1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Butler

Tobias Oldschool, Gentleman, "Eminent Authors: Butler" Literary Speculum 2 (July 1822) 35-37.



The author of Hudibras wrote at a period so darkened by the clouds of civil and religious discord, that it was hardly possible for the most perspicacious mind to remain free from the taint of prejudice and error, and while we justly eulogise the powerful genius which exposed to scorn and detestation the vice and hypocrisy of those sanguinary zealots, whose unhallowed hands deprived the altar of its ministers, and the throne of its possessor, we cannot but lament the bitterness of feeling and the want of candour, which blinded the otherwise penetrating eye of Butler, to the virtue and self devotion which distinguished many of the Puritan party. We read Hudibras at present rather as an elegant fiction, than an historical satire. The doughty knight, his fair inamorato, the conjuror and Ralpho, are regarded, while they excite our mirth, as the creatures of imagination, not as faithful portraits of the passions and crimes of actual existence, or outlines taken with the pencil of truth from the more striking groups of real society. On this account, few readers, to speak comparatively, have the lively relish, the keen delight, in perusing this astonishing work, which the contemporaries of the author certainly felt. Had we ourselves been actors in that tragedy, in which a whole nation took part; had we trod that stage of change and guilt, red with the blood of a royal victim, and trembling under the giant step of a Cromwell, we should have duly appreciated the wonderful felicity of intellect, which could convert the strife of demons, and men worse than demons, of fanatics and martyrs, into a merry tale, and a series of frequent jests. But to us, who can only look through the telescope of memory, on a state of misrule and division, of which we have no tangible idea, the truly vivid pictures of the poet put on a dim and dreamy appearance; we consider them as mere fancy sketches, and though we are amused by the exquisite tact of the writer, we cannot for a moment persuade ourselves that he employed the pen of truth. Butler, like Shakespeare and Milton, has had his annotators, and they have encumbered his light and racy pages with the dust and rubbish of pseudo-criticism; one sapient commentator informs us that Sir Harry Vane sat for his caricature likeness to the indignant bard, while another sage blockhead declares with equal solemnity, that the poet employed his divine art to stigmatise and brand his benefactor. But the malicious dullness of these muckworms of literature is inoperative, for their elaborate nonsense remains unread, unless by some kindred spirit, anxious to signalise himself in the same field, and crop with them the untractable thistles of controversy. Genius of a common order must have sunk under the weight of such pertinacious auxiliaries; but the muse of Butler breathed the airs of immortality, and the results of her potent inspirations will not be permitted to escape from the ardent grasp of gratitude and admiration. The nasal twang of the conventicle may cease from the land; the reign of the saints, with all its insane visions and extacies, has long terminated; fifth monarchy men, levellers, independents, and anabaptists can now meet in the same apartment without becoming mutual assassins; the priest wears his surplice, and the bishop his lawn sleeves, and nobody is offended, the House of Lords and the House of Commons join in the work, of legislation without quarrelling as to their relative powers; and the monarch of a free people wields the sceptre of peace and the sword of justice in honour and security: yet the recollections left us, in that unique poem, Hudibras, by a highly gifted imaginative mind, of that season of turbulence and wrong, when every man's hand was against his brother, and rapine and murder were the order of the day, retain their influence, and will be read with interest when the voluminous works of many a sleepy historian are forgotten. Hudibras, we are told, was a great favorite of Charles the Second, yet he suffered its author to live and die in want and obscurity. The anathema of the Muse is on his memory.