1813 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Trumbull

F., "Comparison between Hudibras and Mac Fingal" Port Folio [Philadelphia] S3 2 (October 1813) 428-30.



MR. OLDSCHOOL,

Dr. Johnson in his life of Butler remarks, that this poet seems to have no mercy upon Hudibras. He loads him not only with follies, but crimes also. He commits perjury and then defends the act: he meditates the commission of forgery; and in short there is scarcely a crime in the decalogue which he would blush to perpetrate. Don Quixotte is ridiculous only in one point of view; but Hudibras is contemptible in all. The doctor imagines that Butler's head laboured under a tumultuous confusion of ideas. The charge is unjust; and Butler, were he living, might have retorted it upon his traducer, and cited Rasselas in proof of the assertion. In this volume the doctor uses the characters merely as vehicles for the conveyance of moral truth, as Butler did his, for satire; and both without any regard to consistency or propriety whatever. The characters are no further valuable in either, than as they inculcate the sentiments which they vindicate. Take from them the speeches which they utter, and the characters vanish with the celerity of lightning.

It has been said that Hudibras never has had an imitator. If this remark is confined to the island of Great Britain, it is indubitably just. Many authors have adopted Butler's double terminations; but I doubt whether any, amidst the whole class of English writers, have taken a character of that cast for a regular poem, in the manner in which Butler has done.

But although English poetry has discovered so much penury in this point, it is very clear that this objection does not hold against the poetry of our own country. It may be said, with perfect propriety, that America has furnished the only legitimate successor to Hudibras that the world has ever seen. Mac Fingal, if any regard is paid to consistency of character, clearly outshines his model. He is represented as a flaming loyalist, who labours to convince the good people of this country of the justice of his political opinions. The author has here dexterously seized a foible common to human nature, of a man who: having read much, and thought but little, argues against himself, while he labours to overcome his opponents. Mac Fingal, with all the zeal of a furious loyalist, endeavours to make proselytes while every one of his arguments is pointed the other way. Contrasting the zeal and fanaticism he discovers in a cause, for which he produces reasons so perfectly ridiculous, we are thrown into convulsions of laughter. This unfortunate hero, after having defended the cause of the loyalists in town meeting, is unfortunately arrested by the mob, and tarred and feathered. As full of humour as this character is, there is nothing incongruous in the conception-nothing but what we have often seen in our commerce and intercourse with mankind. Such a monster as Hudibras the world never saw. He goes out in the character of a knight, a presbyterian, a justice of the peace, a metaphysician, a theologian, a thief, and a hypocrite. Mr. Butler, from the wide extent of such a character; meant to lay his ground broad enough to satirize whatever was ridiculous in government, in the administration of law, or in theology. But qualities so opposite must, of necessity, be idle, if action is taken for their basis, and they are all concentrated in one character. They counteract and destroy each other; for a knight would not travel with the same views as a judge; a judge would differ from a metaphysician; and they would all differ from a professor of theology. Butler, therefore, found no other resource left him than to send this mass of infamy and contempt, denominated Hudibras, into the world in the character of a knight, and to suffer him to develop his other qualities, by conversation on the road with a disputatious squire, whom, as Dr. Johnson says, he is always encountering and never overpowering in argument. The adventures of Hudibras are as singular as the character he sustains. He is defeated in single combat by a woman, set in the stocks, and afterwards pelted with rotten eggs. But even these degrading adventures do not satisfy the vengeance of Butler. He falls in love with the lands of a rich widow, commits perjury to testify his affection, and is cudgelled by men in the character of devils. Mac Fingal, on the other hand, is consistently ridiculous. Allow him to be a man of more reading than common sense; allow him not to have intelligence enough, to see the drift of his own arguments, and all his misadventures follow of course. He is, therefore, decidedly preferable to Hudibras a a whole, for no adventure befalls him but what might befall any man of this cast. Hudibras is only estimable in spots. The author's wit, it is true, is a full compensation for all defects of this character; and it does compensate, because we completely sink the character in the pleasure which we derive from his page. The author of Mac Fingal acts differently: the wit always keeps company with the character, of which, indeed, it makes a constituent part. Hence, whoever reads Mac Fingal pursues the author to the end of his narrative, and laments the termination of the adventure. But it is a singular fact, and well warrants the justice of these observations, that, probably, of the thousands who are the admirers of Hudibras, not ten out of a hundred think of reading the narrative throughout. It then becomes tedious; for the author has taken especial care to inform us in the outset, that the character is too contemptible to excite our regard. I hope then, Mr. Editor, I shall be excused from the charge of nationality, by stating, that so far as respects congruity, consistency, and propriety, in the delineation of character, the author of Mac Fingai not only rivals, but excels his original. With regard to the wit of this author, it is of the true Hudibrastic kind; it has received the warmest approbation in the very country which has been the object of his satires. In this point he will be found, I apprehend, not inferior to his original; while, in the other parts of his poem, he is, unquestionably, his superior.