The Anatomy Of Melancholy

Last weekend I went to an exhibition at the Weston Library in Oxford. It marks the 400th anniversary of the first edition of Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Burton’s work is a huge collection of ideas about melancholy – its causes, effects and remedies, which he expanded over subsequent editions. This exhibition brings together material relating to melancholy through the ages, and is a feast for lovers of early modern print culture in particular. There is also a small section dedicated to music, which Burton writes about at length.

I’ve been looking through a Project Gutenberg edition of Burton’s text. It’s peppered with historical citations of music’s positive effect on the spirits, often listed in tandem with strong drink and good company. He writes that music is ‘a roaring-meg against melancholy’ (a roaring meg was apparently a type of cannon), ‘to rear and revive the languishing soul’.

He lists labourers who sing at work, soldiers animated by drums, and infants lulled by lullabies as those who can attest to music’s power.

Corporal tunes pacify our incorporeal soul […] and carries it beyond itself, helps, elevates, extends it.

Nonetheless, he recognised that the relationship between music and melancholy can be a subtle and peculiar one:

Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth; and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy: it expels cares, alters their grieved minds, and easeth in an instant.

However, he also offers a note of caution. Music is agreeable to most melancholy people, he writes, but ‘provided always’ that

his disease proceed not originally from it, that he not be some light inamorato, some idle fantastic, who capers in conceit all the day long, and thinks of nothing else, but how to make jigs, sonnets, madrigals, in commendation of his mistress. In such cases music is most pernicious.

Inamorato means a male lover. This archetypal figure is important enough that Burton includes him in the engraved frontispiece to the book, with a lute and sheet music at his feet. As was common in the 17th century, Burton composed a poem to explain the scheme:

I’th’ under column there doth stand
Inamorato with folded hand;
Down hangs his head, terse and polite,
Some ditty sure he doth indite.
His lute and books about him lie,
As symptoms of his vanity.
If this do not enough disclose,
To paint him, take thyself by th’ nose.

The inamorato pops up elsewhere in the book as a warning. ‘A lascivious inamorato plots all the day long to please his mistress, acts and struts, and carries himself as if she were in presence’. He might also also be they who ‘read nothing but play-books, idle poems, jests. […] Such many times prove in the end as mad as Don Quixote.’

So in Burton’s mind, music can be a cure for melancholy, and even a cause of an enjoyable melancholy – but it can also from part of a vain and shallow lifestyle which might lead to a worse melancholy state.

Of particular note among the musical materials of the exhibition is the title page from a 1661 book of verse, An Antidote Against Melancholy: Made up in Pills, Compounded of Witty Ballads, Jovial Songs, and Merry Catches. Some of these comical and bawdy poems were later set to music by Purcell and John Blow. You can see the engraved page here – I particularly like the couplet underneath which apologises for the quality of the verse!

The Anatomy of Melancholy exhibition is free to visit and lasts until 20th March 2022. I highly recommend it, and while you’re there don’t miss the Anglo-Dutch exhibition in the room next door.

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