1902 Encyclopedia > Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler
English poet
(1612-80)




SAMUEL BUTLER (1612-1680), whose name appears to have been spelt Boteler in official documents to the end of his life, was born at Strensham on the Avon in Worcestershire. He was baptized on the 8th of February 1612. His father, who was of the same name and was then churchwarden, is variously represented as a substantial farmer (owning a small freehold, and leasing from Sir William Russel a considerable farm valued at ¿£300 a year), and as " a man of but slender fortune," who was barely able to educate his son at a free school. The author of Hudibras was appa-rently educated at the college (or cathedral) school, Worcester, and the house in which he was born was pulled down (being considered incapable of repair) about 1873. Hardly any other particulars of his youth are recorded, and his later education (if he received any) is equally uncertain. He has been loosely asserted (as is the case with many other distinguished persons of his century) to have studied at both Cambridge and Oxford, but the balance of testimony seems to be against his having belonged to either univer-sity. The time between the completion of his education (circa 1630) and the Restoration, a period of fully thirty years, appears to have been spent by him in three different households, with Mr Jefferies of Earl's Croome in Worcester-shire, with the countess of Kent at Wrest in Bedfordshire, and with Sir Samuel Luke at Woodend or Cople Hoo in the same county. He served Mr Jefferies in the capacity of justice's clerk, and is supposed to have thus laid the foundation of his remarkable knowledge of law and law terms. He also employed himself at Earl's Croome in general study, and particularly in painting, which he is said to have thought of adopting as a profession. It is probable, however, that art has not lost by his change of mind, for, according to one of his editors, in 1774 his pictures " served to stop windows and save the tax ; indeed they were not fit for much else." At Wrest, where he is said to have been gentleman to the countess, he pursued his studies in painting, drawing, and music; probably, also, in other directions, for Wrest contained a good library. Here he met and worked for Selden. But his third sojourn, that at Cople Hoo, was not only apparently the longest, but also much the most important in its effects on his career and works.
We are nowhere informed, nor is it at all clear, in what capacity Butler served Sir Samuel Luke, or how one who was not only in temper and sympathies, but also from early associations, a decided royalist, came to reside in the house of a noted Puritan and Parliament man. In the family of this " valiant Mamaluke," who, whether he was or was not the original of Hudibras, was certainly a rigid Pres-byterian, " a colonel in the army of the Parliament, scoutmaster-general for Bedfordshire and governor of New-port Pagnell," Butler must have had the most abundant opportunities of studying from the life those who were to be the victims of his great future satire. But we know not how long he held his situation (whatever it was) under the knight of Cople, and we hear nothing positive of him till the Restoration, immediately after which he was appointed secretary to Lord Carbery (then President of Wales) and steward of Ludlow Castle. Contradictory documents exist respecting his tenure of the latter office, one speaking of him as "late steward" in January 1662, the other (a protection against arrest) addressed to him as steward in September 1667. About this time he married a Mrs Herbert, according to Aubrey a widow with a good jointure, on whose means he lived comfortably. Aubrey knew him well and could hardly be wrong on such a point, especiallyas his testimonyas to Butler's livingin comparative comfort is confirmed by another authority to be afterwards mentioned. It should, however, be observed that other accounts state that Mrs Herbert's fortune was lost through bad securities. Late in 1662 the first part of Hudibras-was published. On the 26th of December I'epys bought it, and though neither then nor afterwards could he see the wit of it, he repeatedly testifies to its extraordinary popularity. This popularity is most clearly proved by the issue of a pirated edition within a month, and by the appearance of a spurious second part within the year. This latter compliment (which it will be remembered was also paid to Butler's spiritual ancestor Cervantes) determined the poet to bring out the second part, which was licensed on November 7, 1663, and which if possible exceeded the first in popularity. From this time till 1678, the date of the publication of the third part, we hear nothing certain and hardly anything at all of Butler. He appears at some period to have visited France. He is said to have received a gift of ¿£300 from Charles II., and to have been secretary to Buckingham when the latter was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Most of his biographers, in their eagerness to prove the ill-treatment which Butler is supposed to have received, disbelieve both these stories, perhaps without sufficient reason. It must be allowed that it is scarcely a valid argument that Butler, if he had been secretary to Buckingham, would not have spoken so severely of that nobleman in his Characters (Remains, 1759), when it is remembered that he satirized Sir Samuel Luke, to whom he held nearly the same relation, with certainly equal virulence. Two years after the publication of the third part he died (September 25, 1680), and was buried by his friend Mr William Longueville (a bencher of the Middle Temple) in the churchyard of' St Paul's, Covent Garden. He was, we are told, " of a leonine-coloured hair, sanguine, choleric, middle-sized, strong." Portraits exist at Oxford and elsewhere which represent him as somewhat hard-featured. Two personal anecdotes, and perhaps two only, are recorded of him. One is the well-known story which tells how Wycherly laboured hard to secure for the neglected poet the patron-age of Buckingham, how an interview was at last arranged, from which the duke was, alas! called off by the passage of " a brace of ladies," and how the opportunity was lost. The other bears suspicious marks of having been made up as setting for a witticism of Lord Dorset's. Dorset, it seems, was anxious to know the author of Hudibras, and prevailed on a common friend to bring him to a tavern. At the first bottle Butler was quiet and reserved, at the second full of wit and spirits, at the third dull and stupid,—upon which Dorset's comment was that Butler was "like a nine-pin, little at both ends, but great in the middle." Of these stories it may be said, as of most such, that they may be true and cannot be proved to be false.
Of the neglect of Butler by the Court something must be said. It must be remembered that the complaints on the subject supposed to have been uttered by the poet all occur in the spurious posthumous works, that men of letters have been at all times but too prone to complain of lack of patronage (a fact which makes it probable that Dry den, Otway, Oldham, &c, in alluding to Butler, spoke as the proverb of that day went, " one word for him and two for themselves"), that the actual service rendered by Butler was rendered when the day was already won, and that the pathetic stories of the poet starving and dying in want are contradicted by the best authority—Mr C. Longueville (son of the poet's friend)—who asserted that Butler, though often disappointed, was never reduced to anything like want or beggary, and did not die in any person's debt. But the most significant story on the subjeet is Aubrey's, that " he might have had preferments at first, but would not accept any but very good, and so got none."
Three monuments have been at different times and places erected to the poet's memory,—the first in 1721 by Alderman Barber in Westminster Abbey. This was the occasion of some rather misplaced wit from Pope and others, In 1786 a tablet was placed in St Paul's, Covent Garden, by some inhabitants of that parish. This was destroyed in 1845. Some thirty or forty years ago another was set up at Strensham by a Mr Taylor of that place. Perhaps the happiest epitaph on him is one by Dennis, which (borrowing, indeed, its most striking ex-pression from Cowley) sets forth that Butler " was a whole species of poets in one."
Butler's published works during his life consisted of the three parts of Hudibras (the second and third were republished together in 1674, with notes by the author); of an Ode on Duval (the famous highwayman); and of two pamphlets attributed to Prynne. In 1715 three volumes, entitled Posthumous Works of Mr S. Butler, were published with great success. Their contents, however, are all spurious except one or two short pieces. The poet's papers remained in the hands of his friend Mr Longueville, and were not published till 1759, when Mr Thyer, librarian at Manchester, edited two volumes of verse and prose under the title of Genuine Remains. The most remarkable of the prose writings are characters of the kind popular in the 17th century, and partaking largely of the faults usual in such pieces. To this some additional fragments were added in 1822 ; a fragment of a tragedy on Nero is also spoken of. In 1726 Hogarth executed some illustrations to Hudibras, which are among his earliest but not, perhaps, happiest productions. In 1744 Dr Zachary Grey published an edition of Hudibras, which has been repeatedly reprinted, and has formed (with that of Nash in 1793) the basis of all subsequent editions. It contains an enormous mass of notes, displaying little critical or literary power, but abounding in curious information. A worthy edition is still to seek; but that of the late Mr R. Bell is convenient, and supplies much information, which is generally accurate. Mr Bonn's (of Hudibras only) is also useful. Butler's lesser works would of themselves fairly sustain, though perhaps they would hardly create, a great reputation. Abundance of happy thought, of ingenious expression, and of vigorous verse, may be found in the Miscellaneous Thoughts, the Ode on Duval, and the Satires on the Royal Society (The Elephant in the Moon) and on Critics. But the splendour of Hudibras has somewhat paled their fire.
Hudibras itself, though probably quoted as often as ever, has perhaps dropped into the class of books which are more quoted than talked of, and more talked of than read. In reading it, it is of the utmost importance to compre-hend clearly and to bear constantly in mind the purpose of the author in composing it. This purpose is evidently not artistic but polemic, to show in the most unmistakable characters the vileness and folly of the anti-royalist party. Anything like a regular plot—the absence of which has often been deplored or excused—would have been for this end not merely a superfluity but a mistake, as likely to divert the attention and perhaps even enlist some sympathy for the heroes. Anything like regular character-drawing would have been equally unnecessary and dangerous—for to represent anything but monsters, some alleviating strokes must have been introduced. The problem, therefore, was to produce characters just sufficiently unlike lay-figures to excite and maintain a moderate interest, and to set them in motion by dint of a few incidents not absolutely uncon-nected,—meanwhile to subject the principles and manners of which these characters were the incarnation to ceaseless satire and raillery. The triumphant solution of the pro-blem is undeniable, when it has once been enunciated and understood. Upon a canvas thus prepared and outlined, Butler has embroidered a collection of flowers of wit, which only the utmost fertility or imagination could devise, and the utmost patience of industry elaborate. In the union of these two qualities he is certainly without a parallel, and their combination has produced a work which is unique. The poem is of considerable length, extending to more than ten thousand verses, yet Hazlitt hardly exaggerates when he says that " half the lines are got by heart;" indeed a diligent student of later English literature has read great part of Hudibras though he may never have opened its pages. The tableaux or situations, though few and simple in construction, are ludicrous enough. The knight and squire setting forth on their journey; the routing of the bear-baiters; the disastrous renewal of the contest; Hudibras and Ralph in the stocks ; the lady's release and conditional acceptance of the unlucky knight; the latter's deliberations on the means of eluding his vow; the Skimmington; the visit to Sidrophel, the astrologer; the attempt to cajole the lady, with its woeful consequences; the consultation with the lawyer, and the immortal pair of letters to which this gives rise complete the argument of the whole poem. But the story is as nothing; through-out we have little really kept before us but the sordid vices of the sectaries, their hypocrisy, their churlish ungracious-ness, their greed of money and authority, their fast and loose morality, their inordinate pride. The extraordinary felicity of the means taken to place all these things in the most ridiculous light has never been questioned. The doggrel metre, never heavy or coarse, but framed so as to be the very voice of mocking laughter, the astounding similes and disparates, the rhymes which seem to chuckle and to sneer of themselves, the wonderful learning with which the abuse of learning is rebuked, the subtlety with which subtle casuistry is set at nought can never be missed. Keys like those of L'Estrange are therefore of little use. It signifies nothing whether Hudibras was Sir Samuel Luke of Bedfordshire or Sir Henry Bosewell of Devonshire, still less whether Ralph's name in the flesh was Robinson or Pendle, least of all that Orsin was perhaps Mr Gosling, or Trulla possibly Miss Spencer. Butler was probably as little indebted to mere copying for his characters as for his ideas and style. These latter are in the highest degree original. The first notion of the book, and only the first notion, Butler undoubtedly received from Don Quixote. His obligations to the Satyre Menippee have been noticed by Voltaire, and though English writers have sometimes ignored or questioned them, are not to be doubted by any student of the two books. The art (perhaps the most terrible of all the weapons of satire) of making characters without any great violation of probability represent them-selves in the most atrocious and despicable light was never perhaps possessed in perfection except by Pithou and his colleagues and by Butler Against these great merits some defects must certainly be set. As a whole, the poem is no doubt tedious, if only on account of the very blaze of wit, which at length almost wearies us by its ceaseless demands on our attention. It should, however, be remembered that it was originally issued in parts, and therefore (it may be supposed) intended to be read in parts, for there can be little doubt that the second part was written before the first was published, A more real defect, but one which Butler shares with all his contemporaries from Jonson downwards, is the tendency to delineate humours instead of characters, and to draw from the outside rather ths-a from within. This also may be partially palliated by some remarks made above.
Attempts have been made without much success to trace the manner and versification of Hudibras, especially in Cleveland and in the Musarum Delicioe (lately reprinted) of Sir John Mennis (Pepys's Minnes) and Dr Smith. But if it had few ancestors it had an abundant offspring. A list of seventeen direct imitations of Hudibras in the course of a century was given in the Retrospective Review, and may be found in Mitford's Butler. Portions of it have been at different times translated into Latin with no great success. Complete translations of considerable excellence have been made into French by John Townley (London, 1757, 3 vols.), and into German by D. W. Soltau (Riga, 1787); specimens of both may be found in Bell's edition. Voltaire tried his hand at a compressed version, but not happily, (G. SA.)







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