1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Butler

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:345-47.



It is rarely that a pasquinade, written to satirise living characters or systems, outlives its own age; and, where such is the case, we may well suppose something very remarkable in the work, if not in the merits of its author. Such a work is Hudibras, a cavalier burlesque of the extravagant ideas and rigid manners of the English Puritans of the civil war and commonwealth. Borne up by a felicity of versification and an intensity of wit never excelled in our literature, this poem still retains its place amongst the classic productions of the English muse, although, perhaps, rarely read through at once, for which, indeed, its incessant brilliancy in some measure unfits it. Samuel Butler, the author of this extraordinary satire, was born in 1612 at Stresham, in Worcestershire. His father was a farmer, possessing a small estate of his own; in short, an English yeoman. The poet, having received some education at the grammar-school of Worcester, removed to Cambridge, probably with the design of prosecuting his studies there; but, as he is ascertained to have never matriculated, it is supposed that the limited circumstances of his parents had forbidden him to advance in the learned career to which his tastes directed him. On this, as on all other parts of Butler's life, there rests great obscurity. It appears that he spent some years of his youth in performing the duties of clerk to a justice of the peace in his native district, and that in this situation he found means of cultivating his mind. His talents may be presumed to have interested some of his friends and neighbours in his behalf, for he is afterwards found in the family of the Countess of Kent, where he had the use of a library, and the advantage of conversation with the celebrated Selden, who often employed the poet as his amanuensis and transcriber. Thus ran on the years of Butler's youth and early manhood, and so far he cannot be considered as unfortunate, if we are to presume that he found his chief enjoyment, as scholars generally do, in opportunities of intellectual improvement. He is next found in the family of Sir Samuel Luke, a Bedfordshire gentleman, whom it is probable he served in the capacity of tutor. Luke was one of Cromwell's principal officers, marked probably — perhaps to an unusual degree — by the well-known peculiarities of his party. The situation could not be a very agreeable one to a man whose disposition was so much towards wit and humour, even though those qualities had not made their owner a royalist, which in such an age they could scarcely fail to do. Daily exposed to association with persons whose character, from antagonism to his own, he could not but loathe, it is not surprising that the now mature muse of Butler should have conceived the design of a general satire on the sectarian party. Perhaps personal grievances of his own might add to the poignancy of his feelings regarding the Cromwellians. The matchless fiction of Cervantes supplied him with a model, in which he had only to substitute the extravagances of a political and religious fanaticism for those of chivalry. Luke himself is understood to be depicted in Sir Hudibras, and for this Butler has been accused of a breach of the laws of hospitality: we are not disposed decidedly to rebut the charge; but we think it may in candour be allowed to hang in doubt, until we know something more precise as to the circumstances attending the connexion of the poet with his patron, and, more particularly, those attending their parting.

The Restoration threw a faint and brief sunshine upon the life of Butler. He was appointed secretary to the Earl of Carbury, President of the principality of Wales; and when the wardenship of the Marches was revived, the earl made his secretary steward of Ludlow castle. The poet, now fifty years of age, seemed to add to his security for the future by marrying a widow named Herbert, who was of good family and fortune; but this prospect proved delusive, in consequence of the failure of parties on whom the lady's fortune depended. It was now that Butler first became an author. The first part of "Hudibras" appeared in 1663, and immediately became popular. Its wit, so pat to the taste of the time, and the breadth of the satiric pictures which it presented each of which had hundreds of prototypes within the recollection of all men then living, could not fail to give it extensive currency. By the Earl of Dorset, an accomplished friend of letters, it was introduced to the notice of the court; and the king is said to have done it the honour of often quoting it. A sewed part appeared in 1664, and a third fourteen years later. But though the poet and his work were the praise of all ranks, from royalty downwards, he was himself little benefited by it. What emoluments he derived from his stewardship, or whether be derived any emoluments from it at all, does not appear; but it seems tolerably clear that the latter part of his life was spent in mean and struggling circumstances in London. The Earl of Clarendon promised him a place at court, but he never obtained it. The king ordered him a present of £300, which was insufficient to discharge the debts pressing upon him at the time. He was favoured with an interview by the Duke of Buckingham, who, however, seeing two court ladies pass, ran out to them, and did not come back, so that Butler had to go home disappointed. Such are the only circumstances related as chequering a twenty years' life of obscure misery which befell the most brilliant comic genius which perhaps our country has ever produced. Butler died in 1680, in a mean street near Covent Garden, and was buried at the expense of a friend.

"Hudibras" is not only the best burlesque poem written against the Puritans of that age, so fertile in satire, but is the best burlesque in the English language. The same amount of learning, wit, shrewdness, ingenious and deep thought, felicitous illustration, and irresistible drollery, has never been comprised in the same limits. The idea of the knight, Sir Hudibras, going out "acolonelling" with his Squire Ralph, is of course copied from Cervantes; but the filling up of the story is different. Don Quixote presents us with a wide range of adventures, which interest the imagination and the feelings. There is a freshness and a romance about the Spanish hero, and a tone of high honour and chivalry, which Butler did not attempt to imitate. His object was to cast ridicule on the whole body of the English Puritans, especially their leaders, and to debase them by low and vulgar associations. It must be confessed, that in many of their acts there was scope for sarcasm. Their affected dress, language, and manners, their absurd and fanatical legislation against walking in the fields on Sundays, village May-poles, and other subjects beneath the dignity of public notice, were fair subjects for the satirical poet. Their religious enthusiasm also led them into intolerance and absurdity. Contending for so dear a prize as liberty of conscience, and believing that they were specially appointed to shake and overturn the old corruptions of the kingdom, the Puritans were little guided by considerations of prudence, policy, or forbearance. Even Milton, the friend and associate of the party, was forced to admit "That New Presbyter was but Old Priest writ large." The higher qualities of these men, their indomitable courage and lofty zeal, were of course overlooked or despised by this royalists, their opponents, and Butler did not choose to remember them. His burlesque was read with delight, and was popular for generations after the Puritans had merged into the more sober and discreet English dissenters. The plot or action of "Hudibras" is limited and defective, and seems only to have been used as a sort of peg on which he could hang his satirical portraits and allusions. The first cantos were written early, when the civil war commenced, but we are immediately conveyed to the death of Cromwell, at least fifteen years later, and have a sketch of public affairs to the dissolution of the Rump Parliament. The bare idea of a Presbyterian justice sallying out with his attendant, an Independent clerk, to redress superstition and correct abuses, has an air of ridicule, and this is kept up by the dialogues between the parties, which are highly witty and ludicrous; by their attack on the bear and the fiddle; their imprisonment in the stocks; the voluntary penance of whipping submitted to by the knight, and his adventures with his lady.

The love of Hudibras is almost as rich as that of Falstaff, and he argues in the same manner for the utmost freedom, men having, he says, nothing but "frail vows" to oppose to the stratagems of the fair. He moralises as follows:—

For women first were made for men,
Not men for them: It fellows, then,
That men have right to every one,
And they no freedom of their own;
And therefore men have power to choose,
But they no charter to refuse.
Hence 'tis apparent that, what course
Soe'er we take to your amours,
Though by the indirectest way,
'Tis no injustice nor foul play;
And that you ought to take that course
As we take you for better or worse,
And gratefully submit to those
Who you, before another, chose.

The poem was left unfinished, but more of it would hardly have been read even in the days of Charles. There is, in fact, a plethora of wit in "Hudibras," and a condensation of thought and style which become oppressive and tiresome. The faculties of the reader cannot be kept in a state of constant tension; and after perusing some thirty or forty pages, he is fain to relinquish the task, and seek out for the simplicity of nature. Some of the short burlesque descriptions are inimitable. For example, of Morning—

The sun had long since, in the lap
Of Thetis, taken out his nap,
And, like a lobster boil'd, the morn
From black to red began to torn.

Of Night—

The son grew low and left the skies,
Put down, some write, by ladies' eyes;
The moon pull'd off her veil of light,
That bides her face by day from sight,
(Mysterious veil, of brightness made,
That's both her lustre and her shade),
And in the lantern of the night,
With shining horns hung out her light;
For darkness is the proper sphere,
Where all false glories use t' appear.
The twinkling stars began to muster,
And glitter with their borrow'd lustre;
While sleep the wearied world reliev'd,
By counterfeiting death reviv'd.

Many of the lines and similes in "Hudibras" are completely identified with the language, and can never be separated from it. Such are the opening lines of Part II. canto three—

Doubtless the pleasure is as great
Of being cheated as to cheat
As lookers on feel most delight
That least perceive a juggler's sleight;
And still the less they understand,
The more they admire his sleight-of-hand.

Or where the knight remarks, respecting the importance of money—

For what in worth is anything,
But so much money as 'twill bring?

Butler says of his brother poets—

Those that write in rhyme, still make
The one verse for the other's sake;
For one for sense, and one for rhyme,
I think 's sufficient at one time.

There are a few such compelled rhymes in "Hudibras," but the number is astonishingly small.