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The Anatomy of Melancholy

Written by: Robert Burton
Narrated by: Peter Wickham
Length: 56 hrs and 49 mins

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Publisher's Summary

The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of the most remarkable books ever written. First published in 1621, and hardly ever out of print since, it is a huge, varied, idiosyncratic, entertaining and learned survey of the experience of melancholy, seen from just about every possible angle that could be imagined. Its subtitle explains much: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With All the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of It. In Three Maine Partitions with their Several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. But despite the subtitle’s length, it does not do justice to the immense scope of the study. Nor to its oddness. 

Robert Burton (1577-1640) was an Oxford scholar, a vicar and a mathematician with a stupendously wide reading habit which was supported by an exceptional memory: he remembered virtually everything he read. However, throughout his life he suffered from depression and was therefore able to bring personal experience to what could have been a dry, if gargantuan academic study. According to traditional medicine, accepted generally by Jacobeans, melancholy was caused by ‘black bile’. But for Burton psychology underpinned all. 

He divides his book into three Partitions. In 'The First Partition' he looks at causes of melancholy. He addresses diet (good and bad) and appetite; he considers witches and magicians; he surveys any number of physical maladies from ‘phrenzy’ to ‘lycanthropia’. The soul – sensible and rational – is investigated; the passions (envy, malice, anger, discontent, covetousness, love of gaming, pride, overmuch joy) are intricately examined. 'The Second Partition' is dedicated to ‘The Cure of Melancholy’, and Burton discusses physical issues and social positions, while dealing meticulously with such emotional states as envy, ambition, self-love and more. 'The Third Partition' is dedicated to an examination of ‘Love-Melancholy’: beauty, lust, music, amorous tales, bawds – and also religious melancholy. 

All this hardly reflects the experience of listening to The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton’s fertile and curious mind dips here, there and everywhere. Classical references abound; the text teems with obscure references to scientists, doctors, philosophers, writers, musicians and politicians from all ages. They are invariably fascinating and in some cases astounding. He is equally fluent in investigating the diaphragm, the pleura, the vena cava, the bladder, the gall and the spleen as he is in acknowledging the role of hypochondria and psychosomatic ailments. In one sentence he refers to the excess habits of Alcibiades, in the next he is evoking Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. In fact quotations from Chaucer and Shakespeare, Juvenal, Lucretius, the Bible, Ariosto and Virgil tumble over one another in a glorious cornucopia. 

This great text, a monument to English knowledge and invention, once approached is never forgotten. It has informed, delighted and infuriated generations of great men of all disciplines (including Samuel Johnson) down the centuries. It must also be acknowledged that it is as challenging a task to record as exists in English literature. Peter Wickham, no stranger to tough texts, proves undaunted by it: he brings Robert Burton magnificently to the 21st century ear, rendering the Jacobean language, the abstruse references and the unbelievable detail, with a remarkable ease and familiarity. 

The Anatomy of Melancholy, presented here with all the original quotations in English, is, at last, available on audiobook in its entirety. An accompanying PDF is available with this recording, presenting the famous frontispiece which opens the work and Burton’s verse explanation of it: 'The Argument of the Frontispiece'. Also included are the 'Contents' in full form, giving a helpful overview of this unique and detailed book.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio on our Desktop Site.

Public Domain (P)2020 Ukemi Productions Ltd

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  • Darwin8u
  • 26-05-20

Nam Et Doctis Hisce Erroribus Versatus Sum

Unius ætatis sunt quæ fortiter fiunt, quæ vero pro utilitate Reipub. scribuntur, æterna or a soldier's work lasts for an age, a scholar's for ever.
-- Vigetius, quoted in Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

I was given this book five years ago by my best friend/college roomate for my birthday. He gave me a beautiful John C. Nimmo, 1886 edition with Morocco spine labels. The books were beautiful. Keith is a helluva friend. It took me almost a year, however, to start reading the books. In May of 2013 I bought a NYRB edition (a paperback with 1392 pages, weighing 42.7 oz) to ACTUALLY read (Those who know my know I do this quite often. I find myself in possession of a book I want to read, but it is too beautiful, too old, too tight, too expensive to actually read, so I buy ANOTHER to read). I also downloaded a $.99 Kindle edition so I could nibble on the book at my leisure. I was ready to start reading. I'm glad now to see the audiobook version. Would have helped a bit a few years ago, but during the Rona, this will help me deal with all my feels.

I recently made a new friend watching the eclipse in Idaho. He is an artist from L.A. who limits/restricts his art to materials collected during the last 3 seconds of a dying star. That is essentially how I decided to read this book nearly four years ago. Usually, I'll read a book in a day to a week. I'm focused, goal oriented, and driven. I have a book mark covered in Post-it® flags and I'm off. With this book, however, I wanted to float, drift, read slowly. So, I limited myself to reading only on Sundays and only (98% of the time) during church. Yes. I was essentially going to read a book about Melancholy right before and right after partaking of sacrament. It felt right. This limited me to reading about 5-7 pages a week. I originally wanted to read a member (the book is divided into 3 Partitions [or books]. Each partition is further divided into sections, members, subsections.) each week as recommended by William H. Gass. It didn't work that way. I'd read what I could during the hour I was sitting in Sacrament and that was it. Some weeks I read 7-10 pages, others 3 pages, and for about a year+ I didn't read hardly any at all. I spent almost all of 2016 watching a friend's two-year old during Church so his parents didn't go nuts. I used him to duck out of church, wander the halls, run to the car and drink a diet Dr. Pepper. He was my partner in crime. I fed him mints and candy and he reminded me weekly that I was now past my prime when it came to rearing young children.

So, essentially, it took me from May 2013 to October 2014 to read the first partition (439 pages not including notes). It took me from October 2014 until October 2015 to read the second partition (261 pages not including notes). And it took me from October 2015 until September 2017 to read the third partition, with a significant break in 2016 (432 pages not including notes).

But enough wind-up, onto my review, well, before my review I think Burton's poetic summary/Argument of the book is the best:


These verses refer to the Frontispiece, which is divided into ten compartments that are
here severally explained.
Ten distinct Squares here seen apart,
Are joined in one by Cutter's art.


Old Democritus under a tree,
Sits on a stone with book on knee;
About him hang there many features,
Of Cats, Dogs and such like creatures,
Of which he makes anatomy,
The seat of black choler to see,
Over his head appears the sky,
And Saturn Lord of melancholy.


To the left a landscape of Jealousy,
Presents itself unto thine eye.
A Kingfisher, a Swan, an Hern,
Two fighting-cocks you may discern,
Two roaring Bulls each other hie,
To assault concerning venery.
Symbols are these; I say no more,
Conceive the rest by that's afore.


The next of solitariness,
A Portraiture doth well express,
By sleeping dog, cat: Buck and Doe,
Hares, Conies in the desart go:
Bats, Owls the shady bowers over,
In melancholy darkness hover.
Mark well: If't be not as it should be,
Blame the bad Cutter, and not me.


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.


Hypocondriacus leans on his arm,
Wind in his side doth him much harm,
And troubles him full sore, God knows,
Much pain he hath and many woes.
About him pots and glasses lie,
Newly brought from's Apothecary.
This Saturn's aspects signify,
You see them portray'd in the sky.


Beneath them kneeling on his knee,
A superstitious man you see:
He fasts, prays, on his idol fixt,
Tormented hope and fear betwixt:
For hell perhaps he takes more pain,
Than thou dost heaven itself to gain.
Alas poor soul, I pity thee,
What stars incline thee so to be?


But see the madman rage downright
With furious looks, a ghastly sight.
Naked in chains bound doth he lie,
And roars amain he knows not why!
Observe him; for as in a glass,
Thine angry portraiture it was.
His picture keeps still in thy presence;
'Twixt him and thee, there's no difference.


Borage and Hellebor fill two scenes,
Sovereign plants to purge the veins
Of melancholy, and cheer the heart,
Of those black fumes which make it smart;
To clear the brain of misty fogs,
Which dull our senses, and Soul clogs.
The best medicine that e'er God made
For this malady, if well assay'd.


Now last of all to fill a place,
Presented is the Author's face;
And in that habit which he wears,
His image to the world appears.
His mind no art can well express,
That by his writings you may guess.
It was not pride, nor yet vain glory,
(Though others do it commonly,)
Made him do this: if you must know,
The Printer would needs have it so.
Then do not frown or scoff at it,
Deride not, or detract a whit.
For surely as thou dost by him,
He will do the same again.
Then look upon't, behold and see,
As thou like'st it, so it likes thee.
And I for it will stand in view,
Thine to command, Reader, adieu.

Are you starting to see? No, I think I need to continue my review.

THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY (or Democritus goes Wild)

Before Burton begins his disection of melancholy, he needs to introduce himself. But wait, before that, we need him to abstract melancholy for us, again in verse:


When I go musing all alone,
Thinking of divers things
When I build castles in the air,
Void of sorrow and void of fear,
Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet
Methinks the time runs very fleet.
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
When I lie waking all alone,
Recounting what I have ill done,
My thoughts on me then tyrannise,
Fear and sorrow me surprise,
Whether I tarry still or go,
Methinks the time moves very slow.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so sad as melancholy.
When to myself I act and smile,
With pleasing thoughts the time beguile.
By a brook side or wood so green,
Unheard, unsought for, or unseen,
A thousand pleasures do me bless,
And crown my soul with happiness.
All my joys besides are folly,
None so sweet as melancholy.
When I lie, sit, or walk alone,
I sigh, I grieve, making great mone,
In a dark grove, or irksome den,
With discontents and Furies then,
A thousand miseries at once
Mine heavy heart and soul ensonce,
All my griefs to this are jolly,
None so sour as melancholy.
Methinks I hear, methinks I see,
Sweet music, wondrous melody,
Towns, palaces, and cities fine;
Here now, then there; the world is mine,
Rare beauties, gallant ladies shine,
Whate'er is lovely or divine.
All other joys to this are folly,
None so sweet as melancholy.
Methinks I hear, methinks I see
Ghosts, goblins, fiends; my fantasy
Presents a thousand ugly shapes,
Headless bears, black men, and apes,
Doleful outcries, and fearful sights,
My sad and dismal soul affrights.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
None so damn'd as melancholy.
Methinks I court, methinks I kiss,
Methinks I now embrace my mistress
O blessed days, O sweet content,
In Paradise my time is spent.
Such thoughts may still my fancy move,
So may I ever be in love.
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
When I recount love's many frights,
My sighs and tears, my waking nights,
My jealous fits; O mine hard fate
I now repent, but 'tis too late.
No torment is so bad as love,
So bitter to my soul can prove.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so harsh as melancholy.
Friends and companions get you gone
'Tis my desire to be alone;
Ne'er well but when my thoughts and I
Do domineer in privacy.
No Gem, no treasure like to this,
'Tis my delight, my crown, my bliss
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
'Tis my sole plague to be alone,
I am a beast, a monster grown,
I will no light nor company,
I find it now my misery.
The scene is turn'd, my joys are gone,
Fear, discontent, and sorrows come.
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so fierce as melancholy.
I'll not change life with any King,
I ravisht am: can the world bring
More joy, than still to laugh and smile,
In pleasant toys time to beguile?
Do not, O do not trouble me,
So sweet content I feel and see.
All my joys to this are folly,
None so divine as melancholy.
I'll change my state with any wretch,
Thou canst from gaol or dunghill fetch;
My pain 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.

Are you catching on yet? Falling in love with Burton? Alas, we should probably continue with the ACTUAL review:

Burton introduces himself. Actually, he introduces his persona, his pseudonym Democritus now.

Seek not after that which is hid; if the contents please thee, "and be for thy use, suppose the Man in the Moon, or whom thou wilt to be the Author;" I would not willingly be known.

Burton is ready to go. He has his Man in the Moon ready to start, but he REALLY wants to take a moment and explain his methods, his reasons, his purpose, his hope, his humility, his own sadness. If you decide, dear reader of this review to go no further, at LEAST read Democritus Junior to his Reader. His introduction is hilarious. It is discoursive, mocking, beautiful, digressive, inclusive, absurd, and practically stream of conscious (if dear reader your subconcious could stream both Latin and Greek at will) and gives you a beautiful peek of what is to come. He "skim[s] off the cream of other men's wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens to set out our own sterile plots."Burton/Democritus, Jr. shows EXACTLY how he plans to use both Greek and Latin masters. He writes like I hope I review and Seneca having both our sad backs (numquam nimis dicitur, quod nunquam satis dicitur*)

* I could have provided a translation for you but depending on the edition of Burton you will be reading, you may or may not get a translation. You probably need to just get used to Google Translate.

THE FIRST PARTITION [Causes and Symptoms]

First one thing I found myself doing as I read Burton: collecting words. For example:

amanuenses, fustian, mountebanks, quacksalvers, maltsters, costermongers, quadrature, sottish, vizards, pettifoggers

I could do this all day folks. Words and more words. One of the benefits of reading Burton electronically is I was able to quickly look up esoteric words I wasn't familiar with. But many required more than my iPhone's standard dictionary could handle. I would highlght them and save them for some quiet time, alone fondling my O.E.D. So, not only can Burton out do you with Latin and Greek, Democritus Jr's English can kick your ass too.

In the first partition Burton starts wide. (Section 1) He examines diseases in general, narrows down to diseases of the mind, digresses into anatomy where he examines the anatomy of the body and the soul. He then seeks to define Melancholy which quickly leads him into examing in the next section (Section 2) the Causes of Melancholy (God, spirits, witches & magicians, stars, old age, inheritance, bad diet, etc. He looks into the imagination, envy, malice, hatred and spends a lot of time (and this was one of my favorite sections) on the Love of Learning (or overmuch Study) and quickly digresses into the Misery of Scholars and why the Muses are Melancholy. Moving on to (Section 3) Burton examines the Symptoms of Melancholy. He looks at the body, the mind (fears, sorrow, etc), the influence of humours. He spends a bit of time looking at women and their own form of melancholy and ends section 3 by examining the more immediate causes of melancholy. In (Section 4) Burton starts examining the Prognostics of Melancholy, but before he goes too far... Partition One ends. God be merciful to us all!

THE SECOND PARTITION [The Cure of Melancholy]

Unlawful cures? Rejected.
Saints cures? Rejected.
Physician, Patient, Physic
Retention and Evacuation
Digression of Air
Air rectified
Exercise rectified
Waking rectified
Passions rectified
Mind rectified
Medicinal Physic
Herbal Alternatives
Purging Simples
Prepartives adn Purgers

He looks at them all. This was, if I had to pick, my least favorite section. This partition, by design almost, was constructed in a way to make it difficult for Burton to run off track, to digress, and the BEST parts of AoM are when Burton bolts off on a tangent. But that reminds me of another thing I loved about this book. I've brought up his vocabulary in the last partition, so in this partition I'm going to sing his praises for his quotes. Like Montaigne, one of the absolute thrills of reading Burton is the accumulation of quotes Burton has. Before Bartlett had his book of quotations, one of the appeals (I would have to imagine) of reading someone like Burton in the late 1600s or early 1700s was his wide variety of Greek and Latin quotes. For example (and these aren't my favorite, just a few fruit I picked quickly from the pages):

periisset nisi periisset - had he not been visited, he had utterly perished
Omnia appetunt bonum - all things seek their own good,
Quod supra nos nihil ad nos - what is beyond our comprehension does not concern us
Genius Genio cedit et obtemperat - one genius yields and is overcome by another.
nam et doctis hisce erroribus versatus sum - for I am conversant with these learned errors
Plures crapula quàm gladius - this gluttony kills more than the sword
omnivorantia et homicida gula - this all-devouring and murdering gut
Tam inter epulas fortis vir esse potest ac in bello - as much valour is to be found in feasting as in fighting

THE THIRD PARTITION [Love/Love-Melancholy - Religous Melancholy]

I'm going to take a break here. I will return to finish my review of the last partition. My family is starting to wake, however, and I've been scratching at this for the last couple hours.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
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  • mohadcheridi
  • 12-04-20

A real treat!!

The narration is perfect.
The book is unique in so many ways...
Can't recommend it enough !