Born: February 8, 1577
Died: January 25, 1640
Author: The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of the great comic works of the world.
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. I never travelled but in map or card, in which my unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated. (Robert Burton).
An English clergyman, Burton's phenomenal tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), reminds one of James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly (1950-1964). A never-ending, intricate articulation of the artist's need to create in an already created world. "I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy," Burton wrote. How inspired!
Burtonism is the theory that the melancholy inherent in the artist's soul is the precise catalyst of the artist's creativity. American writers, like Herman Melville, are identified by Burtonists as within this tradition. "For both Burton and Melville, the artistic temperament is engaged in a constant struggle to achieve a balance between the creative powers of melancholy and the ameliorating impact of the sanguine." (Thomas Bulger, "Bartleby, Burton and the Artistic Temperment.") (We do know, by the way that Melville knew of Burton and his remarkable work. In Melville's first published work "Fragments from a Writing Desk," a reference is made to Burton writing his book in a chair.)
Our cosmic vicar was born, raised,
educated, worked and died in England and he did not travel too much, corporeally. He was born at Lindley Hall in Leicestershire. He was the fourth of nine children. He attended the Free School at Sutton Coldfield and then Nuneaton Grammar School. Burton went to Brasenose College in 1593 and in 1599 he was elected a student of Christ Church. In 1608 he wrote a satirical play in Latin entitled, Philosophaster. He took his B.D. in 1614 and in 1616 he became Vicar of St. Thomas, Oxford. In 1621 the first edition of his magnum opus, The Art of Melancholy was published. Five editions were published during Burton's lifetime (the last appearing in 1638). In 1630 Burton became Rector of Seagrave in Leicestershire, a result of his association with Lord George Berkeley.
We know how he looked from his portraits, of which there are three: a painting in oils at Brasenose, the engraved miniature by Le Blon in the emblematic frontispiece of The Anatomy, and the painted bust in the Cathedral at Oxford. From these sources we may compose a portrait of our English Democritus among his books in the agreeable setting of a famous and already venerable college: a thick-set, plumpish man, with dark brown beard of formal cut, there is a satiric glint in the large eyes, and intelligence and memory are revealed in the monumental forehead; his nose is enterprising and he has the snap mouth of the well-opinionated, corrected by an indulgent nether lip. It is the face of a character such as England often produced in those days and sometimes even now: a competent, thoughtful, self-sufficient face, with a hint of shyness which might indicate a preference for a sheltered life rather than a life of adventure, unless it were adventures among books. And from this composite presentment we may safely infer a genial yet reclusive, diffident yet self-opinionated man, who might be friendly but not demonstrative, tolerant yet irascible, and who would suffer fools sadly rather than gladly.
(Holbrook Jackson: Introduction to the 1932 edition of The Anatomy.)
Burton never married. His book was his mate and child.
Burton may have momentarily put aside his pen on December 5, 1620, to declare his work done.; however, since sales were solid and five fresh editions needed, he let his baby grow from gigantic to gargantuan. (William H. Gass: Introduction to the 2001 edition of The Anatomy.)
Burton had some 2,000 books at his disposal and it seems he had read all of them. He used books the way people today use anti-depressants and tranquilizers, to escape the haunting of the soul. He wrote about melancholy to defeat it while fully understanding that to utterly defeat it, to become cured, would end his need to learn. Melancholy was simultaneously Burton's muse and curse. It is likely that he died uncured, still suffering and learning. However we have no specific details of his death.