Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy was first published in 1621. Rather defensively, Burton feared his critics would complain “that I have read many books, but to little purpose… with small profit, for want of art, order, memory or judgement”. It was Burton’s view that the ‘distinguished’ nature of melancholy made it superior to other forms of madness. The following passage resonates as much now, as it did at the time – perhaps even more so.
“I hear news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war,
Plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres,
Meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions,
Of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey,
Persia, Poland etc. daily musters and preparations, and such like,
Which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought,
So many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights,
Peace, leagues, strategems, and fresh alarms.
A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, Pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought
To our ears.
New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues
Of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies,
Controversies in philosophy, religion etc
Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments,
Jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels,
Sports, plays; then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons,
Cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villanies in all kinds, funerals,
Burials, deaths of Princes, new discoveries, expeditions; now comical
Then tragical matters.
To-day we hear of new Lords and officers created, to-morrow of some
Great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred;
One is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh;
He thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again
Dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, etc.
Thus I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news.”
Madness indeed. All things change; all things remain the same.
With thanks to Martin Maw