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Long ago when reading a lengthy, serious, and technical book was considered an agreeable and even entertaining way of passing the time, Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy was a best seller. This was a curious fate for a superannuated medical treatise written in the early seventeenth century not by a doctor but by a reclusive clergyman and scholar at the University of Oxford who set out to write on melancholy and made it the occasion to take up much else as well. During his lifetime the book went through six editions. From 1621 to 1651 it grew considerably in bulk, starting at 353,369 words and finally attaining 516,384 (a seventh edition with no revisions was published in 1660 shortly before Burton’s death). It was not reprinted during the eighteenth century, but there must have been many copies still available from the previous century. Samuel Johnson told Boswell that it was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”
In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic movement made this tract into literature. Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats were all, among many others, fascinated by the work, and in one of Keats’s letters there is even a very elaborate, admiring, and funny pastiche of Burton. Coleridge is said to have pronounced it “one of the most entertaining books in the language.” It became indeed a classic: forty-eight editions were published in the nineteenth century.
Interest then subsided. In standard histories of English literature, of course, Burton always retained a grand place, but the twentieth century saw few reprints, although many libraries were, and still are, well stocked with the editions of the nineteenth century. Recently, however, there has been an important revival. New York Review Books has reprinted the text of the three-volume edition of 1932 in a useful and inexpensive single volume, and a six-volume critical edition has also appeared, containing all the many thousands of variants of the work as it appeared in the seventeenth century, with the last three volumes an extensive (although by no means exhaustive) commentary. At the same time, the French have suddenly decided after almost four centuries to translate the book, in two chunky volumes, with an introduction by Jean Starobinski, the world’s leading authority on the relations of literature and medicine, as well as on much else.
To call The Anatomy of Melancholy a medical treatise, as I have done, is misleading, in part because Burton uses the subject as an excuse to introduce whatever takes his fancy, but principally because melancholy was not so much a disease as a basic component of civilization. It defined a type of personality, but technically the condition of Melancholy was a physical imbalance created by an unwelcome preponderance of one of the four humors that regulated the body, in this case the invasion into the blood of the humor of black bile. When Burton wrote, the …
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