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  • Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy by Stephanie Shirilan
  • Reid Barbour (bio)
Stephanie Shirilan. Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy. New York: Routledge, 2015. 218 + xii pages. $109.95.

The argument of this convincing and compelling book is that previous scholarship on Robert Burton has overstressed his Anatomy of Melancholy's gravitas and anxiety, neglecting the book's therapeutic optimism and sympathetic energy, as well as its irony and comedy. Moreover, Burton's promotion of a spiritual, mental, and somatic liberty has consequences for the overall health of the commonwealth. Shirilan makes her case based not just on the Anatomy's content but on its intended (and actual) stylistic effects. The professed genre of Burton's great book, the cento, is crucial for our understanding of his ludic conception of reading and citation. When Burton ventriloquizes his sources, he does so in a comic mode that ironically and exuberantly transforms the material, a process that for Burton is essential to eliciting delight (and therefore health) in the reader. Intellectual contexts are also integral here. Though the book belongs to a series called "Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity," its territory is far more capacious, including not just magic and natural philosophy but theology and moral philosophy. In addition, its texture is genuinely learned, rigorous, and inventive rather than trendy. On the whole, Shirilan argues, Burton seeks to transform the disease called melancholy into a healthy version of itself, characterized by qualities [End Page 217] such as permeability, vulnerability, solubility, and compassion that counter-vail the Stoical hygiene of self- containment, and imperviousness. In establishing Burton's debts and engagements, Shirilan sheds new light on ancient connections (including the Neoplatonists, Ovid, pseudo- Aristotle, and Lucretius) as well as modern affiliations (Tomasso Campanella or the relatively obscure English philosopher Nicholas Hill).

Even as Shirilan investigates the intellectual contexts of Burton's Anatomy, her study is also refreshingly literary, not just in its attention to key Burtonian terms (like exoneration) and images (the hawk, for example) but in its unfashionable return to an earlier twentieth- century attention to the prosody of prose. Her argument is that the very rhythms of Burton's prose sonically impress—or are meant to impress—readers with a healthy spirit, whose counterpart is the pneuma that courses through, integrates, and creates networks of sympathy within the cosmos. Shirilan argues that the style of Burton's book serves to regenerate the spirits of its readers, a claim for which, in her epilogue, she offers substantial evidence as she examines the material traces of the book's earliest reception. Having investigated early readers' annotations in their copies of Anatomy of Melancholy, as well as seventeenth-century print responses to the book, Shirilan demonstrates that seventeenth-century responses were far less apt to attend to Burton's grave, hygienic, or anxious manual than were modern scholars. Rather, Burton's book acquired its popularity because readers delighted in the diversions and wonders that its boundlessness and romping persona—its tales, jokes and aphorisms—bestowed on them. During the eighteenth century, Burton's Anatomy had the power to induce even Samuel Johnson to leave his bed early, and not because Dr. Johnson wanted to be chastened and disciplined. Shirilan's final, provocative challenge to the world of early modern scholarship is that in the present age, principally it is amateur readers who have interpreted Burton correctly by appreciating and perpetuating the appeal of a joyous Democritus Jr. As Shirilan argues, the "new formalism" has restored scholarship's attention to the aesthetic features of texts, but it has not yet legitimized that sense of wonder, love, compassion, and exhilaration that prompted mere readers to become scholars in the first place.

In making her case for a comedic Burton, Shirilan is a perceptive and fair critic of previous work, including my own. Shirilan's scholarly kindred spirits are eclectically far-flung, in modern times reaching from Rosalie Colie to recent work on Burton by Mary Ann Lund. A compassionate reader herself, [End Page 218] Shirilan is also incisive in her assessment of the ways in which a critical tendency, in particular the recent return to humoralism in early...


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