Samuel Butler 1612–1680
English poet and prose writer
Butler was one of Restoration England's most popular satirists and is best remembered for Hudibras, a mock epic poem in which the author attacks the perceived hypocrisy of the Puritans who had ruled his country from 1642 to 1660. Influenced by Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605), Butler related the comic adventures of the Puritan knight errant Sir Hudibras and his squire Ralpho. Butler's use in Hudibras of an eight-syllable line commonly reserved for "heroic" works and his unconventional rhymes comprise a distinctive and often-imitated poetic style that came to be known as "hudibrastic" verse. The popularity of Hudibras as a work of literature has declined, so that it is, according to Christopher Hill, "more quoted than read." However, Hudibras is still considered valuable com mentary on the religious and political thought of seventeenth-century England, and Butler is admired for his incisive, biting wit.
Little documentation exists on Butler's life. The son of Samuel Butler, Sr., a parish clerk and landowner, Butler was baptized in 1613 at Strensham, Worcester. Scholars conjecture that he received some formal education, after which he was employed as secretary for various public officials and noble families. During the late 1620s, while in the service of Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, Butler likely became acquainted with the jurist and antiquarian John Selden, and many critics discern Selden's influence in the religious and political views expressed in Butler's writings. Little is known of the poet's activities during the next two decades. Some commentators date the composition of Hudibras as early as 1645, and others believe he began writing the mock epic during the late 1650s. When Hudibras, The First Part was published in 1662, the monarchy had been restored in England and Butler was employed by Carbery, Lord President of Wales, as the steward at Ludlow Castle. The poem was a popular success that prompted five reprintings and several unauthorized editions within the year; the second and third parts of the poem, published in 1663 and 1677, were equally successful. Butler was hailed as England's foremost satirist, and many of the poem's witticisms became popular adages. In addition to Hudibras, Butler wrote nearly two hundred character sketches examining a variety of personalities and professions,
but these remained unpublished until after his death. Butler reportedly was financially insolvent in his later years, possibly as a consequence of having several editions of Hudibras pirated, which deprived the poet of income. Critics also speculate that Butler mismanaged his finances; and though awarded an annual stipend from Charles II, he may have never received it. Butler died in London in 1680.
Hudibras depicts three days in the adventures of self-righteous, hypocritical Sir Hudibras and the unprincipled, foolish Ralpho in the former's attempt to marry the Lady and secure her fortune. The friendship between the knight and his squire is repeatedly tested by their diverging religious beliefs. Although both are Puritans, Hudibras supports the Presbyterian faction in favor of reform and an established hierarchy in the church, while Ralpho follows the more liberal, selfgoverning Independents. Butler satirizes both beliefs by presenting lengthy debates between the two in which each abuses logic to gain advantage. Butler similarly ridicules the principles of the secular characters—scientists, politicians, and lawyers—whom Hudibras and Ralpho encounter. The poem concludes with the rejection of Hudibras by the Lady, who subjects her suitor to a discourse on the superior intelligence of women in matters of politics and religion. The hudibrastic verse form, which derives its name from Hudibras, features octosyllabic couplets of deliberately awkward rhythm and unconventional rhymes (such as "ecclesiastic" and "instead of a stick"), a style intended by Butler to produce a comic effect. Much like Hudibras, Butler's prose "Characters," written between 1665 and 1669 and published in The Genuine Remains in 1759, satirically examines the moral values and manners of various characters and personality types. George Wasserman has suggested that Butler's "Characters" portrays both "man's need to deceive himself and his ingenuity in the use of reason to devise means of deceiving others" and is therefore, like Hudibras, "firmly rooted in the moral assumptions of their author."
Early critics, including John Dryden and Joseph Addison, disparaged the verse form of Hudibras as doggerel. While subsequent criticism has tended to focus on the content, rather than the style, of the poem, twentieth-century commentators John Wilders and Ian Jack have maintained that Butler's cacophonous style aptly reflects the discord between the poet's views and those of this age, as well as his intent to mock literary as well as social conventions. Many critics suggest that the people and ideas in Butler's works, and the contempt he displayed toward them, were largely inspired by the contentious period in which the author lived. Thus rooted in the particularities of an increasingly distant age, Butler's works have often been regarded as possessing diminishing appeal. Hudibras, however, retains the esteem of literary historians, both as a contribution to the development of satire and as a commentary on political and religious issues during the seventeenth century.
Hudibras. The First Part (poetry) 1663
Hudibras. The Second Part (poetry) 1664
Hudibras. The Third and Last Part (poetry) 1678
The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose (poetry and prose) 1759
Characters and Passages from Note-Books (prose) 1908
Satires and Miscellaneous Poetry and Prose (poetry and prose) 1928
Samuel Butler: Prose Observations (prose) 1979
Hugh Walker (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: "From the Eclipse of Satire to Butler," in English Satire and Satirists, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1925, pp. 120-44.
[In the following essay, Walker discusses the political atmosphere that Butler satirizes in Hudibras.]
The eclipse of satire which marked the closing years of the reign of James I. lasted through the whole of that of his ill-fated son. For twenty years or more satire, both in prose and in verse, was merely incidental. A thread of satire runs through all the character-writers, and the finest product of that school, Earle's Microcosmography, which has been treated in the preceding chapter, was published in the reign of Charles I. Though the Theophrastic vein showed signs of exhaustion, "characters" continued to be produced all through the century, and a very witty specimen, The Character of a Sneaker, is dated 1705. Fugitive pieces now and then, but very rarely, show great ability. One such is Tom Tell-Troath, which is supposed to belong to the year 1622. There are pieces of an earlier date bearing the same title, but the one in question is a very witty satire of King James's government. He has made Great Britain a great deal less than Little England was wont to be. His subjects dare not doubt that he is head of the Church; "but of what Church they would gladly know; the triumphant, they say, it cannot be, because there are too many corruptions and vexations in it. And how far it is from the militant, they call heaven and earth to witness. Therefore, they conclude, it must either be the Church dormant, or none."
But in spite of occasional bright things like this, until the controversy of Cavalier and Roundhead comes to an issue there is no such sustained satire in prose as that of the Marprelate tracts, nor any such satiric criticism of social conditions as we find in Dekker. Neither is there in verse any equivalent to Hall or Donne. There are satiric touches scattered through the lyrists, and occasionally whole pieces are in the satiric vein. Suckling's A Session of the Poets shows the influence of the Italian Boccalini, an influence which may be traced both in prose and in verse for more than a century. It is however more a critical than a satirical influence. There are numerous satiric epigrams; but in the masters, Jonson and Herrick, what we admire is not the satiric epigram, but the epigram whose function is to express the sense of beauty with the utmost concision. Women, dress, religion, manners, are here and there touched with caustic; but no one seeks to play the part of Juvenal. The general tone is not sufficiently serious. The carelessness, real or affected, of the Cavaliers was inconsistent with the seriousness of the sustained satire; and the seriousness of the Puritan, though more than sufficient, was of the sort which finds expression rather in the pulpit. It is the final clash of the two which starts satire anew. As a consequence it is essentially political; and being by its nature a literature of protest, it is Roundhead at one moment and Cavalier the next, now Whig and now Tory, according as the one party or the other is up or down. Under Charles I., Laud is punningly satirised because his canons have made Scots cannons roar. A taste of military rule in the Commonwealth makes the satirist sing another tune:—
"No gospel can guide it,
No law can decide it,
In Church or State, till the sword has sanctified it."
The news-sheets which multiplied after the abolition of the Star Chamber played some part in the revival of satire. Each side required its organ. Diurnals gave the news from the point of view of the Parliamentarians and Mercuries from that of the Royalists, and both from time to time essayed satire, but to little purpose. It is merciful to draw a veil over the work of far greater men than the writers of such sheets: even Milton's controversial writings hardly bear examination. Such skill as was shown was shown mainly in the service of the Crown, not of the Parliament. Martin Parker, Roger L'Estrange and Samuel Sheppard, with whom was associated John Cleveland, were perhaps the most meritorious writers; but except Cleveland, and L'Estrange in respect of his Fables, no one has retained or deserves a name in literature. Still, there are occasional pungent pieces to be found in such miscellanies as Rump, that "collection of the choicest poems and songs" relating to the years between 1639 and 1661, and the Political Ballads of the Commonwealth, published by the Percy Society; and however modest may be the literary merit of such collections, they at least illustrate the scope and general character of the satire of the time. They show that, though a large majority of the satirists were Cavaliers, the Puritans could, and at times did, retort with effect. Thus, A Total Rout, one of the most effective pieces in the Percy Society's collection, shows up the swearing and debauchery which the Cavaliers not only indulged in, but boasted of:—
"For he's not a gentleman that wears not a sword,
And fears to swear damme at every word."
The Puritan balladist shows what a pitiable boast it is, for "an orange-tail'd slut" shall out-vapour the Cavalier; and what a poor sort of pride is that which does not pay its score to the ale-house-keeper or the tailor, or to persons still humbler and far less reputable.
Though the titles of these collections suggest politics as the subject, the character of the times is illustrated by the fact that the question of Church and Dissent is more prominent than the question of Crown and Parliament. The Anarchy, or the blest Reformation since 1640, combines both and satirises their endless confusions:—
'"Sure I have the truth,' says Numph;
'Nay, I ha' the truth,' says Clem;
'Nay, I ha' the truth,' says reverend Ruth;
'Nay, I ha' the truth,' says Nem."
"'Then let's ha' King Charles,' says George;
'Nay, let's have his son,' says Hugh;
'Nay, let's have none,' says jabbering Joan;
'Nay, let's be all kings,' says Prue."
Pieces like The Poor Committee-Man's Accompt, which jeers at the heavy imposts of Parliament after such strenuous opposition to ship-money, are comparatively rare. The most common theme of the satires on religion is the excesses of the sectaries—"the dissidence of Dissent." Thus the ballad of Hugh Peters' Last Will and Testament has for its sub-title The Haltering of the Devil; and the text bears out the promise this carries. Old Nick himself, we learn, after lurking many a year "in Calvin's stool and Luther's chair," held a convocation at Amsterdam in '41,
"And resolved to cross the brine,
And enter a herd of English swine."
In swinging verse, which must have been roared out at many a Cavalier drinking-bout, The Holy Pedlar traces the advance from point to point:—
The Puritan is, of course, charged with hypocrisy, and with opposition to all that is pleasant or liberal or beautiful. He is the foe of learning and flourishes on its ruin:—
"We'll down with all that smells of wit,
And hey then up go we."
But perhaps the most effective of all these pieces is The Rump's Hypocrisy:—
"Is there no God? let's put it to a vote;
Is there no Church? some fools say so by rote;
Is there no King, but Pym, for to assent
What shall be done by Act of Parliament?
No God, no Church, no King; then all were well,
If they could but enact there were no Hell."
Until Absalom and Achitophel appeared there was no satire that rivalled Hudibras.
Samuel Butler (1612-80) had the fortune, good for his work, however unpleasant to himself, to be brought into very intimate connexion with the party which he was destined to satirise so severely; for not only did he find his hero in Sir Samuel Luke, whom he served for a time in some unknown capacity, but in Luke's household he had numerous opportunities of observing other Puritans, and of making himself familiar with their thoughts and language. At what date he actually composed Hudibras cannot be determined. It is irregular and loosely strung, and there is evidence that, in part at least, it is made up of fragments jotted down from time to time as occasion supplied the material. Probably it is best regarded as the work of Butler's whole life, a sort of general receptacle into which his thoughts on almost any subject could be thrown. It is emphatically his magnum opus. Though the prose characters which were published among the Genuine Remains, and have been added to in recent years, cannot be denied the merit of pungency, we have but to compare them with those of Earle, who in some cases treats the same subject, to see that they are second-rate. Neither do the miscellaneous satires in verse add to Butler's fame. The satirical Pindaric odes are dull and the ballads worthless; and though in some of the pieces there are fine lines and striking expressions, there is nothing that would have kept the memory of Butler green. We acknowledge a palpable hit, memorable because of the subject, when he objects against Milton, the controversialist, that he
and we admire the good sense of the satire On our ridiculous Imitation of the French; for it is right to ridicule the folly of those who would
"Be natives wheresoe'er they come,
And only foreigners at home."
But there is no piece so rounded and complete as to live by its own merit, nor is there mass enough to preserve the vital warmth by mere quantity.
Upon these miscellaneous poems Dryden founded an opinion which The Cambridge History of English Literature quotes without comment. He thought that "Butler would have excelled in any other kind of metre." The opinion of so great a poet and so great a critic must be treated with respect. But even Homer sometimes nods; and surely Dryden was in the deepest sleep here. If ever there was an instantia crucis, clearly it is The Elephant in the Moon. In this very clever and witty skit on the Royal Society, the savants mistake the flies and gnats which have got into the telescope for two kinds of inhabitants of the moon, the Privolvans and the Subvolvans; and an unlucky imprisoned mouse for an elephant. This piece exists in two versions. We are told that "after the author had finished this story in short verse, he took it into his head to attempt it in long." Compare the beginning of the original with the later version:—
"A learn'd society of late,
The glory of a foreign state,
Agreed, upon a summer's night,
To search the moon by her own light;
To make an inventory of all
Her real estate, and personal."
The corresponding lines in "long verse" run as follows:—
"A virtuous, learned society, of late
The pride and glory of a foreign state,
Made an agreement; on a summer's night,
To search the moon at full, by her own light;
To take a perfect inventory of all
Her real fortunes, or her personal."
The closing lines yield the same result, and those in the middle still the same. Butler's innocent conception of the way to pass from the four-foot to the five-foot iambic line was therefore just to introduce any convenient word or expression of two syllables; in other words, "long verse" is "short verse" and gas. Curiously enough, Scott had an idea of the same sort, and defended his own "short verse" by pointing out how often the long line may be reduced without appreciable change of meaning by mere omission. It is true the thing may be done when the long line has been constructed as unskilfully as are the long lines of Butler. But try the process on any passage of acknowledged mastery—on Dryden's character of Shaftesbury or Pope's of Atticus. "Short verse" is not to be made "long" so simply, nor is it easy to believe that he who could conceive such a plan could be a master of metre. Far from having the flexible genius and the varied gifts with which Dryden credits him, Butler would seem to have been a man who could do one thing in one way supremely well. Whether he could have done that one thing in any other way, or have done anything else in masterly fashion, is doubtful. "One-poem poets" are fairly numerous; but the one poem is usually a short lyric. Is there any other example of a man of Butler's eminence who, having lived the full span of life, is so emphatically as he the author of one work?
Scarcely any statement can be made that does not require some qualification; and he who affirms that Butler could do only one thing in one way supremely well lays himself open to criticism. The one thing is, of course, political (which here includes religious) satire, and the one way is the medieval way, with a strong infusion of the grotesque. It will be objected that Butler was capable of achieving pure poetic beauty. He was; but there is just one singularly beautiful passage which is inevitably quoted to prove it:—
"The moon pull'd off her veil of light,
That hides her face by day from sight,
(Mysterious veil, of brightness made,
That's both her lustre, and her shade)
And in the night as freely shone
As if the rays had been her own."
As Paradise Lost was not published when Part II. of Hudibras appeared, it is nearly certain that Butler was not merely borrowing Milton's glorious conception, "dark with excessive light." Butler therefore could rise to the peak of Parnassus; but a single passage is not sufficient to prove that he was native there, any more than the occasional visit of a migratory bird proves that it is indigenous. In the same way it may be urged that Butler could show the restraint and rival the finish of the satirists of the classical school. But again, there is just one passage which may be plausibly adduced to show it. This is the character of Shaftesbury, or Baron Ashley, as he was then:—
"'Mongst these there was a politician
With more heads than a beast in vision,
And more intrigues in every one
Than all the whores of Babylon;
So politic, as if one eye
Upon the other were to spy,
That, to trepan the one to think
The other blind, both strove to blink;
And in his dark pragmatic way
As busy as a child at play."
And so on. The character is admirably drawn, and not altogether unworthy of being placed beside Dryden's lines on Shaftesbury. Yet a comparison of the two passages shows that when he came nearest Butler was still wide apart from the classical style and far inferior in finish.
On his own ground, that of satire in the grotesque vein written in doggerel verse, Butler is supreme in English. The wide distance at which his numerous imitators stand shows that his achievement was by no means an easy one; while their very number is among the proofs of his complete success. Another proof is that Charles II., no mean judge of wit, carried Hudibras about with him, and was constantly quoting it. Still more notable is what we learn about the poem from Pepys. That Pepys had a low opinion of Hudibras is easily explained. Though he is at least as amusing as Butler himself, he is so unintentionally; and he who is the cause why wit is in others, has never either understood or liked the man who is himself witty. The remarkable point for the present purpose is that Pepys, having sold his copy at a loss because the contents were so little to his taste, felt himself obliged to buy a second copy. No one who wished to swim with the current could afford to be ignorant of Hudibras. So again, when the second part appeared, the thrifty diarist thought it would suffice to borrow, but once more found that he must go to the expense of buying it. There is probably no more striking proof of popularity in our literary annals. Unfortunately, all this popularity brought small gain to the author. The poem was shamelessly pirated, and though Charles II. seems to have been less callous towards Butler than he was to many of the supporters of his cause, the royal bounty did not save the poet from an old age of poverty. According to his contemporary Oldham,
"Of all his gains by verse he could not save
Enough to purchase flannel and a grave."
In adopting the mock-heroic form Butler was, no doubt, influenced by his French contemporary Scarron's Virgile Travesti, which was destined to produce such a crop of imitations in England and on the Continent; and Courthope has shown that the Oxford poet James Smith had afforded useful hints for the verse. The choice was happy both for Butler's genius and in view of the circumstances of the time. Milton shows that even when the scene is laid in heaven the epic tends to be martial, and England had but recently been shaken by the tramp of armies. In the civil contest was involved everything that Butler cared for. It was religious as well as political; and Cavalier and Roundhead represented different types of character, no less than diverse views of Church and State. Even manners and fashions were sharply opposed—on one side the "long essenced hair," on the other close-cropped locks; on one side gaiety, freedom of speech and round oaths, on the other a sour asceticism, and restraint of word and look. Restraint won, and the other side was forced to confess defeat. "God's nigs and ne'er stir, sir, has vanquish'd God damn me," sings...
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Ellen Douglass Leyburn (essay date 1953)
SOURCE: "Hudibras Considered as Satiric Allegory," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 2, February, 1953, pp. 141-60.
[In the following essay, Leyburn argues that scholars have been sidetracked by investigating possible models for Butler's characters in Hudibras and have, therefore, overlooked the ways in which the poem demands to be considered a satiric allegory.]
The Game of identifying particular individuals in Hudibras has exercised such fascination for scholars that their investigation of the poem has largely been an exploring of possible models for Butler's characters.1 Literary critics, on...
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Benjamin Boyce (essay date 1955)
SOURCE: "From Polemic Character to Verse Satire: Hudibras Part One," in The Polemic Character, 1640-1661, University of Nebraska Press, 1955, pp. 115-26.
[In the following essay, Boyce asserts that Butler's "biting wit and astonishing satiric allusion" make Hudibras the "best-known satire upon the Puritans."]
The best-known satire upon the Puritans, although composed by a Character-writer,1 was not a Character. It was, indeed, a work of much greater literary inspiration and artistic complexity than any of the Theophrastan and polemic sketches of this period. Yet part of the success of Hudibras was due to biting wit and astonishing...
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Ward S. Miller (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "The Allegory in Part I of Hudibras" in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 4, August, 1958, pp. 323-43.
[In the following essay, Miller maintains that despite Butler's denial that Hudibras has any allegorical intent, the epic exhibits allegorical characteristics.]
Literary scholarship has asserted persistently that Hudibras contains allegory.1 Yet, in a letter to George Oxenden, which Ricardo Quintana brought to light in 1933, Butler ostensibly denied allegorical intent by identifying Hudibras and Ralpho as a West Country knight and his squire whom he had come to know quite well during the wars. "As for ye Story I...
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Michael A. Seidel (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "Patterns of Anarchy and Oppression in Samuel Butler's Hudibras," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, Winter, 1971, pp. 294-314.
[In the following essay, Seidel outlines Butler's use of satire in his depiction of anarchy, oppression, and the individual and social degeneration of mankind.]
Dr. Johnson said of Hudibras that if "inexhaustible wit could give perpetual pleasure no eye would ever leave half-read the work of Butler."1 It is partly because Butler's wit is indeed inexhaustible that many people, like Johnson, have praised him, calling his major work, Hudibras, "one of those compositions of which a nation may...
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Susan Staves (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "The Authority of Nature's Laws," in Players' Scepters: Fictions of Authority in the Restoration, University of Nebraska Press, 1979, pp. 253-314.
[In the following essay, Staves discusses the contradictory critical readings of Hudibras in order to analyze the object of Butler's satire.]
… [The] real locus classicus of Augustan antipuritan, antidissenter satire is Hudibras, Samuel Butler's … popular burlesque. This poem has evoked contradictory readings. Early readers usually assumed that Hudibras was a spirited and malicious attack on the puritans; later readers express doubts. Dr. Johnson's view is typical of early...
(The entire section is 4491 words.)
A. D. Cousins (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "The Idea of a Restoration and the Verse Satires of Butler and Marvell," in Southern Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, July, 1981, pp. 131-42.
[In the following essay, Cousins explores Butler's role as a Restoration poet, and the ways in which the political and religious milieu of the time informed his satire.]
We are so used to making the word "Restoration" a mere label that we tend to play down its importance. Yet the word identifies more than a political act and, by association, a literary period: it identifies an idea central to English society during the reign of Charles II. Recognition of this idea would seem basic to an understanding of formal verse satire between...
(The entire section is 4281 words.)
Christopher Hill (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Two Radical Royalists," and "Samuel Butler (1613-80)," in The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill: Writing and Revolution in 17th Century England, Vol. 1, The Harvester Press, 1985, pp. 275-97.
[In the following essay, Hill discusses the major themes of Butler's Hudibras and the critical reception that this epic, which "is more quoted than read," has received since its publication.]
Hudibras is more quoted than read. Butler had a magnificent gift of phrase, and no power of construction whatsoever. He jotted down lines of verse as they occurred to him, incorporating them later in a new canto of Hudibras or some other poem: many of these...
(The entire section is 7479 words.)
Alvin Snider (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "As Aeneas Bore His Sire," in Origin and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England: Bacon, Milton, Butler, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 163-82.
[In the following essay, Snider compares Butler's Hudibras to other Restoration epics, including Paradise Lost, and argues that it occupies a "liminal space between the end of epic and the rise of the novel."]
If, for most twentieth-century readers, Butler and Milton lie poles apart, from the vantage point of the Restoration they were 'contemporaries' in every sense of the word. Born within a few years of each other, they breathed the same air of revolution and dissent, even though they reacted in...
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Stanton J. Linden (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Teutonick Chimericall Extravagancies: Alchemy, Poetry, and the Restoration Revolt Against Enthusiasm," in Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration, The University Press of Kentucky, 1996, pp. 260-93.
[In the following essay, Linden suggests that Butler's main characters in Hudibras "exist within an occult milieu" and that Butler, like other Restoration contemporaries, attacks the occult arts in his poem.]
… In Hudibras, Butler's major work, many of the objects of satirical commentary that are present in "An Hermetic Philosopher" appear once more, but the peculiarly "Hudibrastic" technique of this long...
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Curtiss, Joseph Toy. "Butler's Sidrophel." PMLA XLIV, No. 4 (December 1929): 1066-1078.
Focuses on Sidrophel, the fraudulent astrologer in Hudibras.
Daves, Charles W. Introduction to Characters, Samuel Butler, pp. 1-27. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970.
Discusses Butler's biographical history, the character tradition before Butler, and Butler's own characters.
De Quehen, Hugh. Introduction to Prose Observations, Samuel Butler, pp. xvii-xxxviii. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
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