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 have been suggested by historians, yet Butler probably used several Puritans as inspiration for Hudibras. He might have begun Hudibras before 1649, and it might have been his response to having to survive by serving parliamentarians while harboring loyalist sentiments.
Some accounts indicate that fragments of Hudibras were copied and circulated before the Restoration. Butler had already written essays defending the monarchy and was almost certainly working on Hudibras when Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. Charles II entered London in 1660, at which time works by Loyalists became popular. When Hudibras, part 1, was published in late 1662 (it was postdated 1663), it caught the fancy of the public and of the king; Charles II was said to quote from the poem from memory. Butler probably made enough money from the sale of Hudibras, part 1, and later Hudibras, part 2, to live well.
Butler apparently invested his money unwisely, or perhaps he spent it too rapidly. Some accounts assert that Charles II gave Butler three hundred pounds as a royal grant. Other accounts maintain that Charles II gave Butler a one-hundred-pound annuity. Others assert that both were given; still others mention neither. What seems likely is that Charles II was dilatory in fulfilling any promises he made to Butler. By 1673, Butler had become secretary to the duke of Buckingham. Not until 1677, apparently, did Charles II provide Butler with any monetary support. In 1678, Hudibras, part 3, was published, in part to provide Butler with income beyond that which came from his secretarial work.
Tradition holds that Butler was unjustly neglected by an ungrateful king who failed to fulfill promises made to the poet. History indicates that Charles II was freer with his promises than with his money. Butler’s own sharp misanthropic wit may have cost him royal and noble help; he seems to have found fault with everyone he knew—a practice that might have alienated potential patrons. Regardless of what he was promised and what he actually received, he lived in a poor part of London and died on September 25, 1680, in genuinely miserable poverty. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Paul’s, in Covent Garden. A bust of him resides in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Samuel Butler, English novelist and essayist, was born at Langar, Nottinghamshire, on December 4, 1835, the son of the Reverend Thomas Butler and the grandson of a bishop of Lichfield. This clerical ancestry was to have its influence on Butler’s writings. He was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and was intended for the church; because of his religious doubts, however, he declined to take orders, preferring to study painting. The resulting estrangement from his father led him to emigrate in 1859 to New Zealand, where he spent five years in sheep farming. He became interested in the theories of Charles Darwin and wrote the essay “Darwin Among the Machines” (1863), the germ of Erewhon. Returning to England in 1864, he continued his painting, exhibiting regularly, and also composed music. He became a friend of Darwin but disagreed with the latter’s theory of evolution and wrote several books to advance a theory of his own, which was never taken very seriously by scientists.
Butler’s next phase was classical. He became interested in the Homeric question, maintaining that the Iliad and the Odyssey were by different authors and that the latter was written by a woman. Like his books on evolution, these writings now belong to the curiosities of literature.
Butler’s importance lies in his contribution to the reaction against Victorianism. Erewhon (“nowhere”) is a satire on the machine age and was the forerunner of several modern novels. By depicting a society in which the possession of any mechanical device is illegal, he made fun of nineteenth century industrialism and then proceeded to satirize much of Victorian morality. In Erewhon, sickness is a crime, whereas crime is a sickness and is treated as such. Thus, society’s attitude toward morals is the product of convention; it is as illogical to condemn a man for stealing as to condemn him for contracting influenza.
Butler’s really important novel is The Way of All Flesh, written between 1873 and 1883 but not published until a year after his death. This book, which George Bernard Shaw claimed had influenced him greatly, is a satiric portrait of Butler’s own childhood. Theobald and Christina Pontifex are modeled on his parents, while Butler himself appears twice: as Overton, the narrator, and as Ernest, the repressed son. The work is a blistering indictment of the worst aspects of Victorian family life, with its excessive strictness, exaggerated piety, and hypocrisy. The book is hardly a novel; it is a series of essays in which Butler attacked the shams of the world of his childhood in a clergyman’s family and at the same time expressed his philosophy of common sense. His hero is the prototype of the modern youth who revolts against his parents’ mores and eventually builds a life of his own. It is the story of Butler’s own struggle for freedom.