‘Be not solitary, be not idle’: secrets of 400-year-old self-help book unlocked

Writing in The Guardian, Donna Ferguson says:

“Admired by everyone from John Milton to Nick CaveThe Anatomy of Melancholy has always been a text that has dazzled and confounded its readers in equal measure.

Now, exactly 400 years after it was published, an academic has painstakingly traced the meaning of thousands of its sphinxlike allusions, enigmatic references and arcane quotations, allowing Robert Burton’s famous text to be fully understood for the very first time.

Dr Angus Gowland of University College London told the Observer there are now only nine known mysteries and riddles of the text left to solve.

In total, Burton used more than 13,000 quotations and references in his book to discuss the causes and symptoms of melancholy – a term that in 1621 covered ‘a catch-all category of anything that’s gone wrong with your mind’ – and to explain the various physical, philosophical and emotional remedies his readers should use as cures.

In some ways, the text is like ‘an early modern self-help book‘, said Gowland. ‘The idea is that when you read this, you’ll come across parts – Burton says – you will recognise. And when you see something about yourself, that’s when he thinks you should pay attention and implement the kind of remedies being presented. There’s a kind of therapeutic aspect to the text, a pre-modern notion of self-knowledge’ ..”

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