Friday, April 23, 2021

'Remedies for a Labyrinth of Diseasements'

Reading Charles Lamb’s June 30, 1826 letter to John Bates Dibdin reminded me that Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, wrote poetry, which is not how we remember him. Dibdin (1798-1828) was twenty-three years younger than Lamb and, like him, a literary aspirant who worked as a clerk. He edited European Magazine, traveled to Madeira for his health but died of consumption shortly after his return to England, in 1828. In his first letter to Dibdin, Lamb is in fine form, obviously trying to cheer up his ailing friend: 

“I never knew an enemy to puns who was not an ill-natured man. Your fair critic in the coach reminds me of a Scotchman who assured me he did not see much in Shakespeare. I replied, I dare say not. He felt the equivoke [OED: “an expression capable of more than one meaning; a play upon words, often of a humorous nature, a pun; wordplay, punning”], looked awkward and reddish, but soon returned to the attack by saying that he thought Burns was as good as Shakespeare. I said that I had no doubt he was – to a Scotchman. We exchanged no more words that day.”


Gossip and a comic travelogue follow, after which Lamb commiserates with Dibdin over remedies for illness and depression. Lamb has already loaned Dibdin some favorite volumes:


“[Lamb’s sister] Mary bids me warn you not to read Anatomy of Melancholy in your present low way. You’ll fancy yourself a pipkin or a headless bear, as Burton speaks of. You’ll be lost in a maze of remedies for a labyrinth of diseasements – a plethora of cures.”


The headless bear appears in “The Author’s Abstract of Melancholy,” one of the poems Burton appended to his Anatomy. Here is the pertinent stanza:


“Methinks I hear, methinks I see

Ghosts, goblins, fiends; my phantasy

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.”


The poem is a notch above doggerel but the way Burton alternates rhyming “melancholy” in each stanza with “jolly” and “folly” is pleasing. The Anatomy is a jolly read on a nominally un-jolly subject. Burton used the persona “Democritus Junior,” taken from the “Laughing Philosopher.” Dr. Lamb prescribes:


“Read Fletcher; above all the Spanish Curate, the Thief, or Little Night Walker, the Wit Without Money, and the Lover’s Pilgrimage. Laugh and come home fat. Neither do we think Sir T. Browne quite the thing for you just at present. Fletcher is as light as soda-water. Browne and Burton are too strong potions for an Invalid. And don’t thumb and dirt the books. Take care of the bindings. Lay a leaf of silver papers under ’em as you read. And don’t smoke tobacco over ’em – the leaves will fall in and burn or dirty their namesakes. If you find any dusty atoms of the Indian Weed crumbled up in the Beaumont and Fletcher, they are mine. But then, you know, so is the Folio also. A pipe and a comedy of Fletcher’s the last thing of a night is the best recipe for light dreams, and to scatter away Nightmares. Probatum est [‘It is proved’].”

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