Book Review: Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy

BookReviewLogoStephanie Shirilan’s first monograph, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy (Ashgate, 2015) is a tremendous example of close-reading technique and elaboration, an excellent model for anyone interested in following a similar path with a text from almost any period.

Begun as a dissertation at Brandeis University, Transformative Powers is a top-notch example of a dissertation raised to to the level of publishable monograph. Shirilan — now Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University — has set herself no small task:

The reader who hopes to profit from [Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy should] approach it sympathetically [sic], that is, with a willingness to be transformed, especially by the pleasures of the experience. The present study is an attempt to demonstrate and elaborate this therapeutic principle by situating it in its rhetorical, physiological, theological contexts. (1)

SolomonThe placement and exploration of The Anatomy in any one of these contexts would be sufficient for a monograph but Shirilan balances them well while making it clear that there is more to be written in each area.

Transformative Powers is divided into four parts, the first an exploration of the author himself, followed by close examination of different aspects of melancholy: hypochondria, “study as cure for…melancholy,” and the usefulness of melancholy as an experience. The author includes a lengthy “Works Cited” bibliography as well as an index and — joy of joys — footnotes!

Shirilan’s writing is dense and rewarding, suggesting many interesting sidelights on early medical writing as well as re-interpretations of Burton’s text. She engages directly and firmly with the pre-existing Burton scholarship, making her view of the text clear without castigating or denigrating her predecessors. Anyone interested in doing close readings as part of their research and writing will find Shirilan’s approach valuable whether or not they have any particular interest in Burton. The reader without an extensive literary theory or rhetoric background may wish to have something like the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms close to hand.

Late Winter Hunger

IMG_9037February. Winter has been worn out, but it clings, and there is little else to lift the month for man or beast. For the academic, the brief break in the year has been consumed by the task of getting through January alive. For the non-academic, winter stretches out bleak and gray in a series of tasks and preparations that we forget the beginning of and cannot see the end of. Even in the Christian calendar, there is little on offer in this month of grim solitude. It is fuel we need, something to burn, and there is precious little in the wood shed for anyone.

Not surprisingly, I have a tendency to read Thomas Hardy’s poems in February. (Misery loves company). My favorite is the Darkling Thrush. Uplifting it is not. But it captures my sense of longing and desolation–

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

But in reading this (as in looking at the forlorn faces of my students, friends, and colleagues), I realize that it comes down to need.

A lesson might be learned from the animal kingdom. In the late winter, those creatures still above-burrow do not breed, nor do they fight, or fawn, or play. Look at the deer in the field, how they huddle together, waiting silent for a sign of thaw. The wolf waits, too, lean and hopeful. This is not fierce, driven hunger but a kind of settled, slow-burning desire–and the sunken belly’s gripe is the surest sign of life.

And so, if you are feeling the bite of winter and want, do not despair. If you are huddled over your desk, struggling to scrape together a thought, a word, much less a chapter… If you are wandering through your day, fighting off the creep of inertia… If you are in a crowd and feel alone, if you are trying your best to meet the needs of this day, this hour, with scarcely enough left to think about the morrow… Then you are on the watchful edge of waking. You are not dead. You are merely hungry for better and for more. You are not ashes, you are a spark wanting new fuel.

V0022209 A thrush eating berries. Etching by W. Hayes, ca. 1775.And I promise, it is coming. Even February only lasts so long.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

–Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush”