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but these remained unpublished until after his death.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
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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...
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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 the other hand, have been so bewitched by the brilliance of the couplets that one even suggests discarding the bulk of the poem in order to display its units,2 feeling apparently that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Professor Ricardo Quintana has the distinction of presenting the large philosophic perspective from which the poem is conceived and its clear moral purpose;3 but he does not analyze it as a work of art. E. A. Richards, who does so consider it, confines himself to a study of it as burlesque.4 These writers are enlightening; but Hudibras still demands consideration as satiric allegory. Such a consideration throws light on the virtues and defects of the poem which have been...
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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 satiric allusion of the sort exploited in the Characters of Presbyterian and Independent, caviller and diurnalist, projector and fanatic, published both in prose and in verse from 1640 to 1661. Butler later composed his own Characters not infrequently with the assistance of ideas and witticisms from Overbury and Earle, and it is not surprising that one also finds evidence of his having read the more recent polemic Characters. One notices, for instance, that his oft-quoted assertion in Hudibras that the Puritans
Compound for Sins, they are inclin'd to;
By damning those they have no mind to2
seems merely to versify an observation made...
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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 had it from ye Knts owne Mouth," Butler says, "& is so farr from being feign'd, yt it is upon record, for there was a suite of law upon it betweene ye Knt, & ye Fidler, in wch ye Knt was overthrowne to his great shame, & discontent, for wch he left ye Countrey & came up to Settle at London."2
If this statement is to be taken literally, it at least rules out intentional allegory on Butler's part; and the allegory of forces that may be found in Part I is too detailed to warrant the belief that it could have originated as a phenomenon of depth psychology. There is a third possibility, however: Butler's statement about the West Country knight and the lawsuit is a truthful one if read allegorically in the...
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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 justly boast."2 But because Butler himself, apart from his wit, seems exhaustible, many people have left off Hudibras "half-read." Not only is Butler considered long-winded and a bit preposterous, but his reputation as a poet appears to have followed the same course as that of his own Sir Hudibras as a knight errant. Hudibras complains to his lady as Butler might to his modern readers.3
i who was once as great as Caesar,
Am now reduc'd to Nebuchadnezar.
And from as fam'd a Conquerour,
As ever took degree in War,
Or did his Exercise, in battle,
By you turn'd out to Grass with...
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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 interpretations. Distributing praise and blame with his accustomed judiciousness, he admired Butler's "inexhaustible wit," but worried that much of the "humour which transported the last century with merriment is lost to us, who do not know the sour solemnity, the sullen superstition, the gloomy moroseness, and the stubborn scruples of the ancient Puritans."28
Modern criticism, however, resists accepting any Augustan satirist as a brilliant and spiteful reactionary. Many critics now choose to avert their eyes from the Dryden who was appalled at the idea of religious toleration or the Swift who advocated whipping beggars from one parish to another, preferring to lift their gazes to a more abstract level where the major...
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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 1660 and 1685. Between those years, Englishmen define their society chiefly in terms of "restoration." They assert that with the return of a Stuart king a number of other things have also been restored, mainly these: a neo-Augustan rule; "civil" government; wisdom in directing the force of the state; a learning (and religion) freed from political confusion; a language refined by truth. The idea of a "Restoration" is many-sided and pervasive. However, those who establish this idea are not necessarily those who are most interestingly involved with it. In their verse satires Butler and Marvell shrewdly suggest (if not always with direct intent) what the idea really means for their society. It is implicit in each poet's work that the truth of...
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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 fragments he never published. The brief prose Characters show him at his best, and the passages from his notebooks which have been published contain a series of isolated and thought-provoking epigrams. But there are long tracts of Hudibras which are of the greatest tedium, not even of historical interest; and these increase in Part III, published in 1677, long after the sensational success of Parts I and II in 1662-3. One suspects that by this time the link passages had got more and more perfunctory.
For these and many other reasons Butler perplexes the critics. Not all are as severe as Barbara Everett, who speaks of his "reductive and mean-minded work".2 Mr Farley-Hills, for instance, sees...
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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 obviously different ways. Their writings in prose and verse present alternative political and aesthetic responses to the same problematic: the establishment of a normative literary, religious, and political order after the collapse of an established system of values. Both poets opened new possibilities in the writing of epic. Both sought to achieve modernity by self-consciously situating themselves at a new beginning, accessing a distant point that might serve as a standard of truth. Much like Paradise Lost, Hudibras is Janus-faced, standing at the threshold of an emergent literary culture. In part, a continuation of Renaissance satire on learning, it also conspicuously immerses itself in the historical particularities of...
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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 poem results in a work of far greater humor, trenchancy, and originality. John Wilders has written that the poem's satirical mode is varied, combining such elements as invective, caricature, mock disputation, and farce within the encompassing vehicle of the mock heroic, which "depends for its effect on the violent contrast between subject and treatment."51 As I hope to demonstrate, these qualities, as well as the attributes of the Hudibrastic style—gross distortions in meter and rhyme, colloquial language, and bizarre imagery—when applied to the materials of mid-seventeenth-century occultism, create a satirical method that is keen and incisive. They are well suited to the task of deflating and debasing those aspects of...
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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.
Discusses the publication history of Butler's work.
Edwards, Thomas R. "The Hero Emasculated: Hudibras and Mock-Epic." In Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes, pp. 39-44. London: Chatto & Windus, 1971.
Analyzes Butler's satiric distancing from the world of political controversy in Hudibras.
Engler, Balz. "Hudibras and the Problem of Satirical Distance." English Studies 60 (1979): 436-443.
Discusses the critical reputation of Hudibras over time.
Horn, William C. "Hard Words in Hudibras" Durham...
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