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.