1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Butler

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 2:44-45.



Celebrated as Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras is, and probably ever will be, little is known of his life and conversation. It appears, however, that he was born at Strensham in Worcestershire, in 1612, and that his father, a small farmer, sent him to the grammar school of Worcester, from whence it is supposed that he removed for a short time to Cambridge.

The narrowness of his circumstances, however, soon obliged him to return home, when he became a clerk to a justice of the peace in his native county, and this easy situation not only improved him in general literature, but also in music and painting. He was afterwards admitted into the family of the countess of Kent, where he became acquainted with the great Selden; and owing to the fickleness of his destiny, was next employed by Sir Samuel Lake, one of Cromwell's principal officers. From an insight into some characters which now fell under his notice, he is here said to have conceived, and partly executed his inimitable poem the first portion of which was published in 1663.

On the restoration, Butler became secretary to the Earl of Carberry, president of Wales, and was made steward of Ludlow Castle. At this period, he married a lady of family and some fortune; but it seems he was little benefitted by either. He was equally unfortunate in all his connections and undertakings. Though the king quoted, the courtiers studied, and every royalist applauded his Hudibras, he received no substantial recompence for his talents and exertions. Like Cervantes, another original genius of the same stamp, he was universally admired, but suffered to languish in indigence and obscurity.

The genius of Butler, however, rose for a time superior to neglect. He published a second, and in 1678 a third part of his poem, but still left the plan imperfect, nor is it possible to conjecture how far he would have extended it, under more propitious circumstances.

Unfinished as it is, Hudibras is one of the most splendid monuments of genius, wit, and learning, that the English language can boast; but is too local in its general objects and too obsolete in its political allusions for selection.

Butler died in 1680, at the age of 78, and was privately buried in Covent Garden church-yard, at the expense of a friend, who vainly solicited a subscription to have his body interred in Westminster Abbey. Sixty years afterwards, however, a monument was erected in that sacred pile to his memory, by an Alderman of London. Like many other authors of celebrity, he "wanted bread, and they gave him a stone."

His minor poems, of which we have given some specimens, are all replete with wit, and bespeak an original mind. Satire was his forte, and indignation gave it edge. It is impossible for genius to think well of a world that uses it ill!