Because Robert Burton used astrology to forecast the date of his death with exact accuracy—January 25, 1640—even some skeptics in that credulous age suspected that he may have assisted the prediction’s veracity. To accuse anyone of suicide was a slander; for Burton’s contemporaries such a death was an unpardonable offense. A half-century later, and the antiquary John Aubrey noted in his 1681 Brief Lives that ”tis whispered that… [Burton] ended his days in that chamber by hanging himself.” There are compelling reasons to think this inaccurate. Burton would not have been buried in consecrated ground had he been a suicide—though, of course, it’s possible that friends may have covered for him. Others point to the historian Anthony Wood, who described Burton as “very merry, facete, and lively,” though seemingly happy people do kill themselves. And finally, there’s the observation that within his massive, beguiling, strange, and beautiful The Anatomy of Melancholy, first printed in 1621, Burton rejected suicide—even while writing with understanding about those who are victim of it. As it actually is, the circumstances of Burton’s death remain a mystery, just as self-destruction frequently is, even as etiology has replaced astrology, as psychiatry has supplanted humoral theory.
That such a rumor spread at Christ Church, where Burton had worked for years in the library, compiling his vast study of depression, is not surprising. So identified was Burton with his subject—called “history’s greatest champion of the melancholy cause” by Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression—that his readers simply expected such a death. Within The Anatomy of Melancholy Burton gives overview of Greek and Roman biothanatos, while still condemning it. And yet Burton empathetically concludes that “In such sort doth the torture and extremity of his misery torment him, that he can take no pleasure in his life, but is in a manner enforced to offer violence unto himself, to be freed from his present insufferable pains.” Burton was also frank about his own suffering. White Kennett would write in his 1728 A Register and Chronicle Ecclesiastical and Civil that “I have heard that nothing at last could make… [Burton] laugh, but going down to the Bridge-foot in Oxford, and hearing the bargemen scold and storm and swear at one another, at which he would set his Hands to his sides and laugh most profusely.” Such a man, it was imagined, was the sort who may have dreamed of wading into that cold water in the years when the rivers of England still froze over, walking out into infinity until he felt nothing. Who is to say? We don’t have a complete record of Burton’s thoughts, especially not in his last moments (we don’t have those things for anybody), but The Anatomy of Melancholy is as comprehensive a record as possible, a palliative for author and reader, an attempt to reason through the darkness together.
“Burton’s book has attracted a dedicated rather than a widespread readership,” writes Mary Ann Lund in Aeon, “its complicated branching structure, its Latin quotations and its note-crammed margins resist easy reading.” Though clearly indebted to the humanism of Erasmus and Montaigne, The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of those books that’s almost post-modern before modernity, like the novel Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne shamelessly plagiarized from Burton). The book is encyclopedic but open-ended, erudite but curious, expansive but granular, poignant but funny; never doctrinaire, never judgmental, never orthodox, but gleefully self-referential even while contemplating sadness. Burton combed history, poetry, theology, travelogue, philosophy, and medicine for case studies, across five editions during his lifetime (and a sixth based on posthumous notes) in three separate sections printed as a folio that ballooned to half-a-million words. In the first section he enumerates accounts of melancholia, in the second he offers up cures (from drinking coffee to eating spiced ram’s brain), and in the third Burton presents taxonomies of insanity, including love madness and religious mania. The contemporary edition from the New York Review of Books Classics series is 1,382 pages long. Within those digressive, branching, labyrinthine passages Burton considers King Louis XI of France’s madness whereby everything had the stink of shit about it, an Italian baker from Ferrara who believed that he’d been transformed into butter, and the therapeutic effects of music on elephants. Lund explains how subsequent editions, rather than cutting verbiage, fully indulged Burton’s favored rhetorical conceit of concierges, whereby words are piled upon words in imitation of the manic mind, a quality that has both endeared and frustrated his readers. And yet as William H. Gass observes in his introduction to the NYRBC edition, “the words themselves are magical; you cannot have too many of them; they are like spices brought back from countries so far away they’re even out of sight of seas; words that roll… words even more exotic, redolent, or chewy.”
Sales of Burton’s monumental work, which readers felt free to dip in and out of rather than reading cover-to-cover, easily outsold Shakespeare’s folio, though by the Enlightenment his acclaim had dimmed, the work interpreted as a poorly organized baroque grotesquerie based in outmoded theories. During the optimistic 18th century, The Anatomy of Melancholy had not a single printing. Despite that, it still had readers, including Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Johnson, who told Boswell that it was the “only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” Romantics were naturally drawn to it; both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats had underlined copies, with the latter drawing the plot for his vampiric Lamia from Burton. In the 20th century, the existentialists saw something modern in Burton, with Samuel Becket a lover of the book. The Canadian physician William Osler, a founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, thought it the greatest medical text by a layman, and was instrumental both in increased interest as well as the bibliographic tabulation of Burton’s personal library at Oxford. Despite the pedigree of his fans, Burton hasn’t had a wide readership for centuries, as The Anatomy of Melancholy has never been easy. An assemblage of disparate phenomena, a hodgepodge of unusual examples, a commonplace book of arcane quote and complicated exegesis, none of which is structured in a straightforward way, with Burton himself apologizing that “I had not time to lick it into form, as a bear doth her young ones,” though as it became even more formless over the next two decades that would belie his protestation.
The Anatomy of Melancholy feels unfinished, just like life; it’s contradictory, just like a person; and it encompasses both wonder and sadness, just like a mind. On its quadricentenary it’s abundantly worthwhile to spend some time with Burton, because though he can’t speak of neurotransmitters, he does speak of the soul; though he can’t diagnose, he can understand; though he can’t prescribe, he can sympathize. Beyond just depression, Burton considers ailments like anxiety, obsessions, delusions, and compulsions, Sufferers “conceive all extremes, contrarieties and contradictions, and that in infinite varieties.” To paraphrase Tolstoy, the happy are all the same, but Burton’s depressives are gloriously different. “The Tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues, as this chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” The second thing that is important to note is that Burton distinguishes between everyday emotions—the occasional blues if you will—from the more punishing. He explains that “miseries encompass our life,” that everyone suffers grief, loss, sorrow, pain, and disappointment, and that it would be “ridiculous for any mortal man to look for a perpetual tenor of happiness.” If somebody is suffering from physical pain or a loved one’s death, grief and sadness are rational; for a person facing economic ruin or an uncertain future, anxiety makes sense, but a “melancholic fears without a cause…this torment procures them and all extremity of bitterness.” For those whose humors are balanced, grief is the result of some outside torment, for the melancholic grief is itself the torment. Furthermore, as Burton makes clear, this disposition is not a moral failing but a disease, and he often makes suggestions for treatments (while just as soon allowing that he could be entirely wrong in his prescriptions). “What can’t be cured must be endured,” Burton notes. In the depressive canon of the late Renaissance, Burton would be joined by Thomas Browne with his similarly digressive, though much shorter, Religio Medici, wherein he writes, “The heart of man is the place the devil dwells in; I sometimes feel hell within myself;” John Donne’s sickbed, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, where he concludes that “Man, who is the noblest part of the earth, melts so away as if he were a statue, not of earth, but of snow;” and, of course, Shakespeare’s famed soliloquy from Hamlet that wonders if “by a sleep to say we end/The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.” And that’s just relatively High Church Englishmen; with a broader scope you’d include the Catholic Frenchman Blaise Pascal, whom in his Pensées defines man as that who is “equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed,” and the 15th-century Florentine Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino who wrote in his 1489 The Book of Life that the condition was “conducive to judgment and wisdom,” entitling one chapter “Why the Melancholic Are Intelligent.” None of them, however, is as all-encompassing as Burton, as honest about his own emotions and as sympathetic to his fellow sufferers. Within his book’s prologue, entitled “Democritus Junior to His Readers,” ironically written under a pseudonym adapted from the pre-Socratic thinker known as the “laughing philosopher,” Burton explains that “I had a heavy heart and an ugly head, a kind of imposture in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of,” and so his scribbling would act as therapy.
Across denominations, countries, and continents, the contemplation of a fashionable melancholia was encouraged, with even Burton confessing to sometimes enjoying such abjection as a “most delightsome humor, to be alone, dwell alone, walk alone, meditate, lie in bed whole days, dreaming awake as it were.” Noga Arikha explains in The Public Domain Review that melancholia could be seen as “good if one believed that a capacity for strong passions was the mark of a fine soul that recognized beauty and goodness… the source of sonnets, the harbinger of creativity,” while Darin M. McMahon notes in Happiness: A History that this is a “phenomenon that would have a long and robust future: the glamorization of intellectual despair.” A direct line can be drawn from the goth teen smoking clove cigarettes in a Midwestern high school parking lot through the Beats in their Manhattan lofts eating hash brownies and masturbating to William Blake through to the Left Bank existentialists parsing meaninglessness in the post-war haze and the Lost Generation writers typing on Remingtons in Parisian cafes back to the Decadents and Symbolists quaffing absinthe and the Romantics dreaming opium reveries until interrupted by the person from Porlock through to Burton, and Browne, and Donne, and Shakespeare, and Pascal and Ficino and every other partisan of depression. As Burton notes, “melancholy men of all others are most witty.”
More than a pose, however, and even if Burton agreed that melancholy could sometimes be romanticized, he never lost sight of its cost. Tabulating the price of anxious scrupulosity, Burton notes that “Our conscience, which is a great ledger book, wherein are written all our offences…grinds our souls with the remembrance of some precedent sins, makes us reflect upon, accuse and condemn ourselves.” In the millennium before Burton there were contrary perspectives concerning melancholy. It was interpreted by theologians as a sin—an indolent sloth called acedia—as opposed to the position of doctors who diagnosed it as an imbalance of elemental substances called humors. One thing that Burton is clear on was that melancholy wasn’t simply feeling down. To be melancholy isn’t to be “dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill disposed, solitary, any way moved or displeased,” Burton writes, and that clarification is still helpful. For those blessed with a brain chemistry that doesn’t incline them towards darkness, depression might seem an issue of will power, something that can be fixed with a multivitamin and a treadmill. Reading Burton is a way to remind oneself—even as he maintained erroneous physiological explanations—that depression isn’t a personal failing. And it’s certainly not a sin. McMahon explains that by “reengaging with the classical tradition to treat excessive sadness and melancholia as an aberration or disease—not just the natural effect of original sin—Renaissance medicine opened the way toward thinking about means to cure it.”
That was a possibility more than anything, for the rudiments of mental health were still mired in superstition. Such an emotion was identified with an overabundance of black bile in the spleen, and a deficit of yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, a condition associated with a dry coldness, so that some of that metaphorical import still survives today. Arikha writes in Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours how the “experiences of joy, pain, anguish, and fear each had their temperature, their match in some sort of stuff in the body whose motion modulated the emotion.” In a broader way, however, there is something to be said in how the humors emphasized embodiment, the way it acknowledged how much of the emotional was in the physical. We now know that melancholy isn’t caused by problems with our humors, but rather in our neurotransmitters—I am not cutely implying that this is equivalent, accurate science is the only way that pharmacologists have been able to develop the medicine that saves so many of our lives. Yet there is an enduring wisdom in knowing that this is a malady due to something coursing in your veins, whatever you call it. “We change language, habits, laws, customs, manners,” writes Burton, “but not diseases, not the symptoms of folly and madness, they are still the same.”
Depressives have always existed because there have always been those of us who have a serotonin and dopamine deficiency, even if we’re not lacking in yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. How culture interprets mental illness is entirely another thing, though. As Burton’s popularity demonstrates, there was a surprising lack of stigma around melancholy. In an abstract way, during the 17th century this a reaction to how eternal verities no longer seemed so eternal. Gass explains that “people were lifting their heads from canonical books to look boldly around, and what they saw first were errors, plentiful as leaves. Delight and despair took turns managing their moods.” Even while The Anatomy of Melancholy used Galen’s humoral theory that dominated medicine since the second century, the English surgeon William Harvey was developing his book Anatomical Account of the Motion of the Heart and Blood, which would dispel the basis for the four bodily humors (it would take two more centuries to die). There were more practical reasons for melancholy as well. On the continent, the Thirty Years War started three years before Burton’s book was completed and would end in 1648, eight years after he died. As many as 12 million people perished, a death rate that dwarfed all previous European wars, with one out of five people on the continent dead. Writing in the early ’20s, Burton’s native England was headed towards inevitable civil war, disunion clear in the political and religious polarization. By its conclusion, 200,000 people were dead, fully 2.5 percent of the population. By comparison, that would be as if 12 million contemporary Americans were killed. Disease could be just as deadly as the New Model Army; over the course of Burton’s life the bubonic plague broke out in 1603, 1625, and 1636, with close to 1000,000 deaths. Depression can come from an imbalance within the body, but sometimes insanity is also a sane reaction to an insane world. You still have to bear it, however.
Burton is good humored, he may even have been jovial from time to time, but he’s resolutely a partisan of the sighing angels. Not that Burton didn’t advocate for treatment, even while he emphasized his own inexpertness. Solomon explained that Burton recommends “marigold, dandelion, ash, willow, tamarisk, roses, violets, sweet apples, wine, tobacco, syrup of poppy, featherfew, Saint’-John’s-wort…and the wearing of a ring made from the right forefoot of an ass.” We are, it should be said, fortunate to have refined our prescriptions. Despite the fact that Americans hunger for painkillers both helpful and deadly, The Anatomy of Melancholy isn’t a particularly American book. If the English malady is glum dampness, then the American affliction is plucky sociopathic optimism. A can-do-attitude, pulling-ones-self-up-from-the-bootstraps, rugged individualism, grit, determination, cheeriness. We were once inundated by snake oil salesmen and medicine men, now we have self-help authors and motivational speakers. A nation where everybody can be a winner in seven easy steps and there are keys to a new car under ever guest’s seat. “Americans are a ‘positive’ people,” writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, this “is our reputation as well as our self-image…we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow.” Some crucial points: optimism is not equivalent with happiness, and if anything, it’s a mask when we lack the latter. That’s not bearing it—that’s deluding ourselves.
We weren’t always like this; we have our counter-melody to faux-positivity, from those dour Puritans to Herman Melville writing of the “damp drizzly November in my soul.” But could anyone imagine Abraham Lincoln being elected today, who as a young lawyer in 1841, would write that “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth?” Now, with the ascendancy of the all-seeing Smiley Face, we’ve categorized talk like that as weakness, even if we don’t admit what we’re doing. Our 16th president had a melancholic understanding that grappled with wisdom, what Roy Porter in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul phrased as “Melancholy and spleen, those stigmata of true scholarly dedication.” An ability to see the world as it is. Not just as some cankered, jaundiced, diseased thing, but how in the contrast of highs and lows there is a sense of how ecstatically beautiful this life is, even in its prosaic mundanity. Solomon writes that “I love my depression. I do not love experiencing my depression.” He explains that the “opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality,” and ignorance of this distinction bolsters the cult of positivity. Therapy is honest, unsparing, difficult, and painful. Self-help just tells you what you want to hear. Norman Vincent Peale wrote in Stay Alive All Your Life that the “dynamic and positive attitude is a strong magnetic force which, by its very nature, attracts good results.” This, quite clearly, is unmitigated bullshit. Instead of Dale Carnegie, we need Donne; rather than Eckhart Tolle we could use Browne; let’s replace Tony Robbins with Robert Burton.
Because, dear reader, if you haven’t noticed, we’re not at a happy point in history. America’s cheery cult of optimism is finally folding under the onslaught of the pandemic, political extremism, economic collapse, and the ever-rising mercury. If you’re the sort who’d be chemically glum even in paradise, then if you’ve already been to hell, you might have a bit of extra knowledge folks could benefit from. Stanley Fish explains in Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature how “sober discourse itself is an impossibility given the world,” and that for Burton “nothing—no person, place, object idea—can maintain its integrity in the context of an all-embracing madness.” Gass is even more blunt on the score: “When the mind enters a madhouse…however sane it was when it went in, and however hard it struggles to remain sane while there, it can only make the ambient madness more monstrous, more absurd, more bizarrely laughable by its efforts to be rational.” Burton speaks to our epoch, for depression is both real and there are legitimate reasons to be depressed. As he writes, melancholy is an “epidemical disease,” now more than ever. Burton’s prescriptions, from tincture of marigold to stewed offal, seem suspect—save for one. With the whole world an asylum, Burton advocates for awareness. There are risks to such hair-of-the-dog though. “All poets are mad,” Burton writes, the affliction of “excellent Poets, Prophets, &c,” and I suspect, dear reader, that you too may be in that “etcetera.” Depression, along with addiction, is the writer’s disease. Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, Ann Sexton, Arthur Rimbaud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and so on—all wrestled with the noon-day demon. Many of them died because of it, at least in one way or another. There is no shame here, only sadness that some couldn’t be around with us a bit longer, and the genuine, deep, and loving request that you, dear reader, stick around here. As for Burton, he was committed to the principle that “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy,” and it often worked. He gives the most poignant expression to that black veil that shrouds the mind, the caul of the soul that afflicts some from time to time. If writers are prone to depression, then Burton’s tome was an attempt to write himself out of it, to “satisfy and please myself, make a Utopia of mine own, a New Atlantis, a poetical commonwealth of mine own.” We’re lucky that he did, because even if it’s not the only thing—even if it’s not always the best of things—there is something sacred in that. No matter how occluded, know that somebody else understands what you’re feeling.
So, blessed is Burton and duloxetine, therapy and sertraline, writing and citalopram, empathy and fluoxetine, compassion and escitalopram. Blessed are those who ask for help, those who are unable to ask for help, those who ask if somebody else needs help. Blessed are those who struggle everyday and blessed are those who feel that they no longer can, and blessed are those who get better. Blessed are those who hold the hands of anyone suffering. Blessed is understanding—and being seen—for what Burton offers you is the observation that he sees you, the reader. “I would help others, out of a fellow-feeling,” he writes. Because Robert Burton often felt worthless; as if he was walking at the bottom of the chill Thames. Sometimes it felt like his skull was filled with water-soaked-wool and his eyes pulsated, vision clouded over with gauzy darkness; he knew of listing heaviness and the futility of opening the door, of getting dressed, of leaving the bed, of how often the window of care shrunk to a pinpoint of nothingness, so that he could feel no more than that. This strange book studded with classical allusion and scriptural quotation, historical anecdote and metaphysical speculation—who was it for? He wrote for the person who has had the tab for this article open on their computer for days, but has no energy to read; for the woman who hasn’t showered in weeks and the man who can’t bring himself to go outside. “Thou thyself art the subject of my discourse,” Burton writes. His purpose was one thing—to convey that you have never been alone. Not then, not now, not ever.