Hudibras "Learning, That Cobweb Of The Brain"

Samuel Butler

"Learning, That Cobweb Of The Brain"

Context: In satirizing the Presbyterians, Dissenters, and others who under Cromwell, opposed Charles I, to make them appear odious and obnoxious, an English poet combined pictures of contemporaries with quotable lines and much learning. By making one of the characters an enthusiastic Presbyterian Justice with a nose for sin, and the other an ignorant Independent squire, Butler could work unending religious debates into his poem. Indeed, there is more talk than action, and one of the criticisms of the poem is its poverty of incident. Some of the human foibles, too, against which the lively sarcasm is directed, no longer exist. Nevertheless, the style and execution have long been admired. Like Don Quixote, after which the poem was modeled, the knight and his squire get the worst of every encounter, though once they do appear successful. In their first sally, they put an end to a gay gathering at a bear baiting and set the fiddler Crowdero into the stocks. But later the vanquished crowd returns, when the crusaders leave the palace of a wealthy Widow, to do battle again. One Amazonian member, Trulla, attacks Hudibras from behind, and he and his squire occupy the stocks instead of Crowdero, to meditate upon their situation. Ralpho, blaming their predicament upon his master's bad conduct, satirizes Sir Hudibras' religion, and that act starts an argument about Synods, neither pertinent nor interesting to modern readers, that lasts 300 lines to the end of the canto. Hudibras is not a story to be read in its entirety, but rather to be dipped into. In the religious debate, Ralpho accuses his master of getting his arguments from the Ranters, a sect that denied Heaven and Hell, and insisted that John the Baptist and Christ were impostors, and that people should learn only from God, directly. Ralpho makes an attack on learning until Sir Hudibras stops him with a plea to take it up later. During his attack on the learning that brought them to their present trouble, Ralpho says:

The self-same cavils then I heard,
When b'ing in hot dispute about
This controversy, we fell out;
And what thou know'st I answer'd then
Will serve to answer thee agen.
Quoth Ralpho, Nothing but th' abuse
Of human learning you produce,
Learning, that cobweb of the brain,
Profane, erroneous, and vain;
A trade of knowledge as replete
As others are with fraud and cheat; . . .