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Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton: A Unique Masterpiece of Quixotic Acumen

Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton: A Unique Masterpiece of Quixotic Acumen

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

When reading tarot many arrays of cards suggest the prevalent attitudes and aptitudes of the querant. For those of us who have not had the chance I suggest a hidden treasure of English literature.

Melancholy may be peculiarly an English malady. One could say it is a national characteristic, born out of their long, dark nights and drizzle-wet-infested, indecisive weather. That mugginess of the soul, studious inexactitude of speech, and ambient dejectedness is almost like a national uniform. Recall late-70s rock or the Jacobean poets, the Brontë novels or Francis Bacon. You get the drift.

The undulating 60s, those effervescent lyrics and bright, clear, angular fashions, were not a true expression of English character. Quite the reverse; they were an aberration, a counterphobic paroxysm of, the exact opposite of what the British are really and truly comfortable with.

This British melancholy breeds a different kind of cynicism: rough hewn from an Atlantic gale or blast of sharp rain. It’s earthy, weather-bound and intensely corporal.

You see it might begin in the weather but it concentrates in the body,  the spleen to be exact, or rather because of an ancestral fascination with that mysterious organ, to be found lurking somewhere between the 9th  and 11th ribs on the left-hand side of the chest.

It was the Greek physician, Hippocrates and his Roman imitator, Galen, who made fashionable the diagnosis that the spleen is the source of black bile, that pungent, sluggish humor. A little of it, they surmised, is good for us, balancing out those other humors: blood, yellow bile and phlegm.

But too much leads to splenetic behavior and will blight our sporty proficiency. Pliny describes how the ancient Greeks endeavored to remove its vindictive influence by cauterizing the skin in that area of the body, burning and wasting it with a hot iron.

But it was up to an Englishman, Oxfordian cleric, Robert Burton, to provide us in the 1620s with an anatomical dissection of what it is to be truly splenetic in his Anatomy of Melancholy. He described how black bile builds up in the spleen until it begins to rise up through the chest, its smoky vapors coursing through the body and invading the imagination, until finally black smoke begins wafting through the soul’s every experience, sublime, profane and sacred.

Burton called melancholy “the rust of the soul”, capturing the twin torments of spiritual decay and its physical manifestations. Melancholia is no mere “mood disorder” (Burton reminds us of the poverty of modern terminology). Supposedly originating in an excess of black bile, the disease threatens the body with a vile array of sensations.

The Anatomy is a peculiar laboratory in which the human form becomes porous and fluid, subject to terrifying assault. Melancholia can be an accident of astrology, the result of excessive heat or cold, a moist brain or cold stomach.

If one has a melancholic parent, a hot heart or a small head, you are pretty much doomed. So numerous are the causes of melancholy, so universal are its dominion that the book quickly runs into methodological trouble.

Melancholy proliferates; it flowers like rust on every surface Burton touches.

The gloomy aphorist EM Cioran wrote of The Anatomy of Melancholy that it had “the best title ever invented” but the work itself was more or less indigestible.

If the literature of depression tends toward attenuated speech patterns as for instance the crippled syntax of a Beckett or Duras, then Burton’s treatise is a gargantuan anomaly: for it a monster of eloquence.

Nicholas Lezard celebrates The Anatomy of Melancholy by claiming it “the best book ever written.” He continues his rhapsody:
I use the word “book” with care. It’s not a novel, a tract, an epic poem, a history; it is, quite self-consciously, the book to end all books. Made out of all the books that existed in a 17th-century library, it was compiled in order to explain and account for all human emotion and thought. It is not restricted to melancholy, or, as we call it today, depression; but then a true study of it will have to be - if you have the learning and the stamina - about everything…
 For it is not just Burton’s thoughts on the subject of melancholy, but the thoughts of everyone who had ever thought about it, or about other things, whether that be goblins, beauty, the geography of America, digestion, the passions, drink, kissing, jealousy, or scholarship. Burton, you suspect, felt the miseries of scholars keenly.
“To say truth, ’tis the common fortune of most scholars to be servile and poor, to complain pitifully, and lay open their wants to their respective patrons… and… for hope of gain to lie, flatter, and with hyperbolical eulogiums and commendations to magnify and extol an illiterate unworthy idiot for his excellent virtues, whom they should rather, as Machiavelli observes, vilify and rail at downright for his most notorious villainies and vices.” And that’s a good quote to be getting on with: it shows you that Burton is on the side of the angels, that he’s prepared to stick his neck out, and that he is funny.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621–51) by Robert Burton is an amazing compendium of classic and renaissance lore about the human condition of melancholy; verbally rich Robert Burton describes melancholy as a disease of the soul, stating that he will address his subject-matter both as a divine and a physician.

Depressive silence gives way to a verbal voraciousness that devours language and learning alike. First published in 1621, The Anatomy ran to a paltry 900 pages. Burton spent the rest of his life revising a book that now clocks in at a potentially soul-destroying 1392 pages.

But sheer size should not put the modern reader off one of the most astonishing books ever written.

Burton demonstrates the significance of the rhetoric healing that mixes religious and medical approaches to melancholy to a degree unique in his time and place. The concept of melancholy comprehended a wide range of characteristics and conditions in seventeenth-century European culture, from the brooding introspection of the genius and the scholar to a condition of delirious and delusory madness.

Its central and most immediately identifiable characteristic, however, was the excessive and unreasonable nature of its symptomologically defining emotions of fear and sorrow. As Robert Burton notes, the melancholic condition was commonly taken to be “a kind of dotage without fever, having for his ordinary companions fear and sadness, without any apparent occasion.”

The presence of a pervasive and unreasonable sense of fear and sorrow invariably solicited the melancholic label. Indeed, melancholic emotions were the primary substance of melancholic dotage; the ravings of the melancholically mad and their frequent obsession with a single idea were often driven by an overwhelming feeling of fear and sorrow.

Burton deliberately blurs the boundaries between religious and medical, not only for polemical purposes, but with the pastoral aim of assisting the reader with a cure and solace. The genius of Burton is that he reassigns meanings that depart from his sources so that he creates a model of treatment. Burton’s variations in content, style and even genre throughout the Anatomy can be understood as part of a curative response to a variable disease. Sir William Osler, a psychiatric medical historian became deeply interested in Burton, saying, “No book of any language presents such a stage of moving pictures.”

Describing foods that were thought to cause melancholia, he finds that his trawl through the history of dietary literature has exhausted every known meat, fruit and vegetable.

Speculating from his scholarly celibacy on the pleasures of marriage, he drifts into fantasies of endless kisses, listing all the accoutrements of female attractiveness, before turning to the melancholy possibility that one might end up with “a mere changeling, a very monster, an oaf imperfect”.

His erotic comprehensiveness is all the more charming, his thick misogyny perhaps pardonable, when we keep in mind that, for this life-long cleric, it was also utterly imaginary. His demonology is de rigor.

The book’s genius and success is Burton’s plethora of styles as largely of quotations, citations and glosses on other works. From his phenomenal erudition, Burton fashions a book that says everything there is to say about melancholia, by saying everything there is to say about everything else. Burton called it “a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dunghills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out”.

Sounds like an overheated mind of a tarot reader.

“The Anatomy ranks with Tristram Shandy and Moby Dick – a work that takes its subject as an excuse to weave a web of cod-academic treatises, rhetorical performances and baroque anecdotes. It is no more a book about mental illness than Herman Melville’s is a novel “about” a whale.”

The lazy browser won’t even pick this book off a shelf, let alone open it. When opened at random, it offers not only dense slabs of 17th-century prose, but insane lists that seem to go on forever, meandering digressions, whole chunks of italicised Latin.

The slack browser who gets the gist of the introduction, “Democritus to the Reader” (Democritus was the laughing philosopher; another clue that this is a comedy), will realise that as far as Burton is concerned, everyone on earth is either stupid or mad (himself included). Say that you’re taking this on holiday, as poor Alain de Botton did, and you get heaved straight into Pseuds’ Corner.

In the 17th century, English prose was in a phase of reckless experiment. The sly dialectics of John Donne’s sermons and the rhetorical mazes of Thomas Browne’s sentences reveal a literature reveling in sleight of hand. Burton’s fans often claim him as a genial counter to this rhetorical dazzle, a master of “conversational” style. But he is much more than that.

Walter Benjamin, who was also born under the melancholy sign of Saturn, dreamed of a book entirely composed of quotations. Like Benjamin, Burton was too great a writer to refrain from filling the gaps between his citations. His prefatory comment on the burgeoning Anatomy is the verdict of an author who knows that his text has got the better of him, but it is also the sigh of a true-born melancholic: “I would willingly retract much, but ’tis too late.”

The Everyman editions are full of the Latin that makes the work more forbidding than it should be because it is exceptionally readable, and funny, and full of witch lore (Burton was a divine, a bachelor, misanthrope, and avowed misogynist, astrologer who forecast the day of his death and then on said date, obliged by suicide.

The most accessible modern edition (for the English reader), if you can find a copy, is the reprint George H. Doran Company, 2 volume 1927 edition. It translated the Latin and Greek citations that are mostly paraphrased in the text by Burton himself into neat couplets based on period translations if possible.  There is a Tudor one volume reprint edition that was around in the 60s and 70s and should not be very expensive.  It is available on line in html at

Example of text:

On the use of amulets to cure melancholy: (note the reference to his mother, Dorothy Burton, d. 1629,
who introduced her more famous son to empirical techniques for anatomizing physical and psychological ailments)

     … look for them in Mizaldus, Porta, Albertus, etc. Bassardus Visontinus, Ant. philos., commends hypericon, or St. John’s wort, gathered on a Friday in the hour of Jupiter, “when it comes to his effectual operation (that is about the full moon in July); so gathered and borne, or hung about the neck, it mightily helps this affection, and drives away all phantastical spirits.” Philes, a Greek author that flourished in the time of Michael Palæologus, writes that a sheep or kid’s skin, whom a wolf worried, Haedus inhumani raptus ab ore lupi, ought not at all to be worn about a man, “because it causeth palpitation of the heart,” not for any fear, but a secret virtue which amulets have. A ring made of the hoof of an ass’s right fore-foot carried about, etc.: I say with Renodeus, they are not altogether to be rejected. Peony doth cure epilepsy; precious stones most diseases; a wolf’s dung borne with one helps the colic, a spider, an ague, etc. Being in the country in the vacation time not many years since, at Lindley in Leicestershire, my father’s house, I first observed this amulet of a spider in a nut-shell lapped in silk, etc., so applied for an ague by my mother; whom although I knew to have excellent skill in chirurgery, sore eyes, aches, etc., and such experimental medicines, as all the country where she dwelt can witness, to have done many famous and good cures upon divers poor folks, that were otherwise destitute of help, yet, among all other experiments, this methought was most absurd and ridiculous, I could see no warrant for it. Quid aranea cum febre?  For what antipathy? till at length, rambling amongst authors (as often I do), I found this very medicine in Dioscorides, approved by Matthiolus, repeated by Aldrovandus, cap. de aranea, lib. de insectis; I began to have a better opinion of it, and to give more credit to amulets, when I saw it in some parties answer to experience. Some medicines are to be exploded, that consist of words, characters, spells, and charms, which can do no good at all, but out of a strong conceit, as Pomponatius proves; or the devil’s policy, who is the first founder and teacher of them.  (Partition 2, Section 5, Member 1, Subsection 5)

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