Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy  book cover
1st Edition

Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy

ISBN 9781472417015
Published November 12, 2015 by Routledge
230 Pages

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Book Description

Few English books are as widely known, underread, and underappreciated as Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Stephanie Shirilan laments that modern scholars often treat the Anatomy as an unmediated repository of early modern views on melancholy, overlooking the fact that Burton is writing a cento - an ancient form of satire that quotes and misquotes authoritative texts in often subversive ways - and that his express intent in so doing is to offer his readers literary therapy for melancholy. This book explores the ways in which the Anatomy dispenses both direct physic and more systemic medicine by encouraging readers to think of melancholy as a privileged mental and spiritual acuity that requires cultivation and management rather than cure. Refuting the prevailing historiography of anxious early modern embodiment that cites Burton as a key witness, Shirilan submits that the Anatomy rejects contemporary Neostoic and Puritan approaches to melancholy. She reads Burton’s erraticism, opacity, and theatricality as modes of resistance against demands for constancy, transparency, and plainness in the popular literature of spiritual and moral hygiene of his day. She shows how Burton draws on rhetorical, theological, and philosophical traditions that privilege the transformative powers of the imagination in order to celebrate melancholic impressionability for its capacity to inspire and engender empathy, charity, and faith.

Table of Contents


1 Democritus Junior: Discerning Care

2 Heroic Hypochondria and the Sympathetic Delusions of Melancholy

3 Exhilirating the Spirits: Study as Cure for Scholarly Melancholy

4 "Exonerating" Melancholy

Epilogue: Loving Burton, or Burton for Amateurs

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Stephanie Shirilan is Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University, USA.