The eminent role of imagination in Burton’s treatment of melancholy



Melancholy, Therapy, Imagination, Passion, Burton.


Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy conveys an impressive body of medical and humanist knowledge through a multitude of voices and styles, leading some of its interpreters to reject its unity and originality. We sustain that, along with its curative strategies, Burton’s understanding of the imagination, «the queen of mental powers», is probably the most innovative contribution of his work. Grounded on the Aristotelian model, Burton develops an operative conception of imagination that is central in the fulfilment of the prophylactic and therapeutic goals of the Anatomy. Burton describes the normal functioning of imagination, bridging between the physical and the immaterial soul with reproductive and creative features, but also its abnormal and/or pathological manifestations, particularly the way it has «the power to arouse the [melancholic] passions». The particular kind of delirium in which melancholy consists is described by Burton as the consequence of unbounded imagination, «first step and fountain of all grievances», initiating damaging forms of enjoyment. On the other hand, a kind of «guided imagining» is required for the inoculation and relief of melancholic syndromes. These goals are not simply stated, through dietetic prescriptions and truncated spiritual measures. Burton constructs a reading experience that relies on the imagination as a way to understand, prevent and cure sensory, emotional, and cognitive iterations of melancholy. Inspired by the story of Zisca’s drum, Burton designed the Anatomy so that it has incantatory gifts for its reader, affirming that it must «drive away melancholy (thou I be gone)».

Keywords: Melancholy; Therapy; Imagination; Passion.
Authors: Burton.


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