What makes Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy
so hard to put down is his wild branching rhetoric.
It’s not enough to trace pathologies of mind, whatever
path a lost mind takes—he wants to make it rhyme,
invest it with the kind of power music makes or minds
in a quandary, and give it memory’s crutch mnemonics.
Ingress, progress, regress, egress, much alike, he writes,
citing four culpable causes of “discontents, cares,
miseries, etc.,” yet even here his rhyming trochees
don’t suffice as art until he finishes the sentence
with a flourish suitable to the Bible or beloved Lucretius:
Blindness seizeth on us in the beginning, labour
in the middle, grief in the end, error in all.
Root to trunk to limb to leaf—as he might say.
In my friend’s voice I hear a ghost.
Home from the hospital, he is, at sixty-two,
scared of his heart’s heredity—who wouldn’t be?—
a host of uncles dead before their time, his father,
at fifty-six, the four chambers of whose heart
filled with the effluvium of both their lifetimes.
He feels the line stretching to him the way
the branching tree leads or leans, one to the next,
the way the heart goes bad one tapped vein at a time.
Melancholy man, he calls himself, though he has written
of a cloud, even of peaceable clouds in a painting,
it is right to think of these as elegies of the spirit, to see
their forms as melancholy hosts, and the poet watching
clouds is watching phantoms levitating stone.