Wednesday, August 21, 2013

`As Many Idle Fellows Have Assayed'

To a friend who complains of depression: 

“Whosoever he is therefore that is overrunne with solitarinesse, or carried away with pleasing melancholy and vaine conceits, and for want of imployment knows not how to spend his time, or crucified with worldly care, I can prescribe him no better remedy than this of study, to compose himselfe to the learning of some art or science. Provided alwaies that his malady proceede not from overmuch study, for in such cases he addes fuell to the fire, and nothing can be more pernitious.” 

We’ll Americanize the prescription to make it easier to swallow. Think of The Anatomy of Melancholy as a medicine show and Burton as the pitch man hawking remedies. By the time we’ve reached “Exercise Rectified of Body and Mind” (Partition II, Section 2, Member IV), we’ve come to know the barker and to trust him, or at least to be charmed without taking him for a grifter. If he’s a con man he’s good enough to have conned himself. He writes, self-revealingly: “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.” You are a bookish person with a casual flair for the written word. Burton’s words, if not his “science,” are seductive and soothing. 

“Study is onely prescribed to those that are otherwise idle, troubled in minde, or carried headlong with vaine thoughts and imaginations, to distract their cogitations (although variety of study, or some serious subject would doe the former no harme) and divert their continuall meditations another way.” 

In other words, when not crippling, melancholy can be a spur to industry and learning. You’ve expressed interest in reading Moby-Dick and Shakespeare from start to finish, and in boning up on your threadbare Latin. Burton is a substantial education under a single title. He recommends a close reading of scripture, “which is like an Apothecaries shop, wherein are all remedies for all infirmities of minde.” Get hold of the three-volume Clarendon Press edition (1990) of The Anatomy of Melancholy, with its accompanying three volumes of commentary. That should keep you busy for a couple of years. 

“He may apply his minde I say to Heraldry, Antiquity, invent Impresses, Emblems; make Epithalamiums, Epitaphs, Elegies, Epigrams, Palindroma, Anagrams, Chronograms, Acrosticks upon his friends names; or write a comment on Martianus Capella, Tertullian de pallio, the Nubian Geography, or upon AElia Laelia Crispis, as many idle fellows have assayed; and rather than do nothing, vary a verse a thousand waies with Putean, so torturing his wits, or as Rainnerus of Luneberge, 2,150 times in his Proteus poeticus, or Scaliger, Chrysolithus, Cleppisius, and others have in like sort done.” 

How long since you made an Epithalamium? A productive and relaxing day or two could be spent glossing that brief passage (“Wipe your glosses with what you know,” Joyce suggested.) and tracing Burton’s cascade of allusions. “AElia Laelia Crispis” alone is worth volumes. Burton cautions:  

“For, as he that plays for nothing will not heed his game; no more will voluntary employment so thoroughly affect a student, except he be very intent of himself, and take an extraordinary delight in the study, about which he is conversant. It should be of that nature his business, which volens nolens ["willy nilly"] he must necessarily undergo, and without great loss, mulct [OED: “A fine imposed for an offence.”], shame, or hindrance, he may not omit.”

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