A classic work of unbridled joy

This is the best popular edition ever produced of one of the most amusing books in our language


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Robert Burton claimed to know not only the date but the precise hour — 9pm — at which he had been conceived. How he might have arrived at this information is very much an open question. Perhaps English parents in the late sixteenth century were freer about these matters than is now customary.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, edited by Angus Gowland, Penguin Classics, £40.00

The most likely explanation, assuming he did not read about his parents’ coupling in a book (he owned an astonishing 1,738 volumes) is that he counted backwards and, resorting to the astrological calculations with which he filled the pages of notebooks, simply concluded that his mother and father must have come together at the hour of Saturn, destining him to a life of melancholy.

Like Sir Thomas Browne, Burton belongs to that extraordinary twilit period in English literature when medieval astrology and humoral theory overlapped with Harvey’s research on the circulation of the blood, and the reality of witchcraft and demonic possession were considered logical concomitants of Christian belief, not least by medical authorities.

The Anatomy of Melancholy is among the last great works of early modern Christian humanism (it ends with a quotation from St Augustine, or “Austin” as Burton refers to him), but it also anticipates both modern psychiatry and the so-called encyclopedic novels of Joyce, Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

One obstacle to the book’s enjoying a wider contemporary readership has been the lack of a satisfactory popular edition

The Anatomy is often compared to a labyrinth, perhaps under the influence of Borges, who greatly admired it. But it is really more like a country house: a ramshackle but nevertheless impressive old pile, its galleries and antechambers full of fine portraits and statues, but also trick mirrors and pornographic miniatures hidden away in cabinets; there are whoopee cushions on some of the Queen Anne chairs, and your tour guide is a dipso clergyman who cannot remember whether he is playing an elaborate joke or giving you spiritual direction.

In Burton’s lifetime the book, which went through six editions (despite his promise that the third would be the last) was a bestseller. Its influence on the Jacobean stage is especially pronounced, and one experiences a certain horror at the thought that John Webster appears to have considered it a genuinely valuable medical text.

In the eighteenth century, various scribblers pilfered it for classical quotations, including Laurence Sterne, who reproduced large portions of it virtually unaltered in Tristram Shandy. Since then, its admirers have included Dr Johnson (who said it was the only book worth waking up to read), Charles Lamb, Keats, and, oddly enough, O. Henry.

One thing that was clear even in Burton’s day is that the Anatomy is not meant to be read through cover to cover. Instead it is one of those books like Religio Medici or, closer to our own time, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s delightful Wartime Journal, that can be opened at any page at random and fill the reader with joy. This is true not just at the level of individual phrases (“The eye is a secret Orator, the first bawd”), but even single words (“suffumigations”).

Until recently, one obstacle to the book’s enjoying a wider contemporary readership has been the lack of a satisfactory popular edition. Some years ago New York Review Classics brought one out, but this was a reprint of the old three-volume Everyman version from the 1930s, albeit stuffed into a single unwieldy paperback.Thank goodness, then, for the beautiful new Penguin Classics edition, edited by Angus Gowland, a reader in intellectual history at University College, London.

Gowland has also sensibly taken liberties not only with orthography and spelling but also with Burton’s baffling punctuation

While it is probably absurd to praise a book numbering some 1,300 densely packed pages for its compactness, Gowland has made a number of judicious decisions — for example, eliminating original references in which Burton presents the Latin text of quotations that appear in English in the main body — that allow him to give us a sturdy one-volume Anatomy with more than 200 pages of his own notes. These are helpful in dealing with an author who seems to be under the impression that “Every schoolboy hath that famous testament of Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus at his fingers’ ends.”

Gowland has also sensibly taken liberties not only with orthography, which is thoroughly modernised, and spelling but also with Burton’s baffling punctuation. In his introduction, Gowland declares himself in the debt of the editors of the Clarendon edition published three decades ago, but it is really we who find ourselves in his debt.

Some years ago, I tried to put a friend on to the Anatomy. “But it’s like reading Roget’s Thesaurus!” he said. Burton certainly gets a lot of mileage out of lists (“bears, owls, antiques, black dogs, fiends, hideous outcries, fearful noises, shrieks, lamentable complaints”). But in his most representative passages he uses them to carry us effortlessly through all of human knowledge — classics, theology, history, geography, medicine, poetry — before bidding us to look inward.

Then he punctuates the whole thing with a joke (“I will say nothing of dissolute and bad husbands, of bachelors and their vices; their good qualities are a fitter subject for a just volume”).

There are only one or two writers who can pull off this sort of thing. One is Milton. The other is St. Luke, who, after the glorious rolling catalogue of “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,” reminds us that the Holy Apostles cannot have been drunk, “seeing it is but the third hour of the day”.

This is the best popular edition ever produced of one of the most amusing books in our language, a masterpiece of scholarship. It belongs on the shelves of everyone who loves English literature and all those who aspire to do so.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover