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religious melancholy, religious guilt, English Renaissance


What is the essential difference between natural melancholy and the guilt-stricken conscience of the sinner? This is the question posed by Ben Jonson (1573-1637) in his poetic plain To Heaven:

Good, and great God, can I not thinke of thee,

But it must, straight, my melancholy bee?

It is interpreted in me disease,

Thaat, laden with my sinnes, I seeke for ease?

Here Jonson points up the perennial quandary of homo religioso. At stake in its solution is not only the health of the body, but also the salvation of the soul. For if spiritual guilt cannot be distinguished from natural melancholy, it follows that the corporeal physician, altogether independently of the clergyman, might be viewed as possessing adequate expertise for guilt's "cure."