Burton, Robert (1577-1640) (DNB00)

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BURTON, ROBERT (1577–1640), author of the 'Anatomy of Melancholy,' and one of the most fantastic figures in literature, was the second son of Ralph Burton of Lindley in Leicestershire. In the calculation of his nativity, on the right hand of his monument in Christ Church Cathedral, the date of his birth is given as 8 Feb. 1576-7. He tells us in the 'Anatomy of Melancholy' (chapter on 'Aire Rectified, with a digression of the Aire,' part ii., sect. 2, memb. 3) that his birthplace was Lindley in Leicestershire. There is a tradition that he was born at Falde in Staffordshire, and Plot, in his 'Natural History of Staffordshire,' 1680 (p. 276), states that he was shown the house of Robert Burton's nativity; but the tradition probably arose from the fact that William Burton [q.v.] resided at Falde. We learn from his will that he passed some time at the grammar school, Nuneaton; and in the 'Digression of the Aire' he mentions that he had been a scholar at the free school of Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire. In the long vacation of 1593 he was sent as a commoner to Brasenose College, Oxford, and in 1599 was elected student of Christ Church, where, 'for form sake, tho' he wanted not a tutor,' he was placed under the tuition of Dr. John Bancroft. He took the degree of B.D. in 1614, and was admitted to the reading of the sentences. On 29 Nov. 1616 he was presented by the dean and chapter of Christ Church to the vicarage of St. Thomas, in the west suburbs of Oxford ; and it is recorded that he always gave his parishioners the sacrament in wafers, and that he built the south porch of the church. About 1630 he received from George, Lord Berkeley, the rectory of Segrave in Leicestershire, which, with his Oxford living, he kept 'with much ado to his dying day.' In 1606 Burton wrote a Latin comedy, which was acted at Christ Church on Shrove Monday, 16 Feb. 1617-18. It was not printed in the author's lifetime, and was long supposed to be irretrievably lost ; but two manuscript copies had fortunately been preserved. One of these belonged to Dean Milles (who died in 1784), and is now in the possession of the Rev. William Edward Budsley, of Middleton Cheney, by whom it was privately printed in handsome quarto for presentation to the Roxburghe Club in 1862. On the title-page is written 'Inchoata A° Domini 1606, alterata, renovata, perfecta Anno Domini 1615.' Over inchoata is written in the same hand scripta, and over renovata, revisa. The other manuscript, a presentation copy from the author to his brother, William Burton, is in Lord Mostyn's library (Hist MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. 366). 'Philosophaster' bears a certain resemblance to Tomkis's 'Albumazar,' acted at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1614, and to Ben Jonson's 'Alchemist,' acted in 1610, and published in 1612. In the prologue the author anticipates criticism on this point:—

Emendicatum e nupera scena aut quis putet,
Sciat quod undecim abhinc annis scripta fuit.

Burton's comedy is a witty exposure of the practices of professors in the art of chicanery. The manners of a fraternity of vagabonds are portrayed with considerable humour and skill, and the lyrical portions of the play are written with a light hand. At the end of the volume Mr. Buckley has collected, at the cost of considerable research, all Burton's contributions to various academic collections of Latin verse.

In 1621 appeared the first edition of Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy,' one of the most fascinating books in literature. The full title is—'The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is. With all the Kindes, Cavses, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and severall Cvres of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their seuerall Sections, Members, and Svbsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically opened and cvt vp. By Democritus Iunior. With a Satyricall Preface conducing to the following Discourse. Macrob. Omne meum, Nihil meum. At Oxford, Printed by Iohn Lichfield and Iames Short, for Henry Cripps, Anno Dom. 1621,' 4to. The first edition contains at the end an 'Apologetical Appendix' (not found in later editions), signed 'Robert Bvrton,' and dated 'From my Studie in Christ-Church, Oxon. December 5, 1620.' Later editions in folio appeared in 1624, 1628, 1632, 1632, 1651-2, 1660, 1676; an edition in 2 vols. 8vo was published in 1800, and again in 1806; and several abridgments of the great work have been published in the present century. In the third edition (1628) first appeared the famous frontispiece, engraved by C. Le Blond. The sides are illustrated with figures representing tbe effects of Melancholy from Love, Hypochondriasis, Superstition and Madness. At the top is Democritus, emblematically represented, and at the foot a portrait of the author. In the corners at the top are emblems of Jealousy and Solitude, and in the corners at the bottom are the herbs Borage and Hellebore. Burton was continually altering and adding to his treatise. In the preface to the third edition he announced that he intended to make no more changes: 'I am now resolved never to put this Treatise out again. Ne quid nimis. I will not hereafter add, alter, or retract; I have done.' But when the fourth edition appeared it was found that he had not been able to resist the temptation of making a further revision. The sixth edition was printed from an annotated copy which was handed to the publisher shortly before Burton's death. Wood states that the publisher, Henry Cripps, made a fortune by the sale of the 'Anatomy;' and Fuller in his 'Worthies' remarked that 'scarce any book of philology in our land hath in so short a time passed so many editions.' The treatise was dedicated to George, Lord Berkeley. In the long preface, 'Democritus to the Reader,' which is one of the most interesting parts of the book, the author gives us an account of his style of life at Oxford: 'I have lived a silent, sedentary, solitary, private life, mihi et muns, in the university, as long almost as Xenocrates in Athens, ad senectam fere, to learn wisdom as he did, penned up most part in my study. For I have been brought up a student in the most flourishing colledge of Europe [Christ Church in Oxford—marg. note], Augustisimo Collegio, and can brag with Iorus almost, in ea luce domicilii Vaticand, totius orbis celeberrimi, per 87 annos multa opportunaque didici: for thirty years I have continued (having the use of as good libraries as ever he had) a scholar, and would be, therefore, loth either by living as a drone to be an unprofitable or unworthy a member of so learned and noble a societie, or to write that which should be any way dishonourable to such a royal and ample foundation.' He then proceeds to speak of the desultory character of his studies: 'I have read many books but to little purpose, for want of good method; I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment.' For preferment he was not anxious: 'I am not poor, I am not rich; nihil est, nihil dsest. I have little, I want nothing; all my treasure is in Minerva's tower.' He anticipates the objections of hostile critics who may urge that his time would have been better spent in publishing books of divinity. He saw 'no such need' for that class of works, as there existed already more commentaries, treatises, pamphlets, expositions, and sermons than whole teams of oxen could draw. Why did he choose such a subject as melancholy ? 'I write of melancholy,' is the answer, 'by being busy to avoid melancholy.' He apologises for the rudeness of his style, on the ground that he could not afford to employ an Amanuensis or assistants. After relating the story of Pantrates (in Lucian), who by magic turned a door-bar into a serving-man, he proceeds in this strain: 'I have no such skill to make new men at my pleasure, or means to hire them, no whistle to call like the master of a ship, and bid them run, &c. I have no such authority; no such benefactors as that, noble Ambrosius was to Origen, allowing him six or seven Amanuenses to write out his Dictats. I must for that cause do my businesse my self, and was therefore enforced, as a Boar doth her whelps, to bring forth this confused lump.' To some slight extent Burton was indebted to 'A Treatise of Melancholy,' by T. Bright, 1586. The 'Anatomy' is divided into three partitions, which are subdivided into sections, members, and subsections. Prefixed to each partition is an elaborate synopsis as a sort of index, in humorous imitation of the practice so common in books of scholastic divinity. Part i. deals with the causes and symptoms of melancholy; part ii. with the cure of melancholy; and part iii. with love melancholy and religious melancholy. On every page quotations abound from authors of all ages and countries, classics, fathers of the church, medical writers, poets, historians, scholars, travellers, &c. There is a unique charm in Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy.' Dr. Johnson said that it was the only book that ever took him out of his bed two hours sooner than he intended to rise. Ferriar in his 'Illustrations of Sterne' showed how 'Tristram Shandy' was permeated with Burton's influence. Charles Lamb was an enthusiastic admirer of the 'fantastic old great man,' and to some extent modelled his style on the 'Anatomy.' In 'Curious Fragments extracted from the Commonplace Book of Robert Burton' (appended to the tragedy of 'Woodvil,' 1802) Lamb imitated with marvellous fidelity Burton's charming mannerisms. Milton, as Warton was the first to point out, gathered hints for 'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso' from the verses ('The Author's Abstract of Melancholy') prefixed to the 'Anatomy.' There is no keener delight to an appreciative student than to shut himself in his study and be immersed 'from morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve,' in Burton's far-off world of forgotten lore. Commonplace writers have described the 'Anatomy' as a mere collection of quotations, a piece of patchwork. The description is utterly untrue. On every page is the impress of a singularly deep and original genius. As a humorist Burton bears some resemblance to Sir Thomas Browne; this vein of semi-serious humour is, to his admirers, one of the chief attractions of his style. When he chooses to write smoothly his language is strangely musical.

Little is recorded of Burton's life. Bishop Kennet (in his Register and Chrionicle, p. 320) says that after writing the 'Anatomy' to suppress his own melancholy, he did but improve it. 'In an interval of vapours' he I would be extremely cheerful, and then he would fall into such a state of despondency that he could only get relief by going to the bridge-foot at Oxford and hearing the barge-men swear at one another, 'at which he would set his hands to his sides and laugh most profusely.' Kennet's story recalls a passage about Democritus in Burton's preface: 'He lived at last in a garden in the suburbs, wholly betaking himself to his studies and a private life, saving that sometimes he would walk down to the haven and laugh heartily at such variety of ridiculous objects which there he saw.' It would appear that when he adopted the title of Democritus Junior, Burton seriously set himself to imitate the eccentricities recorded of the old philosopher. Anecdotes about Burton are very scarce. It is related in 'Reliquiæ Hearnianæ' that one day when Burton was in a book-shop the Earl of Southampton entered and inquired for a copy of the 'Anatomy of Melancholy;' whereupon 'says the bookseller "My lord, if you please I can show you the author.'" He did so. "Mr. Burton," says the earl, "your servant." "Mr. Southampton," says Mr. Burton, "your servant," and away he went.' Wood gives the following character of Burton: 'He was an exact mathematician, a curious calculator of nativities, a general read scholar, a thorough-paced philologist, and one that understood the surveying of lands well. As he was by many accounted a severe student, a devourer of authors, a melancholy and humorous person, so by others who knew him well a person of great honesty, plain dealing and charity. I have heard some of the antients of Christ Church often say that his company was very merry, facete and juvenile, and no man of his time did surpass him for his ready and dexterous interlarding his common discourses among them with verses from the poets or sentences from classical authors,' Burton died at Christ Church on 25 Jan. 1639-40, at or very near the time that he had foretold some years before by the calculation of his nativity. Wood says there was a report among the students that he had 'sent up his soul to heaven thro' a noose about his neck' in order that his calculation might be verified. He was buried in the north aisle of Christ Church Cathedral, and over his grave was erected, at the expense of his brother William Burton, a comely monument, on the upper pillar of the aisle, with his bust in colour; on the right hand above the bust is the calculation of his nativity, and beneath the bust is the epitaph which he composed for himself—'Paucis notus, paucioribus ignotus, hic hacet Democritus Junior, cui vitam dedit et mortem Melancholia.' His portrait hangs in the hall of Brasenose College. He left behind him a choice library of books, many of which he bequeathed to the Bodleian. The collection included a number of rare Elizabethan tracts. There is an elegy on Burton in Martin Llewellyn's poems, 1646.

[Wood's Athenæ, ed. Bliss, ii. 652-3; Nichols's Leicestershire, vol. iii. pt i. 415-19; Preface to the Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. 6; Philosophaster, Comœdia, ed. Rev. W.E. Buckley, 1862; Kennet's Register and Chronicle, 1728. p. 320; Ferriar's Illustrations of Sterne, 1799; Hearne's Reliquiæ, ed. Bliss, i. 288; Blackwood's Magazine, September 1861; Lamb's Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading; Stephen Jones's Memoir prefixed to the Anatomy, ed. 1800.]

A. H. B.