Robert Burton – The Anatomy of Melancholy
The 17th century can be regarded as the 'age of melancholy'. It was in fashion to be melancholic. Though it is no wonder that the society of the 17th century saw in Burton's masterpiece, not a guidebook or medical handbook full of warnings how to cope with melancholy, but only some entertaining text full of witty anecdotes and which thus turned into a bestseller and experienced its 5th edition until the death of its' creator, Robert Burton.
For Burton, melancholy is an universal theme. It is a mood, a temper, it is a human condition. Its causes can be found anywhere. And thus, everyone is more or less burdened with it, and, sooner or later, begins running mad with it, Burton himself included.
Melancholy was responsible, for the wild passions and despairs of lovers, the agonies and ecstasies of religious devotees, the frenzies of madmen, and the studious abstraction exemplified by scholars such as Shakespeare and Milton.
People, who are not concerned or do not want to deal with it, are stupid. Nobody can withdraw from melancholy. It is the aspect of mortality which will lead to it. Human beings want to fight against this malady, by leisurely entertainment and distractions of any kind, but this will only cause more suffering.
Melancholiacs are suffering from an incurable disease. Only suicide can redeem those sick persons from suffering. Melancholy cannot be healed. It can only be eased by working hard and by struggling against the feelings of idleness.
Robert Burtons “Anatomy of Melancholy” is divided into three major partitions. The first partition deals with the causes and effects, the second deals with the cures, and the third with two complex and irrational sufferings of the mind: love-melancholy and religious-melancholy.
It is mostly a collection of quotations borrowed from a huge number of other writers, writers, physicians, philosophers to prove those statements given in his book. He quotes everything he read about, from the earliest greek philosophers to his recent coevals in the 17th century.
Nearly all subjects concerning mankind are brought into discourse: medicine, astronomy, philosophy, literature and all the arts, politics, nature.
Nearly everything can cause melancholy, such as religion, madness, frenzy, Sex, politics, war, excessive eating, sports, insomnia, fear, eagerness, envy, egoism, poverty.
Thus the “Anatomy of Melancholy” can be regarded as an universal history and philosophy of human misery.
Robert Burton also writes about “love melancholy”. In the subtitle of this chapter we will read “How Love tyranniseth over men.” - which means that Robert Burton presumes that love tyrannizes over men, and which means that he doesn't have a positive opinion of love. For him, it is “a wandering, extravagant, a domineering, a boundless, an irrefragable, a destructive passion” (Norton 1578). It is a “burning lust” (Norton 1578), which after marriage, will lead to jealousy, and before marriage will lead to the so called “heroical melancholy” (Norton 1578/1580) – a “common practice” (Norton 1580) of “Noble men and women” (Norton 1580), who Burton blames to be “so ordinarily affected with it” (Norton 1580). Burton refers to Avicenna who “defines it to be a disease or melancholy vexation, or anguish of mind, in which a man continually meditates of the beauty, gesture, manners of his mistress, and troubles himself about it…” (Norton 1580). In the worst case, it can lead to “corrivals, etc., begets rapes, incests, murders” (Norton 1578). “Human, divine laws, precepts, exhortations, fear of God and men, fair foul means, fame, fortunes, shame, disgrace, honor cannot oppose, stave off/stare off?, or withstand the fury of it, omnia vincit amor, etc.” (Norton 1579) Furthermore, Burton doesn't expect love to be a male characteristic. Love is something he seems to regard as something absolutely feminine. When he speaks about love melancholy, he focuses purely on men suffering from love. Thus it is women who tyrannize over men. In this aspect, women could be regarded as a symbol for love and melancholy, not as human beings. Burton seems to deny the independent identity of women. But this wasn't abnormal in the time of the 17th century. If we regard romantic poetry of this time, for example several Shakespearean sonnets, we will see that women represented not a kind of stand-alone human being, but an object of desire, the poet could meditate of.
- ISBN (eBook)
- 438 KB
- Institution / Hochschule
- Universität Koblenz-Landau – Anglistik
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