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October 22, 2017

Robert Burton's "Rhapsody of Rags"

On this day in 1577 Robert Burton was born. Though diverse enough, the title-page of Burton's 1621 masterwork does not give much clue to what lies within, and what has made his book such a classic in the uncategorizable category:
    The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is, with all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of It. In Three Partitions. With Their Severall Sections, Members, and Subsections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically Opened and Cut Up. By Democritus Junior. To Which is Prefixed, A Satyricall Preface, Conducing to the Following Discourse.
If "Melancholy" in the title is replaced by "Everything," and due emphasis is given to "Opened and Cut Up," then the description might just stand. Better would be Burton's other description: "a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dunghills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out". Better yet to jump in to the 1392 pages -- this is the reduced, recent paperback edition published by Granta/New York Review of Books -- just about anywhere. Burton wouldn't mind, having constantly revised it in his lifetime, and as "I had not time to lick it into form, as a bear doth her young ones." Here, somewhere in the Third Partition, during an extended discourse on those afflicted with lover's melancholia, is a typical ramble into Burtonmania:
    Every lover admires his mistress, though she be very deformed of herself, ill-favoured, wrinkled, pimpled, pale, red, yellow, tanned, tallow-faced, have a swollen juggler's platter face, or a thin, lean, chitty face, have clouds in her face, be crooked, dry, bald, goggle-eyed, blear-eyed, or with staring eyes, she looks like a squis'd cat, hold her head still awry, heavy, dull, hollow-eyed, black or yellow about the eyes, or squint-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, Persian hook-nosed, have a sharp fox-nose, a red nose, China flat, great nose, nare simo patuloque [snub and flat nose], a nose like a promontory, gubber-tushed, rotten teeth, black, uneven brown teeth, beetle-browed, a witch's beard, her breath stink all over the room, her nose drop winter and summer, with a Bavarian poke under her chin. . . .
This goes on for some time, traveling ever-downward in all respects.

Burton was an Anglican priest, a scholar, and a librarian in the Human Search Engine mode. His Anatomy is stuffed with thousands of quotations, at least a dozen a page; all is patched and woven together, but "with as small deliberation as I do usually speak." It is this combination of Renaissance compendium and madcap soliloquy which has drawn the fans -- those as diverse as Samuel Johnson and Lord Byron -- and placed the book on the 'deserted island' list, or on the bedside table for the day's last smile. Which you can get even from the index: "BALDNESS, a disgrace"; "CROCODILES, jealous"; "SWALLOWS, cuckoos, etc., where are they in winter"; . . .

Nor are those actually wanting help with melancholy abandoned: it is "the rust of the soul," an "inbred malady in every one of us," and we should keep busy.

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