Keats’ ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’

By Colin Yeo
John Keats’ copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy held in the Keats’ House collection

This object replicates an open page spread from a copy of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) owned by the Romantic poet, John Keats (1795-1821). This text, written in the early 1600s, is one, if not the most important treatise that addresses the subject of melancholy – offering a fascinating insight into a field that would today be regarded as the medical sciences. Keats trained as a surgeon before embarking on his career as a poet and his interest in Burton’s text would have stemmed from both his medical studies as well as his burgeoning literary talents.

Historically, melancholy was regarded as a ‘creative disease’, and Keats’ copy of the Anatomy offers a window into the poet’s deep-seated preoccupation with the subject. Even more compelling are Keats’ scribbles and annotations visible on the pages of the book, which provide tangible, material evidence that he engaged with Burton’s writings. [1]

The pages you see here are from the third book of the Anatomy, a part of Burton’s treatise devoted specifically to the topic of love-melancholy. This particular section addresses the fulfilment of desire as a means of curing love-melancholy. The underlined annotation on the first page, made by Keats’ himself, is a quote from Eusebius (an early-Christian scholar from the third century), who was subsequently cited by Burton:

‘He that will avoid trouble must avoid the world’

The second annotation, on the opposite page, underlines Burton’s remark on the union of two people in marriage as a means of carrying on the work of God. It reads:

‘And to propagate the church’

These scribbles provide us with a window into the life of a man commonly regarded as one of the foremost Romantic poets. The first annotation can be read as a comment on the relationship between solitariness and melancholy. Throughout the Anatomy, Burton writes that solitariness is both a cause and a symptom of melancholy. Keats’ underlining of this quote is especially significant when read in the context of some of his poetic works. The protagonist of his poem Endymion is a solitary, melancholy character. [2] In his Odes, his speakers have a preference for solitude, rejecting the company of others. [3] By highlighting this quote, we glean a more nuanced understanding of Keats’ literary treatment of melancholy.

Keats’ marks on his book are of particular interest to codicologists – researchers who study the physical aspects of manuscripts and understand the role of texts as objects. Viewing a three-dimensional replica of this book affords scholars and the general public alike access to Keats’ annotations without risk of contamination or damage. Yet unlike other, more interactive, models in the Emotions3D collection, our experience of the book is restricted to the two pages we can view on the model. Yet the one-to-one relationship between viewer and object here is replaced by a one-to-many relationship, as more than one person can view the model at any given time. [4] Despite the fact that the model only comprises of two pages, these pages alone tell us a lot about Keats as a scholar, as a poet, and most importantly as a person.

For Keats, unrequited and unfulfilled desire remained a central part of the human condition. Keats was engaged to Fanny Brawne but never married her due to his financial status as a struggling poet. At the age of 25, Keats died in Rome where he had retired in the final stages of tuberculosis. In this context, the second underlined quote perhaps reflects Keats’ anxieties about his illness and being unable to marry the love of his life. The poet’s markings in his copy of Anatomy expose the dilemma of unfulfilled love-melancholy, and offer a glimpse into the poet’s romantic frustrations.

This frustration can perhaps be summed up in the concluding lines from Keats’ own work ‘Ode to Indolence’, where the speaker is haunted by three spirits – Love, Ambition and Poesy – which elude him:

Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store;
Vanish, ye Phantoms! from my idle spright,
Into the clouds, and never more return!

Keats’ dying request was to be buried under a tombstone inscribed with the words “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water”, yet Keats left traces of his emotional life upon the objects all around him. The digital snapshot of the open book, frozen in time on our screens, helps us traverse the centuries from the original composition of the text to the present day, and imagine ourselves reading in Keats’ place.

What would Keats have thought of the melancholic content of the Anatomy? Do you think the poet would have any criticisms of Burton’s text? How does Keats’ open book make you feel?

About the author

Colin Yeo is a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Australia and a postgraduate affiliate with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His research focuses on Early Modern precendents of the literary gothic, Renaissance literature, the gothic novel and contemporary film studies.

References

1. Jennifer Radden, The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva (Oxford, 2009), 12.

2. David G. Riede, Allegories of One’s Mind: Melancholy in Victorian Poetry (Columbus, 2005), 37.

3. Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, Mass, 1983), 168.

4. Timothy Stinson, ‘Codicological Descriptions’, in Codicology and Paleography in the Digital Age, ed. Malte Rehbein, Patrick Sahle and Torsten Schassan, (Norderstedt, 2009), 45.

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