The Anatomy of Melancholy. Now for the first time with the Latin completely given in translation and embodied in an all-English text

by Robert Burton

Other authorsFloyd Dell (Editor)
Hardcover, 1951




New York, Tudor Pub. Co., 1951


One of the major documents of modern European civilization, Robert Burton's astounding compendium, a survey of melancholy in all its myriad forms, has invited nothing but superlatives since its publication in the seventeenth century. Lewellyn Powys called it "the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing," while the celebrated surgeon William Osler declared it the greatest of medical treatises. And Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure. In this surprisingly compact and elegant new edition, Burton's spectacular verbal labyrinth is sure to delight, instruct, and divert today's readers as much as it has those of the past four centuries.

Media reviews

Robert Burton's The anatomy of melancholy, first completed in 1621, appears to be a medical work, but is described in the Tudor edition of 1927 by Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (Tudor Publishing Company, New York) as 'a sort of literary cosmos, an omnium gatherum, a compendium of everything that caught the fancy of the scholar.. . abounding in quaint conceits, excerpts and quotations'. The 52-page index to the 984-page text reflects this anecdotal profusion.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JimElkins
I have finally finished a careful reading of Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," along with a wonderful book by Ruth Fox, "The Tangled Chain: The Structure of Disorder in the Anatomy of Melancholy."

This is part of my ongoing project to read maximalist fiction -- really, to read the longest, most complex books I can find. There is a tradition according to which Burton belongs with Milton and Shakespeare in the 17th century canon. I haven't been able to discover the origins of this judgment (I suspect someone like Harold Bloom) but it seems wholly appropriate. Even though Burton's book is nominally what is now called nonfiction, it is an act of imagination absolutely comparable to Milton and Shakespeare. If it's read as a first-person text, and not a 17th century medical treatise, it can sound to 21st century ears as a memoir, or a "theory-text," or a kind of "essay-novel" in the tradition of Musil. (Autobiographical voicing is intermittent throughout; see for example, 1.4.1.) In other words: there is no reason not to include it in the roster of indispensable English writing.

(And before I begin: the NYRB edition pictured here is not a good one to read. The print is small and the margins are clipped. After a lot of searching I found the Tudor Publishing edition edited by Dell and Jordan-Smith, printed in 1927, in hardcover. I bought a copy for only $10. It's well printed and easy to read; it's 1,000 pages long, so it's bulky but not difficult to hold. There are also editions with Burton's extensive Latin intact, but unless you are fluent in Latin, those are only impediments; Burton did not imagine his Latin guarded his text against anyone -- except in one passage, where he makes fun of scholars by putting a page in Latin, pretending they couldn't read it. There is also the multi-volume Cambridge Press edition, which is madly expensive, and not at all necessary unless you're interested in looking up Burton's sources, almost all of which were also written in Latin.)

Perhaps an initial thing to say about the book is that it cannot be read without laughing, and that the comedy is unintended. It's an inevitable effect of the three centuries that have passed since the book was written. It's absolutely full of outlandish, crazy, unbelievable anecdotes and odd usages of English.

The book is as prodigious as Shakespeare or Milton in striking ideas and writing, and I annotated nearly every one of my edition's 1,000 pages. Most of those passages are also inadvertently funny. To cure rabies, it's only necessary to go to a bath and picture a dog in the bath: the conceit (why would a dog bathe?) is enough to overcome the insanity of rabies ( A good cure for farting is to put a bellows "into a clyster pipe" and pump the wind out ( Horse leeches are good for hemorrhoids (2.4.3). These days people can hardly be bled, but it was once possible to take "six pounds of blood" and people wouldn't mind (

A full engagement with the book has to acknowledge that it is ridiculous at many points. Personally I did not find any of those passages detrimental to a more serious reading. And the language and ideas are often stupendous. At one point he argues that it is no harm to be a stranger who travels and has no home, and he gives a list of things that are strangers to one another, including rain, which is "a stranger to the earth" (2.3.4). Later he remarks that the ground "covets" showers, because it loves them ( He has a barely controlled fascination with stagnant water, which is expressed dozens of times in the book, each time with a different poetry:

"The worst... is a thick, cloudy, misty, foggy air, or such as comes from fens, moorish grounds, lakes, muckhills, draughts, sinks, where any carcasses or carrion lies, or from whence any stinking fulsome smell comes" []

And he is of course wonderful in his repeated conjurings of different kinds of melancholics:

"...little by little... Melancholy, this feral friend, is drawn on, & as far as it reaches its branches toward the heavens, so far does it plunge its roots to the depths beneath; it was not so delicious at first, as now it is bitter and harsh: a cankered soul macerated with cares and discontents, a being tired of life, impatience, agony, inconstancy, irresolution, precipitate... into unspeakable miseries. They cannot endure company, light, or life itself... Their bodies are lean and dried up, withered, ugly, their looks harsh, very dull, and their souls tormented, as they are more or less intangled..." []

It would be possible to go on quoting until I'd quoted most of the book: the same would be true of Milton or Shakespeare. For me, however, the principal interest of the book for me is its structure. Burton offers a "Synopsis" at the start of each of the book's three "Partitions" (parts). The Synopsis is in the form of an outline organized in bracketed paragraphs { { {. If the three Synopses were printed all together, in a reasonable font size, they might be 10 feet long. He divides each of his Partitions into Sections, each Section into Members, each Member into Subsections, and in the text, each Subsection has a number and a title (some fairly long). (It is worth remarking that the famous frontispiece is a simple-minded and inaccurate synopsis: I studied it as a student, because it's the book's only visual element, but it doesn't begin to approach the text's concerns.)

This is daunting enough, but the interest comes in the fact that these Synopses do not make logical sense. In a rationally organized table of contents, each division (here, for example, each Section) would be equal to each other Section. But in Burton's Synopsis, some Sections are subheadings of other Sections. The entire organization is a chaos, and it is therefore impossible to use as a guide in reading: instead a reader is at the mercy of Burton's often unconvincing synopses and introductions.

Ruth Fox's book is a brilliant untangling of Burton's sense of reason and logic: it belongs in the tradition of Empson in that every sentence counts, and the book is argued from first to last. In that sense it's a sort of antidote to Burton: slim, well-organized, nothing superfluous. She makes the fascinating point that in the Third Partition on Love-melancholy, the last of the book's three parts, Burton inverts his own system of organization. Here is part of her analysis:

"...the logic of the first two Partitions is one of cause an effect, of action and reaction, so that Partition I states the thesis--definition, causes, symptoms, and prognostics--of the disease, while Partition II--under its single topic, cure--provides the antithesis to all of the topics of I. In I and II the three kinds of 'definite' melancholy are treated as subtopics of the cause-cure analysis.... But in Partition III he changes the base of his analysis, using now as his major organizational scheme not the logic of thesis and antithesis, but that of division... To put it another way, the roman numerals of the outline of Partitions I and II become the arabic numerals in the outline of Partition III." [pp. 124-25]

The entire structure and logic of the outline is inverted: subheading become headings.

This is an important example of the way the book is continuously getting away from Burton. Fox concludes: "Burton's book sets out to cure melancholy, and does so by being an ordered form of disorder, an answer to imperfection which contains imperfection but defines it by art." (pp. 271-72)

I could literally go on for several hundred pages on this topic. There are more logical issues in this book than any other I know, including Wittgenstein's "Tractatus." Burton tries desperately hard, in as many ways as he can, to control his subject, but melancholy keeps spreading: in one passage, everyone is a melancholic and "no mortal man is free" from it (; in another, melancholy and madness are nearly equated; in another, all of melancholy is a fault of love.

The fact that Burton probably died by suicide necessarily haunts all readings of this book. In the book, suicide comes up several times (see for example 1.4.1), but most especially toward the end, where he speaks of despair. For him that is a special condition, particularly hard to bear, because the person who experiences it suffers from a partial, and therefore faulty, understanding of god. He may be able to reason very well, in fact better than anyone around him, and that makes his condition especially intractable. One woman "rose from her bed, and out of the window broke her neck into the street" ( Another, a lawyer from Padua, out-argued his doctors, arguing "against himself, and so he desperately died" (

"The Anatomy of Melancholy" is a labyrinth that shifts and changes as it is read. (For Fox, this organic, unfinished quality is what makes it, paradoxically, able to present itself as a cure.) As a document of a fierce struggle against solitude, despair, unreason, confusion, depression, and suicide, it has no rival.
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LibraryThing member Pepys
I was very intrigued by the excellent (non-LT) reviews I read before buying this book. But I must say that it was unfortunately a complete deception. I cannot understand why this book should be taken to a desert island, as many readers (LTers & others) claim... It might be because my knowledge of Latin & Greek, & of the classics is not thorough enough. In my present state of knowledge, & although I salute Robert Burton's 'tour de force', I found the digestion of the 3 partitions particularly heavy... I might try again in 20 or 30 years, who knows?… (more)
LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
This is the longest book I've read in a while, it seems like I've been reading it forever. This version comes in 3 volumes, the first being around 440 pages the second around 250, and the third over 400 again. All in all, over a thousand pages, not including the references, of which there must be at least a couple of hundred pages worth. The only other book comparable to this in length that I've read recently was the Golden Bough, which was almost as daunting a read as this was.
I did find parts of this book a little hard going, but the variety of topics that the author goes at length to discuss helps keep it interesting. The pages while small are full of dense text, and it will take a long time to finish. The number of sources quoted is absolutely astonishing, and this is why a significant number of pages in each volume go toward the reference sections. Following in the scholastic tradition, most of the citations come from ancient greek and medieval philosophers and scholars. Although many of the quotes are in latin, this copy has the translations for nearly all of them included, which is useful. The author also seems to keenly appreciate poetry, and many of the quotes are in verse, from such as Homer and Virgil, which is a nice touch. The work provides a fine insight into renaissance thought, and all the prevalent ideas of the time, which will be of interest to anyone who likes a bit of history. People don't write books like this anymore, the author seems to be an expert at everything, and this is one of the things that puts this book in a class of its own. The author is keen on his mythology too, and regularly the Greek and Roman gods and charaters from myths and plays are brought up, so those with a classical leaning should appreciate the book too. I'd recommend this book to anyone with plenty of time on their hands, and patience, who enjoys reading.
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LibraryThing member AlanWPowers
This book sat behind my chair after I had it bound, for forty years, and I read from it every few days. A great book, but a dipper: too dense to plow through, Latin quotations and all, but rewarding in pieces, like the Bible and, say, Gilbert White (Natural History of Selbourne). Originally one of he four "humors" like "Blood/ Sanguinary" that determine personality--"sanguine" being out-going, optimisic-- "Melancholy" or black bile broadens here to include what we call "psychology" or psychotropic disease, for instance, "love melancholy," which Freud placed squarely as the foundation stone of psychiatry--and now, arguably, results in crossing and transgressing gender.
But Burton also reflects on the scholar's work, more poorly paid than "one who curls hair."
Grand discussions, say, of whether fatty meat is unhealthy, or how to avoid heart problems. Constipation has a long chapter in Pt II, but Pt one has, halfway through, a long discussion of specific foods and their effects--sort of Master Chef meats Dr. Oz. "Generally, all such meats as are hard of digestion breed melancholy. Artaeus lib7 cap5 reckons up heads and feet, bowels, brains, marrow, fat, skins...They are rejected by Isaac, lib2.part.3...Milk, and all that comes of milk, as butter and cheese, curds, etc. increase melancholy (whey only excepted, which is most wholesome); some except asses' milk" (Vintage '77. p219).
Burton begins with general observations: "The Turkes deride us, we them; Italians Frenchmen, accounting them light-headed fellows." He seems to relate the mind or soul to melancholy's effects here.
The two other Galenic humors not so far mentioned are choleric and phlegmatic. Many law-enforement programs now focus on the choleric, and half of all TV-advertised medicines treat the phlegmatic.
A general observation for our time: "Nimirum insanus paucis videatur:Maxima pars hominum morbo iactatur eodem." When all are crazy, who can distinguish the mad?
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LibraryThing member cornerhouse
I've been reading the Anatomy for years off and on and I don't doubt that I'll continue reading it off and on for many years to come. It's really a world unto itself -- and not a small world at that, even though it is very much the picture of one man's mind. And it's a world that's strange and wonderful, confusing and infuriating, fascinating and boring, but one that I wouldn't want to have not known.

A note on the edition: The Folio edition of the Anatomy is well worth owning, if you like spending time with Burton and plan to continue the relationship. Besides all of the usual niceties of the usual run of Folio editions, there's something here that's particularly useful: the typesetting. With all of the quotations and notes that are an integral part of this sprawling text, it's much easier to read when it's properly set.
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LibraryThing member Cygnus555
Where to you begin on this one... You must have this! I am reading this currently, and probably will be for much of the rest of my life. When it is billed as "The best book ever written"... you kinda gotta have it on your shelf, don't ya think? :-)
LibraryThing member kencf0618
One of the greatest grab bag books of all time.
LibraryThing member TrysB
Burton attempts to describe the causes and cures of melancholia, which today we label as depression. In the 17th century, human emotions were associated with various fluids in the body--a sanguine temperament with blood, a choleric temperament with an excess of bile. Melancholia was thought to arise from an excess of something called 'black' bile. As a physician, he describes a number of ways to overcome melancholy including the use of certain drugs. A monument to the author's erudition, the Anatomy contains a vast cabinet of recipes, stories, anecdotes, biographies and curiosa--enough to while away many an evening in front of the fire sipping a glass of old Port (a sure cure for melancholia!).… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This is a book that I view as a reference work in the sense that I read it a bit at a time. I refer to it as the need arises whether due to my own melancholy or to a reference in another work. This is a massive creation of genius and a lifetime of thought. It deserves my continuing devotion and meditation on its content and meaning.… (more)
LibraryThing member jonfaith
Reality should be snared, at least where it is convenient. Burton demanded browsers and I obliged. I did not read this book sequentially. Nor was any effort made to complete this book cover-to-cover. It was read in a flourish of skips and delights: anti-oedpian piercing and parsing. Gazes, gouges and gatherings, baby. I will return to this for the rest of my life.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lady_Shakespeare
How to cure melancholia...
LibraryThing member Nouche
Where to begin discussing this book? How about again and again? For it begs never to be put down, and if finished (as if that's even possible) to be picked up again and pored over. Again. And again. And again . . .
It got Samuel Jonson out of bed earlier than he wished. It kept me up later than I wished, and still "reading" it in my mind over and over again, musing on the insanity of it - the brilliant, always entertaining, enlightening, LIGHTING bolts of language and thought crammed so mercilessly between two covers. It won't drive you mad, though, or mess with your humours, unless, of course, a sense of one you don't have - a bricolage (I think) to be devoured ravenously and chewed interminably like an everlasting gobstopper - a joy to exhaust your mind and body by . . .… (more)
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
For just going off on tangent after tangent after tangent and somehow just not really up or caring if you get lost in it...get lost in it with him...
LibraryThing member ritaer
#70 [The Anatomy of Melencholy] Robert Burton. This has been on my 'to read' list for a long time. It is a convoluted monster of a book with endless citations of authorities that no one but a scholar of Renaissance literature will have heard of. Burton has a great tendency to argue himself in circles, carefully presenting all sides of every discussion without really coming down firmly. It is interesting to see how much of what we think we know about how people thought in the seventeenth century is not accurate--for instance I did not know that the idea of the stars as suns in themselves was already prevalent. Not for everyone.… (more)


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