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 Fiddle
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