Footling around on the internet recently, I stumbled on a clip of a young woman singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ to a full-grown cow. As she sat cross-legged, strumming away not very well on a guitar, the cow lay down beside her and gently nudged her with its huge head as adoringly as any puppy. The sight brought to mind a passage in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy in which he reflects on music as a remedy:
Harts, hinds, horses, dogs, bears are exceedingly delighted with it; elephants, Agrippa adds; and in Lydia in the midst of a lake there be certain floating islands (if ye will believe it), that after music will dance.
Wonderful craziness like this, which accommodates both the plausible and the beyond-belief in a spirit of generosity and delight, is characteristic of Burton’s great work; and it may go a little way to answering the question of why one should bother with a 400-year-old text about some of the darkest corners of human experience.