OWL Magazine Korea

Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy”

Robert Burton, the author in question, is a Renaissance-era writer who lived approximately 400-500 years ago. Given this historical context, it’s quite rare to encounter the works of such an author in the present day.

“Renaissance-era Writer, Robert Burton”

Robert Burton lived from 1577 to 1640, placing him 13 years after the renowned playwright Shakespeare, but he outlived Shakespeare by 24 years. He graduated from Oxford University in 1593 and, until his death, lived as a beneficiary of a special scholarship status called “Scholar,” which exempted him from tuition and other expenses.

“Encountering the Work through an English Literature Course – ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy'”

The work in question, translated into Korean as “우울증의 해부” (The Anatomy of Melancholy), is originally titled “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” I first came across this work during an English literature course at Sungkyunkwan University. Professor Sean Normandin’s class, “Understanding Anglo-American Essays,” introduced me to the work. While I didn’t cover the entire content during the course, I was intrigued enough to borrow the book from the library and explore it further.

As the class was taught by an American professor, the original text was used. However, the content drew heavily from Greek and Roman mythology, even incorporating sections written in Latin. Despite being informative, the text was laden with numerous metaphorical expressions, prompting my curiosity to seek a Korean translation for a more comprehensive understanding.

“Not a Complete Translation, but Excerpts”

The book I borrowed turned out to be a partial translation, not covering the entire work. Nevertheless, it provided some assistance in understanding the writings of Robert Burton.

“The Anatomy of Melancholy” is a book that, as the title suggests, delves into the subject of melancholy. It takes the form of an essay and seems to unravel the contents the author had kept in his mind in a somewhat disorganized manner.

While addressing melancholy and its causes and symptoms, the book occasionally meanders into entirely different realms of discourse. A notable example is the author’s discussion of his idealized world or nation, a departure from the primary theme of melancholy.

“The Book Begins with the Assertion of Being Democritus’ Son”

In the early chapters, the author introduces himself as the son of Democritus, stating his intention to continue the research on melancholy left unfinished by the ancient Greek scholar. Democritus, who researched melancholy, died without completing his work. Hence, Robert Burton claims to carry on the task.

An intriguing passage in the middle of the book claims that everyone who writes books, including himself, is a thief. They steal content from writings of past authors to fill their own books, creating an illusion of freshness, but all the content is borrowed from previous statements.

“The Author Criticizes Human Behavior and Introduces the ‘Humorism’ Theory”

The author contends that all humans are patients experiencing melancholy. He criticizes human behavior and introduces the theory of “Humorism,” a concept prevalent in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

“Humorism” involves four bodily fluids: Choler, Blood, Phlegm, and Black Bile, analogous to the four fundamental elements of the universe (water, fire, air, and earth) and the four stages of human life (birth, growth, decline, and death). Each fluid, when in excess, leads to different manifestations such as anger, vitality, laziness, and melancholy.

“The Origin of Melancholy and Other Discussions”

The author also explores the etymology of melancholy, tracing it back to “Melancholia,” a compound of “Melania,” meaning black, and “Choler,” representing bile. Thus, it signifies “black bile.”

The book further delves into the study and analysis of melancholy, interwoven with seemingly unrelated anecdotes. Love is presented as a form of melancholy, and even religion is discussed in this context.

“Reflections on ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy'”

Although the book revolves around the theme of melancholy, it might not be considered a masterpiece due to its unpopular subject matter. Unless one actively seeks works from the Renaissance era, Robert Burton might remain an obscure author.

Nevertheless, “The Anatomy of Melancholy” provides an indirect glimpse into the perspective and thoughts of a scholar living during the Renaissance. It allows readers to experience, to some extent, the viewpoints of writers from that era. For those interested in understanding the mindset of Renaissance-era authors, this book could hold some significance.

“The Anatomy of Melancholy”

  • Author: Robert Burton
  • Publication Date: December 30, 2004
  • ISBN13: 9788976269447
  • Available on Yes24: Link to Yes24