the university which he has re-established; and a crowd of shifty adventurers avail themselves of the invitation. There are points of resemblance to Philosophaster in Ben Jonson's Alchemist and Tomkis's Albumazar, but in the prologue Burton is careful to state that his was the earlier play. (Another manuscript of Philosophaster, a presentation copy to William Burton from the author, has since been found in the library of Lord Mostyn.)
In 1621 was issued at Oxford the first edition, a quarto, of The Anatomy of Melancholy ... by Democritus Junior. Later editions, in folio, were published in 1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, 1651, 1652, 1660, 1676. Burton was for ever engaged in revising his treatise. In the third edition (where first appeared the engraved emblematical title-page by C. Le Blond) he declared that he would make no further alterations. But the fourth edition again bore marks of revision; the fifth differed from the fourth; and the sixth edition was posthumously printed from a copy containing his latest corrections.
Not the least interesting part of the Anatomy is the long preface, "Democritus to the Reader," in which Burton sets out his reasons for writing the treatise and for assuming the name of Democritus Junior. He had been elected a student of "the most flourishing college of Europe" and he designed to show his gratitude by writing something that should be worthy of that noble society. He had read much; he was neither rich nor poor; living in studious seclusion, he had been a critically observant spectator of the world's affairs. The philosopher Democritus, who was by nature very melancholy, "averse from company in his latter days and much given to solitariness," spent his closing years in the suburbs of Abdera. There Hippocrates once found him studying in his garden, the subject of his study being the causes and cure of "this atra bilis or melancholy." Burton would not compare himself with so famous a philosopher, but he aimed at carrying out the design which Democritus had planned and Hippocrates had commended. It is stated that he actually set himself to reproduce the old philosopher's reputed eccentricities of conduct.
When he was attacked by a fit of melancholy he would go to the bridge foot at Oxford and shake his sides with laughter to hear the bargemen swearing at one another, just as Democritus used to walk down to the haven at Abdera and pick matter for mirth out of the humours of waterside life.
Burton anticipates the objections of captious critics. He allows that he has "collected this cento out of divers authors" and has borrowed from innumerable books, but he claims that "the composition and method is ours only, and shows a scholar." It had been his original intention to write in Latin, but no publisher would take the risk of issuing in Latin so voluminous a treatise. He humorously apologizes for faults of style on the ground that he had to work single-handed (unlike Origen who was allowed by Ambrosius six or seven amanuenses) and digest his notes as best he might. If any object to his choice of subject, urging that he would be better employed in writing on divinity, his defence is that far too many commentaries, expositions, sermons, etc., are already in existence. Besides, divinity and medicine are closely allied; and, melancholy being both a spiritual and bodily infirmity, the divine and the physician must unite to cure it.
The preface is followed by a tabular synopsis of the First Partition with its several Sections, Members and Subsections. After various preliminary digressions Burton sets himself to define what Melancholy is and what are its species and kinds. Then he discusses the Causes, supernatural and natural, of the disorder, and afterwards proceeds to set down the Symptoms (which cannot be briefly summarized, "for the Tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues as the Chaos of Melancholy doth of Symptoms"). The Second Partition is devoted to the Cure of Melancholy. As it is of great importance that we should live in good air, a chapter deals with "Air Rectified. With a Digression of the Air." Burton never travelled, but the study of cosmography had been his constant delight; and over sea and land, north, east, west, south - in this enchanting chapter - he sends his vagrant fancy flying. In the disquisition on "Exercise rectified of body and mind" he dwells gleefully on the pleasures of country life, and on the content that scholars find in the pursuit of their favourite studies. Love-Melancholy is the subject of the first Three Sections of the Third Partition, and many are the merry tales with which these pages are seasoned.
The Fourth (and concluding) Section treats, in graver mood, of Religious Melancholy; and to the "Cure of Despair" he devotes his deepest meditations.
The Anatomy, widely read in the 17th century, for a time lapsed into obscurity, though even "the wits of Queen Anne's reign and the beginning of George I. were not a little beholden to Robert Burton" (Archbishop Herring). Dr Johnson deeply admired the work; and Sterne laid it heavily under contribution. But the noble and impassioned devotion of Charles Lamb has been the most powerful help towards keeping alive the memory of the "fantastic great old man." Burton's odd turns and quirks of expression, his whimsical and affectate fancies, his kindly sarcasm, his far-fetched conceits, his deep-lying pathos, descended by inheritance of genius to Lamb. The enthusiasm of Burton's admirers will not be chilled by the disparagement of unsympathetic critics (Macaulay and Hallam among them) who have consulted his pages in vain; but through good and evil report he will remain, their well-loved companion to the end.
The best of the modern editions of Burton was published in 1896, 3 vols. 8vo (Bell and Sons), under the editorship of A.R. Shilleto, who identified a large number of the classical quotations and many passages from post-classical authors. Prof. Bensley, of the university of Adelaide, has since contributed to the ninth and tenth series of Notes and Queries many valuable notes on the Anatomy. Dr Aldis Wright has long been engaged on the preparation of a definitive edition.
(A. H. B.)