Samuel Butler is remembered chiefly as the author of one of the outstanding satires of the seventeenth century. Hudibras, a rollicking burlesque on the followers of Oliver Cromwell, was written as a mock-heroic poem to ridicule the Puritans who had controlled England for two decades. Part of the poem’s charm lies in its comic rhyming of couplets. The central figure of the work, which is thematically similar to Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605), is Hudibras, a “presbyterian true blue” knight, and the poem describes the attempt of this knight and his odd squire Ralpho to put an end to amusements in England. The topical reference is to the closing of the theaters in 1642. In the poem Butler castigates Puritanism for its tendencies toward political tyranny and personal hypocrisy.
Butler, the royalist son of a prosperous Worcestershire farmer, was educated at King’s School, Worcester. During his youth he tried unsuccessfully to pursue a career as a painter. Later he served as secretary of the countess of Kent, 1626-1628, became amanuensis to the antiquarian John Selden, and was associated with the household of Sir Samuel Luke, a fanatical officer of Cromwell’s army and possibly the original of the knight Hudibras. After this he was appointed as secretary to Lord Carbery, the steward of Ludbow Castle.
Hudibras, part of which had circulated in manuscript before the Restoration in 1660, was published in three parts between 1663 and 1678. King Charles II was so pleased with the work that in 1677 he awarded Butler an annual pension of one hundred pounds. Between 1667 and 1669 Butler also wrote a series of character sketches, but these were not published until 1759. Between 1671 and 1674 he was secretary to George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. He died of tuberculosis in London in 1680.
Two distinct portraits of Samuel Butler have developed since his death—one traditional and the other historical. Most sketches of Butler’s life rely on the traditional version, based primarily on the accounts of John Aubrey, who knew him, and Anthony à Wood, a contemporary of Butler who admitted that he was uncertain of his facts. One reason why most short biographies rely on the traditional accounts is that the historical ones have been uncertain and contradictory. Evidence in the form of letters, notes, and public documents has been hard to come by, and new evidence sometimes contradicts the old. Only since the mid-twentieth century has historical evidence begun to supplant the traditional version of Butler’s life.
Both versions agree on the major aspects of Butler’s youth. He was born in Strensham, England, on February 8, 1612, and was baptized on February 14. His father, also named Samuel, was a farmer who rented property from the local gentry and had a home and lands in Barbourne. The elder Butler was evidently learned and maintained a large and diverse library that he left to his eight children when he died. Samuel was then only fourteen years of age.
Butler probably attended King’s School in Worcester, north of Strensham. Tradition claims that he also attended college—perhaps Oxford, although records show no evidence of his having continued his formal education after leaving King’s School. He probably became a secretary for various gentlemen and gentlewomen. Through these people, he became acquainted with some of the leading minds of his day, possibly including John Seldon, a legal historian who knew Ben Jonson, Thomas Hobbes, and others. Butler had ample opportunity to observe the pretentiousness of England’s social and intellectual elite, and he may have learned about England’s laws and theology from such people as Seldon.
In 1642, King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham; in 1649, he was executed. Tradition has it that during these tumultuous years, Butler served as a clerk to Sir Samuel Luke, a member of Parliament from Bedfordshire, and that Luke served as the model for the character Hudibras. Other models...
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