chapter  II
5 Pages

II.9 Melancholy

ByERIN SULLIVAN

According to Robert Burton (1577-1640), the great early modern commentator on all things melancholic, the frequent experience of sorrow and dejection was intrinsically connected to the experience of being alive. Citing the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius (1505-68), he wrote, ‘No mortall man is free from these perturbations’, and then added himself, ‘if he be so, sure he is either a God, or a blocke’.1 In his epic Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Burton attempted to outline the many anxieties and discomforts that plagued humankind, chronicling the melancholy of scholars, monks, nuns, widows, lovers, the poor, the ambitious, the pious and everyone in between. When the book was first published, it ran to more than 350,000 words, and by its fifth edition 30 years later it had swelled to over half a million. There was always more melancholy to be documented, it seemed, and Burton made it his life’s work to try to address the pains of the many people – himself included – who suffered under the condition’s heavy shadow.