The Anatomy of Melancholy II

This is the last post about the introductions; I’ve finally moved on to Democritus Junior’s text. I already wish that I knew some Latin; it looks like a third of the Latin in the book remains entirely untranslated. I like Jackson’s assessment of the book as a whole (I can only imagine Dan Green plugging his ears, squeezing his eyes shut and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at the top of his voice):

The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of those books which possess something like human character and behaviour, the kind of book which seems to have grown. Few books are more definitively or more curiously imbued with their authorship. The Anatomy is Burton, and Burton the Anatomy. To read it is to read him: to read him is to talk with him, to know him as we know the great persons of fiction, or those few writers who have so projected themselves into their works as to have achieved for their own personalities what the great novelists and dramatists have achieved for the characters of their stories and plays. Burton, like Montaigne, Pepys, and Lamb, has made a fiction of himself, stranger and more interesting than fact. (p. XXV)

There’s also a great bit in which Jackson describes The Anatomy as “a mine for the creative,” and then goes on to place people who turn to it in one of the following three categories: “a plagiarist, legitimately predatory, or an adventurous reader” (p. XVII). I love “legitimately predatory;” it’s spectacularly clever, and is a perfect description of the writerly reader.

Speaking of clever, this passage on lawyers from Burton’s own introductory poem is wonderfully so:

Should crafty lawyer trespass on our ground,
Caitiffs avaunt! disturbing tribe away!
Unless (white crow) an honest one be found:
He’ll better, wiser go for what we say.
(p. 5-6)

Some things really are timeless. The “white crow” remark is pretty good, but “disturbing tribe” is a genuine moment of genius.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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