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  • Reading and the Cure of Despair in The Anatomy of Melancholy
  • Mary Ann Lund

In the second edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1624; first edition 1621), Robert Burton radically alters his work's ending. He expands its final subsection on the cure of religious despair to approximately twenty times its original length, and removes altogether the satirical "Conclusion of the Author to the Reader" that ended the first edition, thereby giving his "Cure of Despaire" the final word. What effect do these revisions have? This article will argue that the expansions show Burton's response to the English Calvinist tradition of consolatory writing on despair and more broadly his reaction to debates over English religious orthodoxy during the 1620s and '30s. The Anatomy provides in its final subsection an alternative, both in its theological outlook and its stylistic approach, to existing types of religious discourse on despair. Changes over the course of the editions reveal Burton's resistance to the Calvinist stress on "particularity," while his use of the Danish Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen as a key authority indicates his departure from the Calvinist understanding of predestination. Yet Burton's theological position is not straightforward or clear. By providing a new form of spiritual consolation that is a hybrid of different theological approaches, he is careful to avoid entering current polemical disputes, although he certainly registers their existence. Burton's primarily pastoral concern in the "Cure of Despair" is evident in his handling of the theology of despair and his inclusive attitude to his readership.

Although it is impossible to summarize briefly the full range and scope of the Anatomy, a glance at the work as a whole shows that the final subsection's themes reflect major currents throughout the text. The title page announces that melancholy is "Philosophically. Medicinally. Historically. opened & cut up," but does not mention that the author also regards it as "a disease of the soule" that is in "as much need of [End Page 533] [a] Spirituall as a Corporall cure."1 As an ordained minister, Burton shows an interest in the spiritual aspects of melancholy that is both unsurprising and evident throughout the work: the Fall is seen as the primary cause of melancholy, a sinful life worsens the condition, and sufferers are exhorted to seek cure first through prayer. Of the work's three "partitions," the third is devoted to love melancholy and religious melancholy. The latter is Burton's own invention, unprecedented in other works on the subject, although closely linked to the tradition of English writing on the afflicted conscience. While Burton is not the only writer on melancholy to see the disease in a religious light, the prominent Christian tone running through the work and the inclusion of the "religious melancholy" section indicate the strong emphasis that Burton places on this aspect.2 Another prominent feature of Burton's anatomization of melancholy is its central concern with the reader. At the beginning of the preface, he informs the reader that "thou thy selfe art the subject of my Discourse" (1:1).3 Burton's persona, Democritus Junior, adopts a range of positions toward the reader, from polite subservience to aggressive hostility, but throughout characterizes him or her as an unknowable and invisible figure. In framing the reader in this way, he designs his work to be as inclusive as possible, not only exploring different varieties of melancholy but also attempting to draw in his readers regardless of their individual differences. As I will show, the connection between Burton's handling of his subject matter and his inclusive attitude toward his imagined reader is a close one.

Turning to the end of the work and the revised version of the "Cure of Despair," one finds that Burton explains why he has added a long consolatory [End Page 534] discourse after the list of recommended authors on the subject that originally ended the subsection:

But because these mens workes are not to all parties at hand, so parable at all times, I will for the benefit and ease of such as are afflicted, at the request of some friends, recollect out of their voluminous Treatises, some few such comfortable speeches, exhortations...


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