Self-help books about depression are nothing new. Institute of English Studies fellow, Dr Karen Attar, looks at an important example that was first published in 1621.

The Anatomy of Melancholy is the subject of a double anniversary for Senate House Library. The year 2021 marks not only the 400th anniversary of the book’s initial publication, but the 150th anniversary of the gift of our 1660 edition. The copy was bequeathed to the University of London in 1871 as part of the founding collection of Vice-Chancellor George Grote.

The Anatomy of Melancholy is substantial. It could hardly be otherwise, as the Oxonian scholar Robert Burton (1577-1640) chose to tackle the subject in an encyclopaedic way, by examining the subject from all points of view and by collating and translating all references he could find to depression from ancient times onwards. The 1621 edition is a plump quarto of 880 pages, estimated to contain 353,369 words. It developed from there.

The Anatomy of Melancholy was Burton’s life’s work, as he continued to read and to discover material after the book first came out and to add the results to the subsequent editions printed during his lifetime, each of which increased in bulk. The second of the editions (portrayed here), from 1660, is the seventh of eight editions to have been published from 1621 until 1676. Like all editions from the second onwards, it is a folio. By now the content had increased by almost half as much again as the first edition to about 516,384 words. The ‘Argument to the Frontispiece’ was first printed in the fourth edition, of 1632; the engraved title page in the precise form shown in the fifth edition (the last of Burton’s lifetime), of 1638.

The sheer quantity of editions testifies to the work’s favourable reception in Burton’s time, although after 1676 there was a hiatus in editions until 1800. In the early 19th century Charles Lamb and John Keats both took it up in their work. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, who helped define 19th-century bibliophily, established its collectability by owning all the 17th-century editions.

The reason for the book’s speedy popularity was the lively contemporary interest in its subject matter. Although ‘melancholy’ could refer to something as concrete as stomach-ache, it was basically accepted as a mental illness marked by anxiety and depression, rife in an age of introspection. Suffered slightly by a lovesick swain, it could be seen as romantic, as in the chief refrain of the initial poem:

All other joys to this are folly,
None so sweet as melancholy

Severe depression by contrast was suicidal and was to be avoided, and the poem ends:

My pain’s past cure, another hell,
I may not in this torment dwell!
Now desperate I hate my life,
Lend me a halter or a knife;
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so damn’d as melancholy.

Burton explained that he wrote the book to ward off depression himself and to help others: to describe how to prevent and cure a widespread malady that, in his words, so often crucifies the body and mind.

Despite the universal aim, it may be disputed that Burton’s style makes for easy reading. He made concessions to his readers by writing in English rather than Latin, by translating his copious Latin quotations immediately after recording the original, and by finding Latin sources for texts initially written in Greek. But his style is long-winded, as demonstrated below in the advice to the friends of those suffering from mental illness to rally around with their company:

‘When the patient of himself is not able to resist or overcome these heart-eating passions, his friends or physician must be ready to supply that which is wanting. Suae erit humanitatis et sapientiae (which Tully enjoineth in like case) siquid erratum, curare, aut improvisum, sua diligentia corrigere [he must exercise his own friendship and wisdom to set right any mistake or remedy any unforeseen ill]. They must all join; nec satis medico, saith Hippocrates, suum fecisse officium, nisi suum quoque aegrotus, suum astantes [it is not enough for the physician to do his duty, the patient and his friends must also do theirs], etc. First, they must especially beware, a melancholy discontented person (be it in what kind of melancholy soever) never be left alone or idle; but as physicians prescribe physic, cum custodia, let them not be left unto themselves, but with some company or other, lest by that means they aggravate and increase their disease; non oportet aegros hujusmodi esse solos vel inter ignotos, vel inter eos quos non amant aut negligent [such sick persons should not be left by themselves or among strangers, or with persons whom they do not care for], as Rod. à Foncesca, tom. I, consult. 35, prescribes.’

One sees why his work was recommended as a crib for those too lazy to read the classics for themselves. The contents range widely, covering love, religion and jealousy as well as general causes of and remedies for depression. They are not original: Burton was a cleric who spent his life at his university, not a medical practitioner, and derived his advice from the books around him, many of them classical. The originality lies purely in how Burton combined his sources: ‘nothing is mine; all is mine’, he says. Tips to those struggling with mental health include: pray and take medicine together (one might interpret this as mindfulness plus medication);

  • make sure you can sleep (Burton advises medicines to procure sleep, preferring natural medicines to physic);
  • be confident in the doctor’s ability to help (positive thinking);
  • eat good, nourishing food, avoid sharp and sour sauces and spices and strong wine, drink pure water and eat salad;
  • remain active;
  • take moderate amounts of exercise – the best time is shortly before a meal – and Galen recommends exercising until the body perspires;
  • play sports;
  • go for a walk in nature.

As a classical historian whose library was especially full of classical authors, Grote, whatever his state of mind, may well have rejoiced to meet so many familiar friends among Burton’s pages. As we read and hear 21st-century advice about wellbeing, we might reflect: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Dr Karen Attar is a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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