Samuel Butler’s Hudibras ridicules the Presbyterians, Dissenters, and others who fought against the Crown in the conflict between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Published shortly after the Restoration of Charles II, the poem had immense popularity for a time. The king himself carried a copy in his pocket and quoted from it. Hudibras uses burlesque with telling effect. Mean and low persons, things, and situations are described in lofty language. The contrast between the poem’s lofty language and its grubby subject matter exists to highlight the hypocrisy and absurdity of Dissenting reformers in seventeenth century England. Butler makes no pretense of impartiality. The poem shows the Dissenters as ridiculous, odious, and obnoxious. Butler also wanted to draw attention to the false learning rampant in England at the time. Astrology, fortune-telling, alchemy, sympathetic medicine, and other pseudosciences are presented in the poem in such a way as to show the readers of his time the absurdity of such practices and of their practitioners.
The word “satire” comes from a Latin word for a “mixed plate,” and Hudibras is a somewhat disorganized mix of various objects of ridicule. More specifically, Hudibras is a travesty or burlesque. Such satire depends on form. Understanding Butler’s poem is a matter of understanding what he does with form. A central technique of Hudibras is Butler’s deliberately creating a mismatch between his heroic language and his ridiculous hero. One goal of satire is to call attention to the discrepancies between the ideal and the actual, between the world as people say it is and the world as it is. The implicit message of much satire is that, compared to the inappropriate behavior of people and the absurdity of life, the silly writings of an obscure scrivener is a small thing.
The self-absorbed zeal of Sir Hudibras and Ralpho is an example of the distance between human pretense and human reality. A brief quotation from the beginning of the poem illustrates how, when describing Sir Hudibras, verse that should be gallant and romantic begins to sound like a bad jingle:
Sir Hudibras, his passing worth,The manner how he sallied forth,His arms and equipage are shown,His horse’s virtues and his own;The adventures of the Bear and FiddleIs sung, but breaks off in the middle.
This is how travesty (the word, etymologically, relates to clothing) works. Hudibras begins with a tune that breaks off in the middle. The hero’s horse’s virtues come before those of the hero. The language, meter, and tone of the beginning of the poem make clear that what is to follow is not heroic but comic. The whole serious business of the Puritan revolution in England in the seventeenth century is treated as something trivial. The satire intends, by belittling the Dissenters, to cut them down to a more realistic size. An implicit point is that where common sense, good humor, and restraint are lacking, the silly and the irrelevant are to be found in abundance.
Butler was so successful in making fun of the Puritans in Hudibras that the poem became a model of verse form. “Hudibrastic verse” is deliberately bad poetry, with jingle-jangle lines of iambic tetrameter, rhymed in couplets. Tone and diction are purposely scrambled, mixing the serious with the silly, in order to show that those who are foolish should not undertake something serious. Butler’s verse form was imitated for more than a century after Hudibras. Jonathan Swift, for example, used the form extensively in the eighteenth century.
The hero of Butler’s satire, Sir Hudibras, is named after a character in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene
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The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Butler’s Sir Hudibras is, like Spenser’s, intolerant, intemperate, and something of a troublemaker. A clearly intended parallel also exists between Sir Hudibras and Ralpho and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. This parallel is, implicitly, an ironic attack on Sir Hudibras, Ralpho, and those they represent because Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are sympathetic characters and Sir Hudibras and Ralpho are not. Not only do Sir Hudibras and Ralpho not measure up to the heroes of classical literature, they also fail to measure up to their silly but likable Spanish counterparts. They represent everything that was not likable about the era of Puritan ascendancy in England. They are zealous crusaders, quite satisfied about their certainty that the world is in need of reform and that they are the ones suited to bring about that reform. They do have certain small differences of opinion, however, about some of the details.
Sir Hudibras is Butler’s idea of certain Presbyterians of his time. In a mechanical way Sir Hudibras acquires some wide learning, which he uses without judgment or restraint and with a large helping of intellectual pride. Ralpho, in turn, represents an Independent of Butler’s time. Ralpho has no need for the structures of Sir Hudibras’s learning or for Sir Hudibras’s church. Ralpho believes himself mystically illuminated from within. The inner light that he thinks guides him is a superior agency, more directly connected to God than anything that Sir Hudibras can parade from his store of knowledge.
Butler did not trust either the man who believes his book before he would his senses or the man who thinks his intuition is infallible. Skeptical and conservative, Butler was a person of learning, who had in addition the understanding that allowed him to see the pretensions of the learned. In the Puritans’ government Butler saw ill-considered reform, ideology rising above fact, and violent intolerance for other points of view. The reformers, in his estimation, needed reforming.
Butler doubted that sudden, radical, and violent change in English life, custom, and government could be justified by claims to a spiritual enlightenment that had not been available before in history. He set out to skewer the people who claimed to have a greater understanding of the will of God. His method of attacking them was to mock them. His attack on pretense is not a fire-and-brimstone sermon but rather a giggle during prayer. His is a cunning, if ephemeral, way of deflating pretense. Deliberately writing silly verse, after all, is less silly than taking oneself very seriously.