Samuel Butler, grievously miscalled "the Hogarth of Poetry," seems to have been mainly a self-taught man. After leaving Worcester Cathedral School he started in life as justice's clerk to a Mr. Jefferies, at Earl's Croome. He was next at Wrest in Bedfordshire, in the service of the Countess of Kent, and here he met and a worked for John Selden. Finally he formed part of the household of Sir Samuel Luke, a Presbyterian Colonel, "scout-master for Bedfordshire and governor of Newport Pagnell." At the Restoration he was made secretary to the President of Wales and steward of Ludlow Castle, and in 1662, at full fifty years old, he published the first part of the immense lampoon whose authorship has given him his place in English letters. The second part of Hubidras was issued in 1663; the third in 1678. Two years afterwards Butler died. The circumstances of his life during this final period are wholly dubious. He is said to have been rich, and he is said to have been poor; to have married a widow of means, and to have had no fortune with his wife but a parcel of bad securities; to have had a royal gift of £300 and been Buckingham's secretary, and to have had neither reward nor preferment of any sort; to have been in a position to refuse as insufficient such places as were offered him, and to have lived and died a disappointed starveling. Aubrey, who was of his friends, describes him as a "good fellow" but "cholerique" and "of a severe and sound judgement"; and adds in this connection, "satyrical wits disoblige whom they converse with, and consequently make themselves many enemies and few friends, and this was his case." So that the "mist of obscurity" in which his latter years were past may after all have been a mist of his own raising.
During his lifetime Butler published but the three parts of Hudibras, a couple of pamphlets, and an ode on the exploits and renown of the illustrious Claude Duval, which last, in its grave extravagance of irony, is, by anticipation, not unsuggestive of Fielding's Jonathan Wild. Three volumes of "Remains," mostly spurious, were published in 1715; but in 1759 Thyer of Manchester put forth a couple of volumes of prose and verse selected from Butler's manuscripts, and these, with some scraps printed later on, are all that is known so exist of him. His chief work, that one on which his fame is wholly founded and of which he was himself most careful and diligent, is Hudibras. As a whole it is now-a-days hard reading. It is long, antiquated, exasperatingly discursive. The greater part of it has fallen naturally into disuse and disregard. The most popular of its innumerable dicta have got degraded into mere colloquialisms, and remind us of coin, effaced and smoothed by centuries of currency. But Hudibras is none the less as notable in these days as it was as the epoch of its birth. It has been more largely read and quoted than almost any book in the language. It contains the best and brightest of Butler, and is a perfect reflex of his mind and temper. To give an idea of it by means of extracts is almost impossible. The poet's fecundity of illustration and argument is astonishing; his volubility is bewildering; his intelligence of things is indefatigable. He treats of much, and that at such length that he takes many thousand verses to pass his heroes through some two or three adventures. To know him as he was, his work must be read as a whole, and diligently.
His literary origins in Hudibras are not far so seek. His matter he must have acquired during his stay with Sir Samuel Luke, when he had such opportunity of study from the life as has fallen to the lot of but few. It was in the work of Canon Le Roy and the band of brave wits responsible for the "Satyre Menippie" that he learned to make a proper use of the material he had gathered, and acquired in perfection the art of placing his butts and victims in an absolutely odious light. His genius, it is true, had little or nothing dramatic in it; and the harangues of Hudibras and the Lady and the Squire have not the personal and human ring in them that is to be discerned in those of Mayenne and the Sieur de Pierrefont. But they proceed on the same principle with these; like these, they extenuate nothing and set down everything in malice; of these they are in some sort the worthy successors. For his manner, Butler found a something of it in Cleveland. The acute, imaginative intelligence of abuse that is a distinguishing feature in that wandering satirist is a distinguishing feature in Butler also. In Cleveland, lashing his random speeches at the enemies of his party and his king, there are to be found as it were the rough beginnings of the patient, persistent, laborious author of Hudibras. The broken scholar, hawking at a parcel of lay-elders, "Those state-dragoons, Made up of ears and ruffs like ducatoons"; or girding at the members of a "Mixed Assembly" as so many "parboiled lobsters, where there rules The fading azure and the coming gules"; or reflecting, in connection with the Scots he hated, "Lord! what a godly thing is want of shirts"; or crying out of Rupert that he had "a copyhold of victory," is not remote from the maker of disparates and burlesque apophthegms, the epigrammatist, now contumelious and now the reverse, we know in Hudibras. It must be added that Butler is not less polished and orderly than Cleveland is rough and careless; that Butler is nearly always apt enough to be final, and that Cleveland hangs or misses fire a dozen times for once he hits; that Butler in fine is an artist in raillery, and that Cleveland is at best but a clever amateur. Lastly, it was from Cervantes that Butler took the idea of his fable and of his chief personages. His object was to vilify and scourge the Roundheads and not to imitate or parody Cervantes; otherwise the act that converted the good Alonso Quijada into an evil caricature of the Abstract Presbyterian Colonel, and Panza his squire into a monstrous and unseemly charge of an Independent servitor, would be not less infamous than the doings of Wycherly with Moliere and Shakespeare. Butler however, did but choose the great originals of his grotesques as the two most popular figures in European literature, and his instinct in this matter — else instinct of the true parodist — did him yeoman service; the public of the Restoration must have felt to Hudibras and Ralpho as to the oldest friends they had. Thus much secured, the rest was easy. It was not for Butler to make his figments human; for, as Mr. Saintsbury has observed "to represent anything but monsters some alleviating strokes must have been introduced"; and as Butler wanted, not to finally embody the sectaries he hated, but to make as much fun out of them as possible, he did right to deal in monsters, and in monsters only. Hudibras, accordingly, is but a hunched back, a beard, and a collection of old clothes and rusty iron; Ralpho has no outward presence at all; while spiritually both man and master are merely compact of vileness and of folly. Butler had the court at his back, and the crowd as well; he gave them of the stuff they liked; and it was his function for some twenty years to pelt and belabour and defile the brace of pitiful scarecrows he had contrived, and so make sport for a winning side that could not forget it once had been in other circumstances.
It is the steady and persistent exercise of this function that has procured him much of the neglect with which he is visited. Fashions change; the bogies of one epoch become the heroes of the next, and what yesterday was apt and humorous is balderdash and out of date to-morrow. That which we praise in Butler now is that for which two centuries ago no man regarded him. He is tedious, trivial, spiteful, ignoble, where he once was sprightly, exact, magnanimous, heroic. But he had an abundance of wit of the best and truest sort; he was an indefatigable observer; he knew opinions well, and books even better; he had considered life acutely and severely: at a rhythmist he proceeded from none and has had no successor; his vocabulary is of its kind incomparable; his work is a very hoard of sentences and saws, of vigorous locutions and picturesque colloquialisms, of strong sound sense and robust English. And when all against him has been said that can be, there remains enough of good in his verse to prove that, great as it is, his reputation was well earned and justly bestowed.