Sunday, May 31, 2020

'Thou Wilt Be a Wilderness Again'

In Act IV, Scene 5 of Henry IV, Part 2 (c. 1600), the king tells the prince:

“O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that my care could not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
O, thou wilt be a wilderness again.
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants!”

Nations, too, suffer from the complicated malady formerly known as melancholy. By calling it depression we misunderstand it. Robert Burton had more than that in mind. He writes in the opening “Democritus to the Reader” section of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):

“But whereas you shall see many discontents, common grievances, complaints, poverty, barbarism, beggary, plagues, wars, rebellions, seditions, mutinies, contentions, idleness, riot, epicurism, the land lie untilled, waste, full of bogs, fens, deserts, &c., cities decayed, base and poor towns, villages depopulated, the people squalid, ugly, uncivil; that kingdom, that country, must needs be discontent, melancholy, hath a sick body, and had need to be reformed.”

Ben Jonson warns in his commonplace book Timber, or, Discoveries: Made upon Men and Matter (1640):

“'Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is, It imitates the publicke riot. The excesse of Feasts, and apparel, are the notes of a sick State; and the wantonnesse of language, of a sick mind.”

In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Dr. Johnson defines riot as “To move or act without controll or restraint.”

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