The View from Minerva's Tower: Learning and Imagination of the Anatomy of Melancholy
Published: December 1989© 1989
264 Pages, 6.14 x 9.21 in
Patricia Vicari demonstrates Burton’s control over rhetorical strategies and selection of materials in one of the great prose works of the English Renaissance, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
She argues that Burton’s aim of curing melancholy is both pastoral and therapeutic, since melancholy is both a disease and the state of unregeneracy, but the ultimate authorial presence is that of the preacher trying to bring about conversion. One of his major strategies is to disguise that presence. Throughout much of the book attention is directed toward worldly matters and secular knowledge. The immediate authorial presence therefor is that of ‘Robert the experienced,’ another victim of melancholy, offering the record of his own self-cure as a main persuasive tactic.
Vicari examines the kinds of knowledges that Burton exhibits to the reader in three chapters dealing with nature, God, and man. In each Vicari singles out for more detailed discussion special problems or topics that were timely or of particular interest to Burton. She locates Burton’s reading and opinions within the general state of knowledge about them. Finally, she examines his presentation of this knowledge in his own book.
Burton’s book, Vicari argues, is neither a structured treatise nor a self-indulgent romp, but a fairly well controlled instrument of persuasion, a swollen sermon. Not all is controlled: Burton’s notorious self-contradictions, for example, are often due in advertence and the pitfalls of his method of composition. His personality, too, shapes his writing, and the experience of bitterness and frustration, out of which his book was born – not to mention the ethos of charity and benignity appropriate to a preacher – sometimes unsettles his aim. But on the whole, Vicari maintains, the Anatomy is a coherent and deliberate rhetorical process, an original and appropriate adaptation of homiletic rhetoric.
‘A most weighty and perceptive study…impressive in the exceptional extent of its scholarship throughout, in its learned appraisal of the medieval and renaissance background and the seventeenth-century context of Burton’s principles and procedures, in its appraisals and use of other appraisals, in its analysis of the Burtonian materials for its topics, and in the sustained intelligence and insight of its interpretations; and the documentation is everywhere thorough and precisely accurate.’
Arthur E. Barker, Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Literature, University of Western Ontario.