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but these remained unpublished until after his death.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.