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[Perspectives] The Anatomy of Melancholy revisited

Dr Samuel Johnson struggled to get out of bed in the morning. This was a symptom of what he called his “black dog”—the depression of which he wrote one of the most memorable of all descriptions in a letter to Hester Thrale in 1783: “When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking…After dinner what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect.” But, according to his devoted biographer James Boswell, there was one book that gave Johnson the will to get up early: “Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, he said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” Johnson also gave Boswell, who himself suffered from severe bouts of depression, a valuable piece of advice from Burton: “The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this, Be not solitary; be not idle.” He added that the advice should be modified to the effect that those of an idle disposition should not be solitary and those who are solitary should not be idle.

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