Melancholy’s Anatomy

August 14, 2012

The Anatomy of Melancholy was first published in 1621, and became a best-seller for centuries thereafter.  I first heard of it as a young boy leafing though a volume of synopses of classics:  how can you possibly summarize this book?  I was intrigued, and kept it in mind, if only because of its title.

Years later, in the bowels of the university library, I came upon a beautiful old edition, with gilt-edged pages, and checked it out; even read some it.  I remember the night I did so very well as I was very melancholy.  It was not what I thought, but it probably was what I needed, if only I had realized it!

The book is a thorough discussion of the affliction of melancholy, from which Burton suffered, but if you think that it is a dry medical or philosophical treatise, you are wrong.  The theme is merely the armature upon which the author winds his observations about anything and everything, and all with prose that is, once you catch on to his style, outrageous, over the top, funny, and sometimes profound.  If I had read Burton’s introduction, Democritus to the Reader, (he styles himself Democritus Junior)I would have realized that much of his intent was humorous, which is not immediately obvious when you begin to read.

In fact, one’s first impression of this book is liable to be that the author was mad!  He lays out a meticulous and detailed classification system and index, and proceeds to ignore it at will.  Digressions and lengthy remarks on other authors, mostly ancient, are the norm.  And when Burton hits on a theme that agitates him, he let’s loose with volleys of invective that are a joy to read.

I would love to form a club that meets once a week to read aloud from The Anatomy in a public place, with the intention of completing the book in however long it takes.  I can think of no better tribute to this incredible work than to force people to listen to it, willingly or no, for a few moments in their hum drum daily routine.

From the Introduction:

Hippocrates relates at large in his Epistle to Damegetus, wherein he doth express, how coming to visit him one day, he found Democritus in his garden at Abdera, in the suburbs, under a shady bower, with a book on his knees, busy at his study, sometimes writing, sometimes walking. The subject of his book was melancholy and madness; about him lay the carcases of many several beasts, newly by him cut up and anatomised; not that he did contemn God’s creatures, as he told Hippocrates, but to find out the seat of this atra bilis, or melancholy, whence it proceeds, and how it was engendered in men’s bodies, to the intent he might better cure it in himself, and by his writings and observation teach others how to prevent and avoid it. Which good intent of his, Hippocrates highly commended: Democritus Junior is therefore bold to imitate, and because he left it imperfect, and it is now lost, quasi succenturiator Democriti, to revive again, prosecute, and finish in this treatise.

…Hippocrates asked the reason why he laughed. He told him, at the vanities and the fopperies of the time, to see men so empty of all virtuous actions, to hunt so far after gold, having no end of ambition; to take such infinite pains for a little glory, and to be favoured of men; to make such deep mines into the earth for gold, and many times to find nothing, with loss of their lives and fortunes. Some to love dogs, others horses, some to desire to be obeyed in many provinces, and yet themselves will know no obedience. Some to love their wives dearly at first, and after a while to forsake and hate them; begetting children, with much care and cost for their education, yet when they grow to man’s estate, to despise, neglect, and leave them naked to the world’s mercy. Do not these behaviours express their intolerable folly? When men live in peace, they covet war, detesting quietness,  deposing kings, and advancing others in their stead, murdering some men to beget children of their wives. How many strange humours are in men! When they are poor and needy, they seek riches, and when they have them, they do not enjoy them, but hide them under ground, or else wastefully spend them. O wise Hippocrates, I laugh at such things being done, but much more when no good comes of them, and when they are done to so ill purpose. There is no truth or justice found amongst them, for they daily plead one against another, the son against the father and the mother, brother against brother, kindred and friends of the same quality; and all this for riches, whereof after death they cannot be possessors. And yet notwithstanding they will defame and kill one another, commit all unlawful actions, contemning God and men, friends and country. They make great account of many senseless things, esteeming them as a great part of their treasure, statues, pictures, and such like movables, dear bought, and so cunningly wrought, as nothing but speech wanteth in them, [238]and yet they hate living persons speaking to them. Others affect difficult things; if they dwell on firm land they will remove to an island, and thence to land again, being no way constant to their desires. They commend courage and strength in wars, and let themselves be conquered by lust and avarice; they are, in brief, as disordered in their minds, as Thersites was in his body. And now, methinks, O most worthy Hippocrates, you should not reprehend my laughing, perceiving so many fooleries in men; for no man will mock his own folly, but that which he seeth in a second, and so they justly mock one another. The drunkard calls him a glutton whom he knows to be sober. Many men love the sea, others husbandry; briefly, they cannot agree in their own trades and professions, much less in their lives and actions.

When Hippocrates heard these words so readily uttered, without premeditation, to declare the world’s vanity, full of ridiculous contrariety, he made answer, that necessity compelled men to many such actions, and divers wills ensuing from divine permission, that we might not be idle, being nothing is so odious to them as sloth and negligence. Besides, men cannot foresee future events, in this uncertainty of human affairs; they would not so marry, if they could foretell the causes of their dislike and separation; or parents, if they knew the hour of their children’s death, so tenderly provide for them; or an husbandman sow, if he thought there would be no increase; or a merchant adventure to sea, if he foresaw shipwreck; or be a magistrate, if presently to be deposed. Alas, worthy Democritus, every man hopes the best, and to that end he doth it, and therefore no such cause, or ridiculous occasion of laughter.


Realms of Gold

April 5, 2012


John Keats was young, sick, and poor…and one of the great poets of the English language.  As such, he died young, and certainly did not have a gentleman’s education.  As with most of us, his knowledge of the ancient classics was by way of translation.  In his day, a new translation of Homer, by Chapman, made a big splash, and Keats was impressed by it.  (Whether that was truly his first exposure to Homer, I do not know.)  He immortalized his enthusiasm in this sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, in which he uses the metaphor of literature as territory, to be explored and appreciated.

 Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 Round many western islands have I been…
The speaker/author has read widely and travelled through the worlds of the literary imagination, including that of Greek poetry.

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene…
Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  Certainly not in its original form.

 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
A beautiful evocation of the excitement of literary discovery, and the enthusiasm of the reader.  The image is founded on the notion of the scientist as a sort of poet/voyager himself, a romantic notion that dissolved in the succeeding materialist century.  Compare to Whitman’s use of the figure of the star-gazer in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.

 Or like stout Cortez…
Cortez is not our day’s notion of a romantic hero:  history now treats him as a ruthless butcher caring for little but gold.  But even I, raised in Southern California in which the school system regaled us with ‘history units’ on the Spanish Conquistadores every semester, cannot help but respond to this image.

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
So, he confused Cortez, destroyer of the Aztec Empire, with Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.  Just where is Darien, anyway?  I think they call this poetic license.


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