1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Butler

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:558-59.



1680, Sept. 24. Died, SAMUEL BUTLER, author of the celebrated poem of Hudibras, i. and ii. parts, London, 1662-3, 8vo.; iii. 1676, 12mo. He was born at Strensham, in Worcestershire, Feb. 8,1612, where his father was a small farmer, and received his education first at Worcester and then at Cambridge, where he remained six or seven years. His first employment was as clerk to a justice f the peace at Earl's Coombe, in his native county. His life was chiefly passed in obscurity and poverty; and we know, says D'Israeli, little more of Butler than we do of Shakspeare and of Spenser! Longueville, the devoted friend of the poet, has unfortunately left no reminiscences of the departed genius whom he so intimately knew, and who bequeathed to Longueville the only legacy a neglected poet could leave — all his manuscripts; and to his care, though not to his spirit, we are indebted for Butler's Remains. His friend attempted to bury him with the public honours he deserved, among the tombs of his brother-bards in Westminster abbey; but he was compelled to consign the bard to an obscure burial-place in Paul's, Covent Garden. Many years after, when Alderman Barber raised an inscription to the memory of Butler in Westminster abbey, others were desirous of placing one over the poet's humble gravestone. The following epitaph is attributed to Dennis. If it be Dennis's, says D'Israeii, it must have been composed in one of his most lucid moments.

Near this place lies interred
The body of Mr. Samuel Butler,
Author of Hudibras.
He was a whole species of Poets in one!
Admirable in a Manner
In which no one else has been tolerable;
A Manner which began and ended in Him;
In which he knew no Guide,
And has found no Followers.

After his death were published three small volumes of his posthumous works, and subsequently two volumes more were printed by Mr. Thyer, of Manchester, indubitably genuine. From none of these pieces can his life be traced, or his character fully discovered. Oldham, in his Satires against Poetry, thus speaks of Butler—

On Butler who can think without just rage,
The glory and the scandal of the age.

The first part of Hudibras is the most perfect; that was the rich fruit of matured meditation, of wit, of learning, and of leisure. Butler had lived amidst scenes which might have excited indignation and grief; but his strong contempt of the actors could only supply ludicrous images and caustic raillery. The second past was published the following year. The third and last part was given to the world when every thing had changed! the poet, the subject, and the patron. Butler appears to have turned aside, and to have given an adverse direction to his satirical arrows, and become the satirist of the party whose cause he had formerly so honestly espoused; and the greatest glory of Butler is, that his high and indignant spirit equally lashed the hypocrites of Cromwell, and the libertines of Charles.

Butler was fortunate, for a time, in having Charles II. to admire his Hudibras. That monarch carried one in his pocket: hence his success, though the work has great merit. Yet merit does not sell a work in one case out of twenty. Butler, after all, was left to starve; for, according to Dennis, the author of Hudibras died in a garret.