An anatomy of The Anatomy of Melacholy

BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time tackled one of the most important books in the history of psychology, psychiatry and literature – Robert Burton’s classic 17th Century text The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Although the book is commonly referred to by its abbreviated title it actually has the far more wonderful name of ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up’.

In the book, Burton explores melancholy, depression and low spirits in all of its forms as well as curating views and opinions of the state from literature, history and medicine.

It is known as a huge labyrinth of a work that is as chaotic as it is beautiful. It has barely been out of print since it was first published in 1621.

In Our Time discusses the writing of the book, the somewhat mysterious life of its author and its historical significance.

I have to say, I’ve not read it all, as even the modern paperback clocks in at an impressive 1,382 pages.

However, one of my favourite parts is the description a description of the glass delusion – a false belief that one is made of glass and might shatter. Curiously, this was widely reported at the time of Burton’s book but has now almost entirely disappeared.

As, to be honest, I will probably never read the book in its entirety, I fully intend to use the latest edition of In Our Time to get a excellent grounding in Burton’s landmark tome to sound much cleverer than I really am.

As the discussion is so fascinating, you could probably do the same.

Link to streamed version and info for this edition of In Our Time.
Link to podcast page.

3 thoughts on “An anatomy of The Anatomy of Melacholy”

  1. I just want to point out two typos: one’s in the title (“Melacholy”) and the other’s in the 7th paragraph (“the description a description of the”).

  2. i’ve just finished reading Anthony Powell’s series of twelve novels, “A Dance To The Music Of Time” … Burton’s book plays an important role because the narrator of these novels is himself writing a book on Burton and occasionally quotes … and so it seems that Burton can be read on many levels and that he is still able to stimulate fine thinkers

  3. I have come late to an archive broadcast. I greatly enjoyed the insight that the programme gave into The Anatomy of Melancholy. Illuminating and instructive. But, the programme missed dealing with why – and – how the book has,and is,such an enjoyable read, and ranks as one of the great and enduring works in the English language.

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