Joke Book?

A.D. Nuttall

In the Cathedral at Christ Church in Oxford, between the recumbent knight with the false nose and the tomb of Saint Frideswide, who eluded her too amorous suitor by hiding among pigs, stands the funerary monument of Robert Burton. Already, it will be noticed, I am giving more information than is strictly necessary. My excuse must be that it is a habit I have caught from Burton himself. A schoolboy, asked to produce a review, is said to have written: ‘This book tells me more than I wish to know about this subject.’ The story is usually told as if it counted against the schoolboy; it can, however, without too much straining, be turned against The Anatomy of Melancholy.

The first edition of Burton’s treatise, a great compendium of knowledge – or else, according to some, a load of learned lumber-filling 880 quarto pages, appeared in 1621. As the years passed further editions were issued and, despite promises (soon broken) in the third edition that nothing more would be added, the book grew and grew. The textual editors of this magisterial Oxford edition (of which, so far, we have only the first volume, containing the text of Part One of the Anatomy, Parts Two and Three and the eagerly awaited commentary being still to come) explain that Burton’s text increased from ‘some 353,369 words’ to ‘about 516,384’. The adverbs ‘some’ and ‘about’, with their general air of a confessed, gentlemanly imprecision, are especially effective when set next to such aggressively ‘unround’ numbers: ‘some 353,369’, notice, not ‘some 353,370’, still less ‘some 354,000’. Clearly someone, or some machine, has been counting like crazy, and the concessive ‘some’ doubtless covers some craggy little problem concerning the proper number of printer’s ems assignable to a numerical reference, say, to Fracastorius. In fact, what we have here is a feat of almost eerie exactitude, politely disguised as vagueness. But in truth one rejoices that Burton has at last found editors of this stamp. Meanwhile, the record of growth (easily beaten, as it happens, by the growth from edition to edition of Frazer’s equally learned Golden Bough) is really a mark of life. Burton’s intelligence and learning were engaged and, as long as he breathed, he could not leave off writing the Anatomy of Melancholy. When he died in 1640 he left behind him notes for a further revision.

The funerary bust of Burton shows us a surprisingly chipper, youthful, handsome man. He has, however, a ‘widow’s peak’ worthy of Count Dracula in a Hammer film and is suitably compassed about by astrological signs. The Latin legend, said to have been devised by Burton himself shortly before his death, can be translated (I think): ‘Known to few, unknown to fewer, here lies Democritus Junior, to whom Melancholy gave life and death.’ The words are designedly of Delphic obscurity. They mean, we guess, that no one really knew Burton despite his fame, and that the black humour from which he made a comfortable living – or else, more conventionally, which ruled his life – proved in the end his undoing. J.B. Bamborough, in his admirably level-headed introduction, plays down the old story that Burton killed himself, giving as one of his reasons the simple fact that Burton was permitted a place in the Cathedral. Yet the ecclesiastical epitaph itself seems to hint at a dark conclusion: ‘... to whom Melancholy gave life and death’. The story relayed to us by Anthony à Wood, that Burton hanged himself in order to satisfy, as exactly as possible, a horoscopical prediction, must rank as one of the most spectacular examples extant of what philosophers call ‘making it true’. It is however too neat to be quite credible. Odder, less symmetrically framed anecdotes have come down to us, such as Bishop Kennet’s account of Burton’s falling into periods of profound depression, from which he could rouse himself only by going down to the riverside and listening to the curses of the bargemen-at which he would suddenly break out in (oddly unlovable?) laughter. We are perhaps confronted by the old, harsh understanding of laughter as inherently derisive, as necessarily involved with a sense of one’s own superiority (Hobbes’s ‘sudden glory’). That Burton suffered from extreme depression is something which we can reasonably believe.

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