Book Review: Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy

BookReviewLogoStephanie Shirilan’s first monograph, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy (Ashgate, 2015) is a tremendous example of close-reading technique and elaboration, an excellent model for anyone interested in following a similar path with a text from almost any period.

Begun as a dissertation at Brandeis University, Transformative Powers is a top-notch example of a dissertation raised to to the level of publishable monograph. Shirilan — now Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University — has set herself no small task:

The reader who hopes to profit from [Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy should] approach it sympathetically [sic], that is, with a willingness to be transformed, especially by the pleasures of the experience. The present study is an attempt to demonstrate and elaborate this therapeutic principle by situating it in its rhetorical, physiological, theological contexts. (1)

SolomonThe placement and exploration of The Anatomy in any one of these contexts would be sufficient for a monograph but Shirilan balances them well while making it clear that there is more to be written in each area.

Transformative Powers is divided into four parts, the first an exploration of the author himself, followed by close examination of different aspects of melancholy: hypochondria, “study as cure for…melancholy,” and the usefulness of melancholy as an experience. The author includes a lengthy “Works Cited” bibliography as well as an index and — joy of joys — footnotes!

Shirilan’s writing is dense and rewarding, suggesting many interesting sidelights on early medical writing as well as re-interpretations of Burton’s text. She engages directly and firmly with the pre-existing Burton scholarship, making her view of the text clear without castigating or denigrating her predecessors. Anyone interested in doing close readings as part of their research and writing will find Shirilan’s approach valuable whether or not they have any particular interest in Burton. The reader without an extensive literary theory or rhetoric background may wish to have something like the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms close to hand.

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