Robert Burton was the son of Ralph Burton, of an ancient and genteel family at Lindley, in Leicestershire, and was born there on the 8th of February 1576. 1He received the first rudiments of learning at the free school of Sutton Coldfield, in Warwickshire 2from whence he was, at the age of seventeen, in the long vacation, 1593, sent to Brazen Nose College, in the condition of a commoner, where he made considerable progress in logic and philosophy. In 1599 he was elected student of Christ Church, and, for form's sake, was put under the tuition of Dr. John Bancroft, afterwards Bishop of Oxford. In 1614 he was admitted to the reading of the Sentences, and on the 29th of November, 1616, had the vicarage of St. Thomas, in the west suburb of Oxford, conferred on him by the dean and canons of Christ Church, which, with the rectory of Segrave, in Leicestershire, given to him in the year 1636, by George, Lord Berkeley, he kept, to use the words of the Oxford antiquary, with much ado to his dying day. He seems to have been first beneficed at Walsby, in Lincolnshire, through the munificence of his noble patroness, Frances, Countess Dowager of Exeter, but resigned the same, as he tells us, for some special reasons. At his vicarage he is remarked to have always given the sacrament in wafers. Wood's character of him is, that “he was an exact mathematician, a curious calculator of nativities, a general read scholar, a thorough-paced philologist, and one that understood the surveying of lands well. As he was by many accounted a severe student, a devourer of authors, a melancholy and humorous person; so by others, who knew him well, a person of great honesty, plain dealing and charity. I have heard some of the ancients of Christ Church often say, that his company was very merry, facete, and juvenile; and no man in his time did surpass him for his ready and dexterous interlarding his common discourses among them with verses from the poets, or sentences from classic authors; which being then all the fashion in the University, made his company the more acceptable.” He appears to have been a universal reader of all kinds of books, and availed himself of his multifarious studies in a very extraordinary manner. From the information of Hearne, we learn that John Rouse, the Bodleian librarian, furnished him with choice books for the prosecution of his work. The subject of his labour and amusement, seems to have been adopted from the infirmities of his own habit and constitution. Mr. Granger says, “He composed this book with a view of relieving his own melancholy, but increased it to such a degree, that nothing could make him laugh, but going to the bridge-foot and hearing the ribaldry of the bargemen, which rarely failed to throw him into a violent fit of laughter. Before he was overcome with this horrid disorder, he, in the intervals of his vapours, was esteemed one of the most facetious companions in the University.”
His residence was chiefly at Oxford; where, in his chamber in Christ Church College, he departed this life, at or very near the time which he had some years before foretold, from the calculation of his own nativity, and which, says Wood, “being exact, several of the students did not forbear to whisper among themselves, that rather than there should be a mistake in the calculation, he sent up his soul to heaven through a slip about his neck.” Whether this suggestion is founded in truth, we have no other evidence than an obscure hint in the epitaph hereafter inserted, which was written by the author himself, a short time before his death. His body, with due solemnity, was buried near that of Dr. Robert Weston, in the north aisle which joins next to the choir of the cathedral of Christ Church, on the 27th of January 1639-40. Over his grave was soon after erected a comely monument, on the upper pillar of the said aisle, with his bust, painted to the life. On the right hand is the following calculation of his nativity:
and under the bust, this inscription of his own composition:—
Paucis notus, paucioribus ignotus,
Hic jacet Democritus junior
Cui vitam dedit et mortem
Ob. 8 Id. Jan. A. C. MDCXXXIX.
Arms:— Azure on a bend O. between three dogs' heads O. a crescent G.
A few months before his death, he made his will, of which the following is a copy:
In nomine Dei Amen. August 15th One thousand six hundred thirty nine because there be so many casualties to which our life is subject besides quarrelling and contention which happen to our Successors after our Death by reason of unsettled Estates I Robert Burton Student of Christ-church Oxon. though my means be but small have thought good by this my last Will and Testament to dispose of that little which I have and being at this present I thank God in perfect health of Bodie and Mind and if this Testament be not so formal according to the nice and strict terms of Law and other Circumstances peradventure required of which I am ignorant I desire howsoever this my Will may be accepted and stand good according to my true Intent and meaning First I bequeath Animam Deo Corpus Terrae whensoever it shall please God to call me I give my Land in Higham which my good Father Ralphe Burton of Lindly in the County of Leicester Esquire gave me by Deed of Gift and that which I have annexed to that Farm by purchase since, now leased for thirty eight pounds per Ann. to mine Elder Brother William Burton of Lindly Esquire during his life and after him to his Heirs I make my said Brother William likewise mine Executor as well as paying such Annuities and Legacies out of my Lands and Goods as are hereafter specified I give to my nephew Cassibilan Burton twenty pounds Annuity per Ann. out of my Land in Higham during his life to be paid at two equal payments at our Lady Day in Lent and Michaelmas or if he be not paid within fourteen Days after the said Feasts to distrain on any part of the Ground or on any of my Lands of Inheritance Item I give to my Sister Katherine Jackson during her life eight pounds per Ann. Annuity to be paid at the two Feasts equally as above said or else to distrain on the Ground if she be not paid after fourteen days at Lindly as the other some is out of the said Land Item I give to my Servant John Upton the Annuity of Forty Shillings out of my said Farme during his life (if till then my Servant) to be paid on Michaelmas day in Lindley each year or else after fourteen days to distrain Now for my goods I thus dispose them First I give an C'th pounds to Christ Church in Oxford where I have so long lived to buy five pounds Lands per Ann. to be Yearly bestowed on Books for the Library Item I give an hundredth pound to the University Library of Oxford to be bestowed to purchase five pound Land per Ann. to be paid out Yearly on Books as Mrs. Brooks formerly gave an hundred pounds to buy Land to the same purpose and the Rent to the same use I give to my Brother George Burton twenty pounds and my watch I give to my Brother Ralph Burton five pounds Item I give to the Parish of Seagrave in Leicestershire where I am now Rector ten pounds to be given to a certain Feoffees to the perpetual good of the said Parish Oxon 3Item I give to my Niece Eugenia Burton One hundredth pounds Item I give to my Nephew Richard Burton now Prisoner in London an hundredth pound to redeem him Item I give to the Poor of Higham Forty Shillings where my Land is to the poor of Nuneaton where I was once a Grammar Scholar three pound to my Cousin Purfey of Wadlake [Wadley] my Cousin Purfey of Calcott my Cousin Hales of Coventry my Nephew Bradshaw of Orton twenty shillings a piece for a small remembrance to Mr. Whitehall Rector of Cherkby myne own Chamber Fellow twenty shillings I desire my Brother George and my Cosen Purfey of Calcott to be the Overseers of this part of my Will I give moreover five pounds to make a small Monument for my Mother where she is buried in London to my Brother Jackson forty shillings to my Servant John Upton forty shillings besides his former Annuity if he be my Servant till I die if he be till then my Servant 4 — ROBERT BURTON— Charles Russell Witness — John Pepper Witness.
An Appendix to this my Will if I die in Oxford or whilst I am of Christ Church and with good Mr. Paynes August the Fifteenth 1639.
I give to Mr. Doctor Fell Dean of Christ Church Forty Shillings to the Eight Canons twenty Shillings a piece as a small remembrance to the poor of St. Thomas Parish Twenty Shillings to Brasenose Library five pounds to Mr. Rowse of Oriell Colledge twenty Shillings to Mr. Heywood xxs. to Dr. Metcalfe xxs. to Mr. Sherley xxs. If I have any Books the University Library hath not, let them take them If I have any Books our own Library hath not, let them take them I give to Mrs. Fell all my English Books of Husbandry one excepted to her Daughter Mrs. Katherine Fell my Six Pieces of Silver Plate and six Silver spoons to Mrs. Iles my Gerards Herball To Mrs. Morris my Country Farme Translated out of French 4. and all my English Physick Books to Mr. Whistler the Recorder of Oxford I give twenty shillings to all my fellow Students Mrs of Arts a Book in fol. or two a piece as Master Morris Treasurer or Mr. Dean shall appoint whom I request to be the Overseer of this Appendix and give him for his pains Atlas Geografer and Ortelius Theatrum Mond' I give to John Fell the Dean's Son Student my Mathematical Instruments except my two Crosse Staves which I give to my Lord of Donnol if he be then of the House To Thomas Iles Doctor Iles his Son Student Saluntch on Paurrhelia and Lucian's Works in 4 Tomes If any books be left let my Executors dispose of them with all such Books as are written with my own hands and half my Melancholy Copy for Crips hath the other half To Mr. Jones Chaplin and Chanter my Surveying Books and Instruments To the Servants of the House Forty Shillings ROB. BURTON— Charles Russell Witness — John Pepper Witness — This Will was shewed to me by the Testator and acknowledged by him some few days before his death to be his last Will Ita Testor John Morris S Th D. Prebendari' Eccl Chri' Oxon Feb. 3, 1639.
Probatum fuit Testamentum suprascriptum, &c. 11° 1640 Juramento Willmi Burton Fris' et Executoris cui &c. de bene et fideliter administrand. &c. coram Mag'ris Nathanaele Stephens Rectore Eccl. de Drayton, et Edwardo Farmer, Clericis, vigore commissionis, &c.
The only work our author executed was that now reprinted, which probably was the principal employment of his life. Dr. Ferriar says, it was originally published in the year 1617; but this is evidently a mistake; 5the first edition was that printed in 4to, 1621, a copy of which is at present in the collection of John Nichols, Esq., the indefatigable illustrator of the History of Leicestershire; to whom, and to Isaac Reed, Esq., of Staple Inn, this account is greatly indebted for its accuracy. The other impressions of it were in 1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, 1651-2, 1660, and 1676, which last, in the titlepage, is called the eighth edition.
The copy from which the present is reprinted, is that of 1651-2; at the conclusion of which is the following address:
"TO THE READER.
“Be pleased to know (Courteous Reader) that since the last Impression of this Book, the ingenuous Author of it is deceased, leaving a Copy of it exactly corrected, with several considerable Additions by his own hand; this Copy he committed to my care and custody, with directions to have those Additions inserted in the next Edition; which in order to his command, and the Publicke Good, is faithfully performed in this last Impression.”
H. C. (i.e. HEN. CRIPPS.)
The following testimonies of various authors will serve to show the estimation in which this work has been held:—
“The ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, wherein the author hath piled up variety of much excellent learning. Scarce any book of philology in our land hath, in so short a time, passed so many editions.” — Fuller's Worthies, fol. 16.
“'Tis a book so full of variety of reading, that gentlemen who have lost their time, and are put to a push for invention, may furnish themselves with matter for common or scholastical discourse and writing.” — Wood's Athenae Oxoniensis, vol. i. p. 628. 2d edit.
“If you never saw BURTON UPON MELANCHOLY, printed 1676, I pray look into it, and read the ninth page of his Preface, 'Democritus to the Reader.' There is something there which touches the point we are upon; but I mention the author to you, as the pleasantest, the most learned, and the most full of sterling sense. The wits of Queen Anne's reign, and the beginning of George the First, were not a little beholden to him.” — Archbishop Herring's Letters, 12mo. 1777. p. 149.
“BURTON'S ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, he (Dr. Johnson) said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” — Boswell's Life of Johnson, vol. i. p. 580. 8vo. edit.
“BURTON'S ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY is a valuable book,” said Dr. Johnson. “It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation. But there is great spirit and great power in what Burton says when he writes from his own mind.” — Ibid, vol. ii. p. 325.
“It will be no detraction from the powers of Milton's original genius and invention, to remark, that he seems to have borrowed the subject of L' Allegro and Il Penseroso, together with some particular thoughts, expressions, and rhymes, more especially the idea of a contrast between these two dispositions, from a forgotten poem prefixed to the first edition of BURTON'S ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, entitled, 'The Author's Abstract of Melancholy; or, A Dialogue between Pleasure and Pain.' Here pain is melancholy. It was written, as I conjecture, about the year 1600. I will make no apology for abstracting and citing as much of this poem as will be sufficient to prove, to a discerning reader, how far it had taken possession of Milton's mind. The measure will appear to be the same; and that our author was at least an attentive reader of Burton's book, may be already concluded from the traces of resemblance which I have incidentally noticed in passing through the L' Allegro and Il Penseroso.” — After extracting the lines, Mr. Warton adds, “as to the very elaborate work to which these visionary verses are no unsuitable introduction, the writer's variety of learning, his quotations from scarce and curious books, his pedantry sparkling with rude wit and shapeless elegance, miscellaneous matter, intermixture of agreeable tales and illustrations, and, perhaps, above all, the singularities of his feelings, clothed in an uncommon quaintness of style, have contributed to render it, even to modern readers, a valuable repository of amusement and information.” — Warton's Milton, 2d edit. p. 94.
“THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY is a book which has been universally read and admired. This work is, for the most part, what the author himself styles it, 'a cento;' but it is a very ingenious one. His quotations, which abound in every page, are pertinent; but if he had made more use of his invention and less of his commonplace-book, his work would perhaps have been more valuable than it is. He is generally free from the affected language and ridiculous metaphors which disgrace most of the books of his time.” — Granger's Biographical History.
“BURTON'S ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, a book once the favourite of the learned and the witty, and a source of surreptitious learning, though written on a regular plan, consists chiefly of quotations: the author has honestly termed it a cento. He collects, under every division, the opinions of a multitude of writers, without regard to chronological order, and has too often the modesty to decline the interposition of his own sentiments. Indeed the bulk of his materials generally overwhelms him. In the course of his folio he has contrived to treat a great variety of topics, that seem very loosely connected with the general subject; and, like Bayle, when he starts a favourite train of quotations, he does not scruple to let the digression outrun the principal question. Thus, from the doctrines of religion to military discipline, from inland navigation to the morality of dancing-schools, every thing is discussed and determined.” — Ferriar's Illustrations of Sterne, p. 58.
“The archness which BURTON displays occasionally, and his indulgence of playful digressions from the most serious discussions, often give his style an air of familiar conversation, notwithstanding the laborious collections which supply his text. He was capable of writing excellent poetry, but he seems to have cultivated this talent too little. The English verses prefixed to his book, which possess beautiful imagery, and great sweetness of versification, have been frequently published. His Latin elegiac verses addressed to his book, shew a very agreeable turn for raillery.” — Ibid. p. 58.
“When the force of the subject opens his own vein of prose, we discover valuable sense and brilliant expression. Such is his account of the first feelings of melancholy persons, written, probably, from his own experience.” [See p. 154, of the present edition.]— Ibid. p. 60.
“During a pedantic age, like that in which BURTON'S production appeared, it must have been eminently serviceable to writers of many descriptions. Hence the unlearned might furnish themselves with appropriate scraps of Greek and Latin, whilst men of letters would find their enquiries shortened, by knowing where they might look for what both ancients and moderns had advanced on the subject of human passions. I confess my inability to point out any other English author who has so largely dealt in apt and original quotation.” — Manuscript note of the late George Steevens, Esq., in his copy of THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY.
1. His elder brother was William Burton, the Leicestershire antiquary, born 24th August, 1575, educated at Sutton Coldfield, admitted commoner, or gentleman commoner, of Brazen Nose College, 1591; at the Inner Temple, 20th May, 1593; B. A. 22d June, 1594; and afterwards a barrister and reporter in the Court of Common Pleas. “But his natural genius,” says Wood, “leading him to the studies of heraldry, genealogies, and antiquities, he became excellent in those obscure and intricate matters; and look upon him as a gentleman, was accounted, by all that knew him, to be the best of his time for those studies, as may appear by his 'Description of Leicestershire.'” His weak constitution not permitting him to follow business, he retired into the country, and his greatest work, “The Description of Leicestershire,” was published in folio, 1623. He died at Falde, after suffering much in the civil war, 6th April, 1645, and was buried in the parish church belonging thereto, called Hanbury.
2. This is Wood's account. His will says, Nuneaton; but a passage in this work [see fol. 304,] mentions Sutton Coldfield; probably he may have been at both schools.
3. So in the Register.
4. So in the Register.
5. Originating, perhaps, in a note, p. 448, 6th edit. (p. 455 of the present), in which a book is quoted as having been “printed at Paris 1624, seven years after Burton's first edition.” As, however, the editions after that of 1621, are regularly marked in succession to the eighth, printed in 1676, there seems very little reason to doubt that, in the note above alluded to, either 1624 has been a misprint for 1628, or seven years for three years. The numerous typographical errata in other parts of the work strongly aid this latter supposition.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48