Robert Burton (scholar) bigraphy, stories - English scholar

Robert Burton (scholar) : biography

8 February 1577 - 25 January 1640

Robert Burton (8 February 1577 – 25 January 1640) was an English scholar at Oxford University, best known for the classic The Anatomy of Melancholy. He was also the incumbent of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, and of Seagrave in Leicestershire.


He was born at Lindley, Leicestershire, Robert Burton was the son of Ralph Burton and the brother of William Burton the antiquary. Burton spent most of his life at Oxford, first as a pupil at Brasenose College, and then as a student (the equivalent of a fellow at other Oxford and Cambridge colleges) of Christ Church. He studied a large number of diverse subjects, many of which informed the study of melancholia, for which he is chiefly famous. He was appointed vicar of St Thomas' Church in Oxford in 1616, and in 1630 he was also made the rector of Segrave, Leicester.

Burton was a mathematician and dabbled in astrology. When not depressed he was an amusing companion, "very merry, facete, and juvenile", and a person of "great honesty, plain dealing, and charity". Merry, indeed, Burton had favourite sources for laughter. In 1728 Bishop Kennet wrote that:

There was a rumour that Burton hanged himself in his chambers at Christ Church.John Aubrey (1975) Brief Lives ISBN 0-85115-206-6; p.52: "Mr Robert Hooke of Gresham college told me that he lay in the chamber in Christ Church that was Mr Burton's, of whom 'tis whispered that notwithstanding all his astrology and his book of melancholy, he ended his days in that chamber by hanging himself."

Burton was buried at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.


Frontispiece for the 1638 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton's Melancholy focuses sharply on the self; unlike Bacon, Burton assumes that knowledge of psychology, not natural science, is humankind's greatest need. His enormous treatise is considered "delightful" by critics; it examines in encyclopaedic detail the ubiquitous Jacobean malady, melancholy, supposedly caused by an excess of "black bile," according to the humor theory fashionable at the time.Abrams, Howard Meyers, ed. (1999) The Norton Anthology of English Literature; Vol. 1; 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co Inc. ISBN 978-0-393-97487-4

Melancholy was responsible, according to Burton and others, for the wild passions and despairs of lovers, the agonies and ecstasies of religious devotees, the frenzies of madmen, and the studious abstraction exemplified by scholars such as Shakespeare or Milton.

He wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy largely to write himself out of being a lifelong sufferer from depression. As he described his condition in the preface "Democritus Junior to the Reader,"

Therefore, the treatise itself was intended as treatment. Again, from the preface:

However, this sentence may also be interpreted ironically, as Burton is citing a well-known adage of the time. Indeed, the entire preface is quite satirical in nature — at one point Burton pretends to warn melancholic people to avoid his book for fear of exacerbating their symptoms:

The parenthetical aside is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

The work, published under the pseudonym Democritus Junior in 1621, was quite popular. In the words of Thomas Warton:

Many later writers were deeply influenced by the book's odd mix of pan-scholarship, humour, linguistic skill, and creative (if highly approximate) insights. This influence was so strong that later writers sometimes drew from the work without acknowledgment (such accusations were levelled at Laurence Sterne's book Tristram Shandy).

Samuel Johnson considered it one of his favourite books, being "the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise".Boswell, Life of Johnson. The book has continued as a favourite among many 20th and 21st-century authors, such as Anthony Burgess (who said "Most modern books weary me, but Burton never does"), William H. Gass (who wrote the introduction to the 2001 omnibus edition), and Llewelyn Powys (who dubbed it "the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing"). Apart from The Anatomy of Melancholy Burton's only other published work is Philosophaster, a satirical Latin comedy.

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