Samuel Butler Analysis

Other literary forms

Samuel Butler wrote essays and prose in addition to verse. His best-known essay is “The Case of King Charles I Truly Stated,” which argues that the execution of Charles I was unjustified. Butler’s essay was published in Robert Thyer’s The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Samuel Butler (1759), and it displays his excellent understanding of English law—an understanding that plays an important role in Hudibras—and his ability to pick apart a point of view, a trait manifested in his carefully reasoned satire.

Of greater literary significance are his “characters,” which were probably composed during 1667 to 1669, and nearly two hundred of which have been uncovered since Butler’s death. The most complete edition of his characters was edited by Charles W. Daves in 1970 as Samuel Butler, 1612-1680: Characters. As with Hudibras, Butler took a popular literary form of the seventeenth century and modified it to suit his satiric purposes. His “characters” feature politicians, judges, lovers, and zealots, and in each sketch, he demonstrates his abhorrence of immoderation, his contempt for hypocrisy, his disgust with irrational thought, and his willingness to expose fraud and ostentation wherever they might be found. Although some of the characters were intended for publication, others were probably intended to serve as raw material which Butler could mine for his poetry.


Samuel Butler’s greatest achievement was to embody in a single work the failures, hypocrisy, and foolishness of an age. Hudibras captures the dark spirit of seventeenth century England, and the wit which made his contemporaries regard Butler as a great comic satirist also reveals the flaws in their philosophies. In Butler’s stingingly accurate portrait of his time lies much of his literary strength and weakness. If one reads and understands Hudibras, one learns to understand the culture of Oliver Cromwell’s England and of Restoration England. Butler’s misanthropic point of view illuminates his society; even though he was a Loyalist, and the surface thrust of Hudibras is an attack on Cromwellian Puritans, Butler spares no one from his sharp insights. Hudibras is necessarily specific, and Butler’s allusions to events and people were readily recognized in his time. Such particularity has made Butler’s satire dependent on his readers’ understanding of the 1600’s. Thus, what made Butler’s contemporaries laugh and wince may puzzle modern readers.

Hudibras brought Butler fame; he became known as Hudibras Butler, or simply as Hudibras. Such verse is still called Hudibrastic, and its imitations are called Hudibrastic satires. The poem stands out not only as one of the great achievements in satire but also as a work that inspired multitudes of imitations and helped to shape the forms of satire after its time. Its influence stretched from the seventeenth century to America after the revolution. Indeed, the poem’s assault on cultural elitism appealed to antimonarchists and egalitarians, in spite of Butler’s evident Loyalist views. Butler expanded the bounds of satire, writing in verse when contemporary literary theorists said satire was best suited to prose. Critics still argue over whether Hudibras is satire, burlesque, heroic satire, satirical burlesque, or something else entirely. Butler showed that satire could, like Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) mock a literary genre, expose the foibles of a class of people, and provide insights into the intellectual controversies of an era. Butler influenced the satirists who followed him, although few produced works that could match Hudibras for wit, insight, and bitterness.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Shrewsbury editions of Samuel Butler’s works, published between 1923 and 1926, reveal the breadth of his interests. Butler’s fiction was perhaps less important to him than his work in other fields, notably his theorizing on religion and evolution. He was also an art critic (Ex Voto, 1888; Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Ticino, 1881), a literary critic (The Authoress of the “Odyssey,” 1897; Shakespeare’s Sonnets Reconsidered, 1899), a letter writer, a poet, and the biographer of his famous grandfather, Dr. Samuel Butler. An age that produces “specialists” may find Butler to be a talented dabbler or dilettante, but his unifying philosophy gives a center to all his work.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Samuel Butler was a figure of controversy during his lifetime, and perhaps his greatest achievement resides in his ability to challenge: He contended with Charles Darwin and Darwinism; he took on the established scholars of William Shakespeare, classical literature, and art; and he was part of the nineteenth century revolt against traditional religion. He approached all of these areas in such a way that his opponents could not ignore him; whether he was right or wrong, any subject benefited by his treatment, which opened it up to new and candid thought.

Of his four works that may be labeled as fiction, by far the greatest is The Way of All Flesh. Virginia Woolf described this novel as a seed from which many others developed—a biological image that would have pleased Butler. In earlier novels, indifferent or cruel families had been portrayed as agents of the heroes’ youthful unhappiness—witness Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850, serial; 1850, book)—but in The Way of All Flesh, an oppressive, cruel family life becomes a theme in itself, worthy of generation-by-generation treatment.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Henderson, Philip. Samuel Butler: The Incarnate Bachelor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954. One of the best biographies of Butler and the first to deal with Butler’s private life. Focuses on Butler’s personality rather than his work. Readable and illuminating. Argues against such mistaken prevailing views that Butler hated his father. Contains a detailed chronology.

Holt, Lee. Samuel Butler. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. In his critical evaluation, Holt summarizes and quotes extensively from a wide range of Butler’s work, much of it no longer available. Extends the reader’s knowledge of Butler’s varied accomplishments. Includes biographical information, a chronology, notes, references, a lengthy selected bibliography, and an index with brief annotations.

Parker, Blanford. The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Written for an audience familiar with seventeenth and eighteenth century history and thought, yet accessible to the nonspecialist. Parker’s study includes a chapter on Samuel Butler and his part in a vigorous, tumultuous, and original period in English culture. Includes bibliographic references.

Raby, Peter. Samuel Butler: A Biography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. This biography makes much of the suffering in Butler’s youth, which was occasioned by repeated whippings by his father for the slightest infractions and his grandfather’s long headmastership of a school at which Butler was enrolled. Includes a bibliography.

Richards, Edward Ames. “Hudibras” in the Burlesque Tradition. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1972. Explores the burlesque elements in Butler’s Hudibras. Bibliography.

Snider, Alvin Martin. Origin and Authority in Seventeenth Century England: Bacon, Milton, Butler. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Explores the way in which Francis Bacon, John Milton, and Butler shared thematic interest and discourse in the genesis of ideas by focusing on their signature works: Novum Organum, Paradise Lost, and Hudibras, respectively.

Swartchild, William G. The Character of a Roundhead: Theme and Rhetoric in Anti-Puritan Verse Satire, from 1639 Through “Hudibras.” New York: Russell and Russell, 1966. Provides history and criticism of English satire and the influence of Puritan mores within the genre, using Butler’s work as a focal point for the discussion.

Veldkamp, Jan. Samuel Butler: The Author of “Hudibras.” Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977. Offers analysis of the religious aspects of Butler’s seminal work, Hudibras.

Wasserman, George W. Samuel “Hudibras” Butler. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1976. Provides criticism and interpretation of Butler’s most noted work.