Samuel Butler’s stature as a poet is founded on one work: Hudibras. In it, he demonstrates considerable skill in prosody, yet many critics are uncertain about the work’s status as poetry, describing it as doggerel. One of Butler’s objectives in Hudibras is the debasement of heroic verse; thus, although he is undoubtedly a poet, his verse is not what is commonly thought of as poetry. This contradiction is one of many inherent in Butler’s great work. He displays a broad knowledge of literature and philosophy—a knowledge which is the product of an inquisitive and thoughtful mind—yet he presents his knowledge only to portray it as foolish. Although Hudibras became famous as a political satire and remains best known for its portrayal of seventeenth century English politics, two of its three parts are devoted to social satire. It is above all distinguished by its verse, which spawned a school of imitations called Hudibrastic, and its wit and vigor, which make for a lively narrative. Its satire is unusually sophisticated and wide-ranging, attacking a poetic genre, a style of verse, and the politics, theology, and manners of Butler’s society.
Meter and versification
Hudibras is written in rhyming tetrameter couplets, a verse form that in Butler’s day was associated with heroic poetry. Philosophically a rationalist, Butler objected to poetry which defied probability by describing magic, fairies, enchanted castles, flying horses, and other fantastic places, creatures, and events. Thus, he took a verse form that would be familiar to his audience and subverted it by using it to describe false heroes and sordid events and by employing strange rhymes and odd plays on words. Hudibras abounds with such irreverent rhymes as: “And Pulpit, Drum Ecclesiastik,/ Was beat with fist, instead of a stick,” from part 1; and from part 2,
Quoth Hudibras, You lie so ope,That I, without a Telescope,Can find your Tricks out, and descryWhere you tell truth, and where you lie
Throughout his poem, Butler’s verse is exuberantly barbaric; the rhymes are wildly original, and the wordplay is rapid and clever. Instead of romantic language, Butler creates witty wordplay, thus trivializing heroic verse.
Much of Butler’s brilliance as a poet is manifested in his mutilation of language. By deliberately using his couplets to present doggerel, he subverts the ideas he wishes to attack with his diction. Analytically gifted and capable of perceiving truth in the folly of others, he insists on expressing his rationalist understanding of truth by exposing the particulars of folly. His analytical character and rationalist point of view make him seem more part of the modern era than of the English Renaissance that nurtured him. His models were works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, but he could not empathize with The Faerie Queene as he could with Don Quixote de la Mancha. Thus, he mocks Spenser’s epic work and its kin with satire more harsh than that found in Cervantes’ satirical romance. Butler’s verse mocks not only ideas but also the very modes in which they are expressed.
Butler includes careful allusions to The Faerie Queene, the masterwork of English Renaissance heroic verse, to emphasize his implicit intent to satirize the Arcadian romances of his sixteenth century predecessors. Each canto of Hudibras begins with an “argument,” as does each canto of The Faerie Queene. More important, the name Hudibras is taken from Spenser’s poem: “He that made loue vnto the eldest Dame,/ Was hight Sir Huddibras, an hardy man;/ Yet not so good of deedes, as great of name.” Butler takes this...
(The entire section is 1660 words.)