Burton’s Rhapsody of Rags

Robert Burton was born on this day in 1577. Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was an immediate bestseller and is now regarded as one of the most indispensable, enjoyable, and uncategorizable of Renaissance texts. Burton’s title page promises to document “the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures” of melancholia, the ailment “Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically Opened and Cut Up.”

This suggestion of surgical precision is misleading. Burton was a scholar-librarian in the Human Search Engine mode, and his Anatomy is stuffed with thousands of quotations, at least a dozen per page, all patched together “with as small deliberation as I do usually speak.” The result is a learned compendium overlaid by a madcap soliloquy, “a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dunghills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out.” Burton continued the gathering-tumbling for some two decades, each new edition crammed with additional material and bearing witness that the author “had not time to lick it into form, as a bear doth her young ones.”

The recommended and perhaps only possible way to read the Anatomyis to dive at random into any page — there are some 1,800 in the original, almost 1,400 in the reduced paperback edition published by Granta/New York Review of Books. Below, a typical (and much abbreviated) ramble into Burtonmania, this one taken from an extended anatomization of those afflicted with lover’s melancholia:

Every lover admires his mistress, though she be very deformed of herself, ill-favoured, wrinkled, pimpled, pale, red, yellow, tanned, tallow-faced, have a swollen juggler’s platter face, or a thin, lean, chitty face, have clouds in her face, be crooked, dry, bald, goggle-eyed, blear-eyed, or with staring eyes, she looks like a squis’d cat, hold her head still awry, heavy, dull, hollow-eyed, black or yellow about the eyes, or squint-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, Persian hook-nosed, have a sharp fox-nose, a red nose, China flat, great nose, nare simo patuloque [snub and flat nose], a nose like a promontory, gubber-tushed, rotten teeth, black, uneven brown teeth, beetle-browed, a witch’s beard, her breath stink all over the room, her nose drop winter and summer, with a Bavarian poke under her chin….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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