John Donne’s Death Portrait & the Cult of Melancholia

April 11, 2009

 

John Donne Shroud
“Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”                  – John Donne

A few months before his death, the poet John Donne commissioned this portrait of himself as he expected to appear when he rose from the grave at the Apocalypse. He hung the portrait on the wall as a reminder of the transience of life.

During the early 17th century, a curious cultural and literary cult of melancholia arose in England. It was believed that religious uncertainties caused by the English Reformation and a greater attention being paid to issues of sin, damnation, and salvation, led to this effect. In music, the post-Elizabethan cult of melancholia is associated with John Dowland, whose motto was Semper Dowland, semper dolens. (“Always Dowland, always mourning.”) The melancholy man, known to contemporaries as a “malcontent,” is epitomized by Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, the “Melancholy Dane.” Another literary expression of this cultural mood comes from the death-obsessed later works of John Donne. Other major melancholic authors include Sir Thomas Browne, and Jeremy Taylor, whose Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and Holy Living and Holy Dying, respectively, contain extensive meditations on death.

The name “melancholia” comes from the old medical theory of the four humours: disease or ailment being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily fluids, or humours. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humour in a particular person. Melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile; hence the name, which means ‘black bile’ in Ancient Greek.

The most extended treatment of melancholia comes from Robert Burton’s , The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Historically, Opened and Cut up.

Burton defined his subject as follows:

Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality. . . . This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed.

In attacking his stated subject, Burton drew from nearly every science of his day, including psychology and physiology, but also astronomymeteorology, and theology, and even astrology and demonology.

Admirers of The Anatomy of Melancholy range from Samuel JohnsonLaurence Sterne, and John Keats (who claimed it to be his favourite book), to  Philip PullmanJorge Luis Borges (who used a quote as an epigraph to his story “The Library of Babel“), Samuel Beckett, and Jacques Barzun (who sees in it many anticipations of 20th century psychiatry). The Anatomy is still considered an enduring, if eccentric, literary classic by many modern critics. 

 

 

 

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One Response to “John Donne’s Death Portrait & the Cult of Melancholia”

  1. […] [71] …see Real Gothic’s blog post John Donne’s Death Portrait & the Cult of Melancholia. […]

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