Friday, January 25, 2013

`The Swearing of the Bargemen'

A syllabus made up solely of Robert Burton and his admirers -- Johnson, Sterne, Lamb, Coleridge, Keats, Melville, Beckett and Anthony Powell, among others – would rival any education a graduate school might promise. Burton contains multitudes -- Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes. Powell took the title of his first novel, Afternoon Men, from a passage in The Anatomy of Melancholy, and the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins, writes a biography of Burton. The final novel in that twelve-novel sequence, Hearing Secret Harmonies, closes with a savory catalog lifted from the Anatomy, beginning like this: 

“I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged, in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and suchlike, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms,” and so on, for another two-hundred words. In an essay on Burton from 1977, collected in Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers 1946-1989, Powell writes: 

“At Oxford, when plagued with melancholy, Burton, who seems always to have enjoyed a joke, used to go down to the bridge over the river, and listen to the bargemen swearing at each other. That would always make him laugh, and at once feel better.” 

The Anatomy is judged a forbidding volume – oversized, endlessly digressive and allusive, interlarded with lengthy borrowing in Latin and Greek. All true, and that’s where the fun only begins. Both Burton and the bargemen make regular appearances in this self-revealing book. The author is perfectly aware of his effect even on modern readers. (The book was an immediate bestseller when published in 1621, and has seldom gone out of print.) He is writing an anatomy and, simultaneously, a parody of anatomies, any human striving after universal knowledge. The first edition totaled almost nine-hundred pages, and Burton published five revisions, each time adding to the bulk. 

When Lamb writes of Burton, he speaks of a cherished friend. Elia calls him “the fantastic great old man,” and senses a spiritual kinship in their mingling of melancholy and good humor. In “Mackery End, in Hertfordshire,” Lamb contrasts his taste in books with those of Bridget (Elia’s stand-in for Lamb’s sister Mary): 

“We are both great readers in different directions. While I am hanging over (for the thousandth time) some passage in old Burton, or one of his strange contemporaries, she is abstracted in some modern tale, or adventure, whereof our common reading-table is daily fed with assiduously fresh supplies. Narrative teazes me.” 

The best-known endorsement of Burton is probably Johnson’s, as reported by Boswell: 

“Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is a valuable book. It is perhaps overloaded with quotation; but there is great spirit and a great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind. It is the only book that ever took me out of bed two hours sooner than I wished to rise.” 

Johnson knew melancholy firsthand and he knew books. His enthusiasm for the Anatomy suggests he found in it consolation, solace almost medicinal. In some men, humor and heartbreak must mingle. In Section III, Member I, Subsection II, of the Anatomy, “Symptoms or Signs in the Mind,” Burton writes: 

“And though they laugh many times, and seem to be extraordinary merry (as they will by fits), yet extreme lumpish again in an instant, dull and heavy, semel et simul, merry and sad, but most part sad.” 

Burton died on this date, Jan. 25, in 1640, age sixty-two. Addressing the rumor that Burton may have hanged himself, Powell writes: 

“Such an act might certainly have fitted in with Burton’s sometimes black humour, but I feel the call of listening once again to the swearing of the bargemen would somehow have prevented that.”

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