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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton

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To purchase The Anatomy of Melancholy

Title: The Anatomy of Melancholy
Author: Robert Burton
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1621
Length: 1392 pages
Availability: The Anatomy of Melancholy - US
The Anatomy of Melancholy - UK (Penguin ed.)
The Anatomy of Melancholy - UK (NYRB ed.)
The Anatomy of Melancholy - Canada
The Anatomy of Melancholy - India
Anatomie de la mélancolie - France
Die Anatomie der Schwermut - Deutschland
Die Anatomie der Melancholie - Deutschland
Anatomia della malinconia - Italia
  • by "Democritus Junior"
  • Dedicated to George Berkeley
  • First published in 1621
  • Revised editions published 1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, and 1651.
  • Reprinted 1660 and 1676, and then not until 1800.
  • The edition from New York Review Books (2001) is essentially a reprint (in one volume) of the 1932 Everyman edition and includes Holbrook Jackson's Introduction to that edition. In addition, there is a new Introduction by William H. Gass
  • The Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press edition (1989-94) is currently out of print. It comes in three volumes, with an Introduction by J.B.Bamborough, and was edited by Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair
  • The Penguin Classics edition (2021) is edited and comes with an Introduction by Angus Gowland

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Our Assessment:

A+ : a classic, a treasure-trove, a marvel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A+ 18/8/2001 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 30/8/2001 Brian Dillon
London Rev. of Books . 23/11/1989 A.D. Nuttall
The LA Times . 6/1/2002 Patrick Giles
News & Observer . 30/9/2001 Fred Chappell
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/5/1996 Charles Rosen
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/6/2005 Charles Rosen
Renaissance Quarterly . Winter/1996 Bridget Gellert Lyons
TLS . 5/1/1990 H.R.Woudhuysen
TLS . 23/12/1994 Geoffrey Hill
TLS . 24-31/12/2021 Cassie Miura
Die Welt . 3/7/2004 Wolfgang Schneider

Please note that the reviews in The New York Review of Books (1996), Renaissance Quarterly, and the TLS refer to the Clarendon/Oxford University Press edition. The TLS reviews refer specifically to volumes I (H.R.Woudhuysen) and volume III (Geoffrey Hill) of that edition.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Paperback not so much of the week as of the year, of the decade -- or, I am inclined to say, of all time. And why ? Because it's the best book ever written, that's why. I use the word "book" with care. It's not a novel, a tract, an epic poem, a history; it is, quite self-consciously, the book to end all books." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "But sheer size should not put the modern reader off one of the most astonishing books ever written.(...) From his phenomenal erudition, Burton fashioned a book that says everything there is to say about melancholia, then tries to say everything there is to say about everything else." - Brian Dillon, The Independent

  • "(A) staggering triumph of education and artistry, at once a treatise on the medical, historical, philosophical and spiritual aspects of melancholy, a pep talk for fellow sufferers and a meta-fictional challenge leagues more daunting than any Melville or Thomas Pynchon crafted centuries later." - Patrick Giles, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It is probably otiose to recommend, in reviews or in conversation, a book that is a classic, especially one so waywardly eccentric as this one. (...) It is true that a taste for The Anatomy of Melancholy must be acquired and that a comparative few will find it worth acquiring." - Fred Chappell, News & Observer

  • "he does not always reconcile absurdities, but merely observes them, most often without comment. His aim was not to set in order, but simply to set down, and the disorder, it would seem, filled him with legitimate satisfaction." - Charles Rosen, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A)n authoritative edition of one of the most important, as well as compendious, works of seventeenth century literature and science. (...) Obviously this will be an edition principally for libraries. Not only does the price preclude private ownership for most people, but the edition also lacks the reader-friendly, if inauthentic, translations of Latin quotations which appear parenthetically in Holbrook Jackson's version. Since the notes are textual rather than explanatory, they will not help most students and general readers." - Bridget Gellert Lyons, Renaissance Quarterly

  • "A reminder that the past is a strange place and the amusement of antiquarian knowledge, however, are not the least of what the Anatomy has to offer. (...) Angus Gowland’s new Penguin Classics edition of the Anatomy enables modern readers to engage with Burton in ways that have not previously been possible. This single hardback volume includes ample explanatory notes, new translations of Burton’s Latin and a valuable editor’s introduction. The standard scholarly edition remains that in six volumes, with commentary, published between 1989 and 2000 by Clarendon Press, but this Anatomy will surely become the most widely used and accessible version of Burton for decades to come." - Cassie Miura, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Tatsächlich hat das Buch ja auch deshalb bis heute überlebt, weil es viel mehr ist als eine scholastische Abhandlung: ein Lamento von vitaler Unmittelbarkeit, ein Kompendium des Weltekels. Es besticht durch grandiose Beredsamkeit, Witz und bildkräftigen Ausdruck. Horstmanns übersetzung lässt den fast 400 Jahre alten Text überraschend frisch klingen." - Wolfgang Schneider, Die Welt

See also Quotes below

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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  • "Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, he said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise." - James Boswell, in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

  • "I don't know if you ever dipt into Burton's Anatomy. His manner is to shroud and carry off his feelings under a cloud of learned words." - Charles Lamb, in a letter to Thomas Manning (ca. mid-April, 1801)

  • "I do not know of a more heartless sight than the reprint of the Anatomy of Melancholy. What need was there of unearthing the bones of that fantastic old great man, to expose them in a winding-sheet of the newest fashion to modern censure ? What hapless stationer could dream of Burton ever becoming popular ?" - Charles Lamb, in Last Essays of Elia (1833)

  • "All the pedantry of the Renascence was poured into The Anatomy of Melancholy, but vitalized by pervading humour. (...) The book contains indeed nothing which was Burton's own, for he pillaged all known books. Yet everything in it became his because he chose it and because his temperament infused into the whole a sort of unity." - Émile Legouis, in A History of English Literature (1926)

  • "The constant, obsessive revisions of this long work give us one important clue about it: it is highly contrived, and, in its author's eyes, a work of art of very large scope indeed. All of Burton's derogatory remarks about the carelessness of his writing and the raggedness of his form must therefore be interpreted as defining and characterizing the personality that he displays for us in the Anatomy, a highly artificial personality, as all are, because style makes the man." - Bridget Gellert-Lyons, in Voices of Melancholy (1971)

  • "If Burton cannot give us a better mind, he can perhaps give us a mind not too much involved with its own pain. The Anatomy of Melancholy, in all of its distracting confusion, is finally something of a mercy, and it is the only mercy to be found within its confines." - Stanley E. Fish, in Self-Consuming Artifacts

  • ""I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy," explained Robert Burton, author of that rollicking compendium The Anatomy of Melancholy. Upon completing the first folio in 1621, Burton was confident that his readers would take the subject as seriously as he did himself. I have no such confidence today." - Arthur Krystal, The New York Times Book Review (20/7/1986)

  • "Sometimes an index is so copious that it becomes a readerly pleasure in itself. Surely no index will ever surpass the one in my copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy." - Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review (10/3/1991)

  • "(T)he greatest literary work ever written on the theory of humors, the early-seventeenth-century Anatomy of Melancholy, by the English divine and scholar Robert Burton, properly recognized the four humors as just one manifestation of a larger propensity to divide by four." - Stephen Jay Gould, Natural History (March, 1998)

  • "And just in case anyone else in publishing is paying attention now, could someone please bring out a complete but portable edition of the great 17th-century comic-philosophic treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of the supreme sui generis demented-genius works in the English language, a sort of encyclopedic spiritual twin of Tristram Shandy ? Just asking." - Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer (24/5/1999)

  • "Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy survives among the cognoscenti, but there's no Penguin Classic of the book, and it would be difficult to see how there could be." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian (16/9/2000)

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The complete review's Review:

       If one had to pare down one's library to the barest minimum, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy is a volume that one could never cull. If one had to prepare for a desert-island exile and could take only a handful of books along, then The Anatomy of Melancholy is surely a volume one would insist on taking. Those that have a copy of the long hard-to-find volume(s) treasure and cling to it -- one reason why you'll rarely find a copy at your local second-hand bookstore.
       It is a famous book. A well-known title. But rarely seen. It has been, essentially, out of print for some time (the recent scholarly Clarendon Press edition being out of most reader's price range -- and, apparently, already itself out of print). Now The Anatomy of Melancholy has been republished in a convenient single volume by New York Review Books. A barely ballyhooed event, it should be the talk of the town, the publishing triumph of the season.
       There are few essentials that belong on the bookshelf in every cultured English-speaking household. A collected Shakespeare. The Riverside Chaucer. Grudgingly: a King James Bible. And Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.
       Certainly, other titles belong there as well, but one can debate the specific novels and the poetry that are worthy of inclusion. Not Burton's Anatomy. No question there. And, given the propensity of the title to fall out of print (as it has recently, and did previously -- for a particularly long, dark stretch between 1676 and 1800), we can only advise you to get your copy while you can.

       What is this book ? Well, it is, nominally, an anatomy, an overview, a dissection, an analysis of melancholy. But melancholy is a broad term, a common affliction with many causes, symptoms, and, possibly, cures. And Burton is determined to consider each and every variation on the theme.
       Burton's book is encyclopedic. Burdened all his life with a "roving humour", Burton acknowledges:

I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method. I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment. I never travelled but in map or card, in which my unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated.
       Burton did, indeed, read many books. Every book ever written or published until that time, it would seem. Indeed, he appears to quote from every one of these books in The Anatomy of Melancholy -- from the earliest Greeks to his recent contemporaries. Arguably, the Anatomy is the last book that encompasses the entire learning of Western culture, the last successful effort to cram it all into one volume.
       It is a strikingly odd book, in that it consists almost entirely of quotes and references to the thought of others. It is a book of references woven together. But what a tapestry. Burton builds his arguments and his explanations by constantly referring to what others have said before. Acknowledging that there is nary a new thought under the sun he dispenses with feigning originality. Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants, but they remain largely unseen; in The Anatomy of Melancholy Burton stands on the shoulders of all of learned humanity, a small speck atop a very tangible, teeming mass.
       There is both madness and method here. The book is overwhelming. It ranges across nearly all subjects: medicine, astronomy, philosophy, literature and all the arts, politics, nature. It runs from quote to quote to reference. Still, it is carefully constructed, partition upon section upon member upon subsection. Neat synoptical tables illustrate how each partition unfolds. All possible issues are brought up and dealt with, exhaustively -- but never exhaustingly. The style is an odd one, with run-on sentences that seem to want to break off every which way, but Burton's hand is a firm one and, amazingly, he keeps things under control.
       The book is presented as being by "Democritus Junior", the pseudonym Burton chose to publish the book under; it is dedicated to George Berkeley (giving some sense of Burton's own philosophical inclinations). The book begins with a Latin poem "Democritus Junior to his Book", with which he releases it into the open day. An explanatory poem gives "The Argument of the Frontispiece" (see here or, if you have the patience, here for reproductions of the frontispiece) Next: "The Author's Abstract of Melancholy".
       There is then a long introduction, "Democritus Junior to the Reader", and finally a warning "To the Reader who Employs his Leisure Ill". Then it is on with the melancholy show. The focus is on this perceived malady, but in essence it is also an excuse to discourse about all matters and manners in the world (and, occasionally, beyond).
       The first partition is devoted to the more common, generic sort of melancholy, focussing on causes and symptoms. Melancholy can, apparently, be found everywhere. Burton explores every possible reason for that sinking melancholy feeling. From God to bad nurses, bad diet to overmuch study, "Self-love, Vainglory, Praise, Honour, Immoderate Applause" to covetousness, "An heap of other Accidents" to education ("if a man escape a bad nurse he may be undone by evil bringing up") -- it seems anything can cause it.
       The symptoms are more straightforward, though also more varied than one might expect. From "Windy Hypochondriacal Melancholy" to the female variations -- "Maids', Nuns', and Widows' Melancholy" -- Burton gives a neat little overview.
       The second partition suggests cures for melancholy, ranging from lifestyle-changes to medical solutions (from blood-letting to herbal alternatives). Burton himself suggested: "I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy." (And he was very busy at it.)
       The last partition then is devoted to the most complex and irrational mind-ailments: love-melancholy and religious-melancholy.

       The fun and the brilliance of the book lies in Burton's presentation. Melancholy is his springboard, but it is the entire human experience -- so melancholy-tinged -- that is his subject. Example after example is heaped on the reader, quote after quote after story after anecdote, all condensed to their very essence. A mad fill, an overabundance, literary profusion on the most extravagant scale.
       On every page there are a dozen -- at least -- examples or citations or tales or ideas, each of which any author could spin out into a full-length novel or treatise. Indeed, The Anatomy of Melancholy is the ultimate writer's resource book. Many a career could be built on it -- and several have been.
       Laurence Sterne carried on the Burtonian tradition, stealing extensively from The Anatomy of Melancholy for his own Tristram Shandy (a theft that was not discovered for decades, as Burton was barely remembered or read at the time). For many others the volume was also favoured reading (and, occasionally, cribbing) material, from John Keats to Samuel Beckett.
       The Anatomy of Melancholy is almost unreadable. Densely packed, it defies reading as it is now generally practised. And yet it is the ultimate book, a volume that one can not but return to over and over, constantly. Perusal of the rich Anatomy is addictive, each passage like a snort of crystallized literary erudition -- with a healthy dose of humour.
       It is a book that lasts a lifetime. It is bottomless: both a pit and a reprieve. Burton himself, in his lifelong melancholy fit, could not help but constantly add to the text. The first edition had some 350,000 words, the sixth over half a million. He was a man possessed, the text burgeoning to bursting, Burton always -- just -- in control.
       It is a unique, and grand achievement. Modern efforts at so-called hypertexts and hyperfiction pale beside it. On only the printed page Burton goes far beyond what most have conceived in virtual worlds.

       If you only buy one book this year, let it be this one. And if you buy hundreds of books this year, let this one be on the top of the list.

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The Anatomy of Melancholy: Reviews: Other books of interest under review: Other books with introductions by William Gass under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Robert Burton (1577-1640) studied at Oxford. He was vicar of St. Thomas's, Oxford, and then rector of Seagrave. He is best known for his great work, The Anatomy of Melancholy

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© 2001-2021 the complete review

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