Samuel Butler.

The poetical works of Samuel Butler (Volume v. 1) online

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mitf^ Life, Critical £)ii8?i8fertation, anti
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We have hitherto, in this edition of the " Poets," had chiefly
to do with the authors of grave and serious song — men -who
felt, and -who enacted the feeling, that poetry was an earnest
matter — a minor, but real religion — a proclamation, in various
forms and measures, of the truth that is in beauty, or else of
the beauty that is in truth. We come now to one of the ear-
liest, and one of the ablest, of those writers of English verse,
who have sought for their inspiration in ridicule, and who
have tried rather to travesty truth, than to enforce or illustrate
it in their poetry — if poetry it can be called, which is rather
rhymed prose, sense, and wit, than that idealization of thought
and feehng, which we usually call poetry,

Samuel Butlee, the author of " Hudibras," was bom in the
parish of Strensham, in Worcestershire, some authorities say,
in the year 1600, but others, more credibly, in the year 1612.
He was baptized on February the 14th of the same year. His
father, a yeoman, was the owner of a house and some land,
and, besides, rented a considerable farm. He sent his son to
the grammar-school at Worcester, taught at the time by one
Henry Bright, a prebendary of the cathedral, and a man of
eminence as a scholar. He is supposed to have gone from this
to Cambridge, but, as he is ascertained never to have matricu-
lated, the probability is, that his parents were unable to sup-
port him in the career of learning to which he was urged by


his own ambition and tastes. But on this, as on all other
parts of Butler's life, there rests great obscurity. He ap-
proached the world, as a person steals in through the dark to
tickle a child, and himself, all unknown, threw it into convul-
sions of laughter. We find him next seated, not on a poetic
tripod, but on a clerk's stool, in the office of Mr Jeffreys, of
Earl's Croonib, in Worcestershire, a flourishing justice of the
peace. This situation was not the most respectable or most
congenial, but it gave him opportunities of studying human
nature in many of its most singular and raciest attitudes.
Fielding, too, was a justice of peace, and this, doubtless, con-
tributed to make him, as Byron calls him, " the prose Homer
of human nature." There can be little doubt that Trulla and
Talgol are copied from characters with whom Butler had
come into professional contact. He enjoyed, too, it seems,
ample leisure for study, and he diligently improved his time.
Besides reading very extensively and miscellaneously, he cul-
tivated the arts of music and painting. " It is singular," says
Walpole, " that the Hogarth of poetry was also a painter."
Some of his pictures were long preserved by his friends,
although their merit is understood not to have been very
great. He attempted, it is said, a portrait of Old Noll, and
would, no doubt, do ample justice to his red nose ! His love
of the pencil introduced him to the acquaintance of the once
celebrated painter, Samuel Cooper. After this, he obtained a
recommendation to the Countess of Kent, and became, for a
time, domesticated in her establishment at Wrest, Bedford-
shire. Here he had the benefit of an excellent library, as
well as of intercourse with that living library, Selden, who
employed him sometimes as his amanuensis. From this
monster of erudition, Butler probably derived much of that
recondite learning with which he has stuiFed " Hudibras " to
superfluity. In what capacity he served the Countess we are
not informed, and are equally in the dark as to why and when
he left her household. He is next found under the roof of
Sir Samuel Luke, at Cople, or Woodend, in Bedfordshire — a
gentleman of an ancient family, a rigid Roundhead, one
of Cromwell's officers, and destined to become for ever famous


Tinder the sobriquet of " Hudibras." It is curious to notice
how each of these three situations contributed to qualify
Butler better and better for his great work. In the office of
Jeffreys, he saw those aspects of low life which he has so ad-
mirably represented in the adventures of the Bear and Fiddle.
In the library and society of Wrest, he collected those multi-
farious stores of learning which come bursting out at every
pore of his poem. And, in the halls of Woodend, he met
with those specimens of Puritanic character which it was his
calling and destiny to distort into the immortal oddities of the
Knight and the Squire. Far better for him this irregular
but progressive education, than had he remained for years at
Cambridge, and left it with the honours of senior wrangler.
Some of his biographers suppose that he must have been veiy
miserable at Woodend, and that he imbibed, while there, a
bitter grudge at Sir Samuel Luke personally, as well as at the
party to which he belonged. These statements require, we
think, some qualification. Butler, while under the Puritan's
roof, might undoubtedly feel himself under restraint, but he
must have felt, too, no little satirical delight in watching the
peculiarities of his host, and in silently inscribing them on the
tablets of his mind for after use. He knew he was in the
midst of his natural game, and resembled a painter detained
among the banditti of the Apennines, who makes the best of
his detention in sketching the strange figures and savage
scenery around him. That Butler hated the Puritans as
a party is clear, but we can see no evidence of any deep-
rooted aversion to Sir Samuel Luke as an individual. On
the contrary (in spite of Dr Johnson), he has a lurking fond-
ness for " Hudibras," amid all the contempt and ridicule which
he showers around him ; beginning, perhaps, with a little spite
at him, not on his own account, but as the representative of
his class, he has, ere the end, fairly laughed himself into good
humour with his hero. Indeed, there is very little of the
spiteful or malignant in Butler's composition. His wit is
dry, but seldom devilish. He can hate and he can despise ;
but he cannot, like Swift, loathe and cover the objects of his
malignant fury with the foam of a demoniac.


At last came the Restoration, and it was welcomed by thou-
sands besides Butler with rapturous hopes, which speedily sunk
into indignant disappointment. Although not yet known as
a poet, he was known to many as a scholar, a loyalist, and
a man of worth, and had thus some right to expect a share in
the golden shower. But scarcely a drop of it descended on
him. He was fain, relinquishing hopes of higher preferment, to
accept of the secretaryship to Richard Earl of Carbury, Lord
President of the Principality of Wales, who made him steward
of Ludlow Castle — a place famous as that where the Comus
of Milton was first enacted. To it the Court of the Marches
had been removed. Butler by this time was fifty years of
age, and in order to put a spoke in the wheel of fortune, and
secure independence for life, he determined to marry a wealthy
widow. Her name was Mrs Herbert. She was a gentle-
woman of good family, but shortly after marriage, she lost the
larger portion of her fortune, which had been laid out on bad
securities. A little, however, was saved from the wreck, and
on this, and on the proceeds of his stewardship, Butler lived
for some time quietly and comfortably enough. He began
now to indite his immortal burlesque poem. How long he
was occupied in composing it we are not told — he had spent
all his life in collecting its materials. The first part of it ap-
peared in 1663, and became instantly popular. The humble
student-steward of the Welch Marches awoke one morning
and found himself famous. All London applauded and
laughed at the poem. The Earl of Dorset, then a man of much
literary influence, recommended it at court — and the merry
monarch laughed louder than any one else, and often quoted
its more pointed and poignant couplets. Butler's fortune
seemed at length made. But he was again doomed to a dis-
appointment — the more bitter to be borne, because preceded
by such a sudden sunburst of success — and had soon occasion
to quote with emphasis the text, " Put not thy trust in princes."
Charles laughed, quoted, agreed that " Butler was a good
cavalier and a clever fellow" — and " Odds fish, so he was," but
he did nothing for him at all. Dorset, having first set his book
afloat, seemed to think that his duty to it and its author was


ended. The Duke of Buckingham, according to Wycherley,
appointed a meeting with him one day at the Roebuck, with
the intention of being of service, and, along with Wycherley,
they met accordingly ; when, lo ! the door of the chamber
being left accidentally open, two ladies of a certain character
crossed in company with a creature of his own, and the vola-
tile Duke leapt up, followed, and, in the disgraceful pursuit,
entirely forgot the poet. Clarendon was constantly flattering
him with the hope of places and employments of value, but it
was never fulfilled. It is said, indeed, that the king once
ordered him a present of 300 guineas (some say 3000), but
there is no proper foundation for the story. He published the
second part of Hudibras in 1664, and the third part fourteen
years later, in 1678, and this still leaves the work unfinished.
His manner of life, his circumstances, and habitudes during
these years, are almost wholly unknown. We know nothing,
except that he had left the country, and was resident entirely
in London ; that he had become very poor ; that bitterness was
beginning to gather on his spirit ; and that, while his book was
increasing the gaiety of the three kingdoms, he was himself
struggling with mean miseries which were never even to re-
ceive the poor compensation of being particularly recorded for
the instruction and the indignation of posterity. Had a fourth
part of Hudibras been written, its satire, its increased severity,
and concentrated spirit of gall, would have testified to the
souring process through which his mind had passed. It was
possible, even, that he would have loosened his satirical ven-
geance upon the rotten-hearted faction which had so neglected
their Laureate, and proclaimed their levity to be heartlessness,
their ridicule to be itself ridiculous, their laughter to be folly,
and their loyalty a farce. But the opportunity was not
aiforded him. Two years after the appearance of the third
part, its neglected author breathed his last ; of what disease
we know not, as accounts vary ; probably of a complication
of minor maladies, ranging around the central complaint — a
broken heart. It was on the 25th of September 1680, when
he had reached the age of sixty-eight. He died in Rose
Street, a mean street in Covent Garden, where he had


resided for several years. He died poor; but, like Burns,
with no debt. His friend, a Mr Longueville of the Temple,
who proved the truth of the proverb, " There is a friend who
sticketh closer than a brother," and whose name shall long be
cherished for the sake of his disinterested attachment to
Butler, solicited for him a public funeral in Westminster
Abbey. It was refused, as afterwards in Byron's case, but
for a different reason. Byron's dust was rejected on account
of his profanity — Butler's, on account of his poverty. Could
any good thing come out of Rose Street ? Could a man who
had left scarcely enough money to buy a shroud, be permitted
to lie down with the kings and the nobles of the land — aye,
even in Poet's corner? He found a grave, however, in the
churchyard of St Paul, Covent Garden. A very few persons
followed him to his last resting-place, and made a procession,
the shivering smallness of which might almost have provoked
a shout of laughter from within the coifin of the great comic
writer they were committing to the dust. His grave he had
desired to be deep, as if wishing a quantum sufficit of earth,
since no other landed property was, or ever had been his;
and there, six feet deep, at the west end of the churchyard,
Dr Patrick, afterwards Bishop of Ely, reading the funeral
service, Butler was buried. It was forty years afterwards
ere Mr Barber, Mayor of London, erected the monument to
his memory in Westminster Abbey, and carved an inscription
which proves that he was actuated to the deed as much by
admiration of Butler's principles as of his poetry. The
parishioners of the Church of St "Paul, too, testified their
respect for his memory, by erecting him a monument on the
south side of that church in 1786.

He is reported to have been in private, a worthy, honest,
and modest man. Like Addison, it required the key of the
grape to unlock the treasures of his wit and wisdom;
although he never, like Addison, became intoxicated. One
who dined with him at a tavern, found him dming the first
bottle, very flat and heavy ; during the second, extremely
lively, witty, and altogether delightful; and after the
third, although not drunk, so heavy and stupid, that it


required a strong act of faith to believe him the author of
"Hudibras," He compared him accordingly to a nine-pin,
little at both ends, but great in the middle. Dr Johnson's
words are striking, " In this mist of obscurity passed the life
of Butler, a man whose name can only perish with the
language. The date of his birth is doubtful; the mode and
place of his education are unknown ; the events of his life are
variously narrated, and all that can be told with certainty
is that he was poor."

In this he resembled Burns, as well as in some other traits
of his character and genius. Like him, he was the wittiest
of men. Like him, he loved to warm himself with wine.
Like him, he arose instantly into fame. And like him, the
bright tropical morning was soon overcast, and so continued
till after death. The wittiest and most gifted man in Scotland
was sent by his noble patrons and his grateful country to
gauge ale-firkins, quarrel with supervisors, and measm'e the
longitude and latitude of tallow candles, at a salary of £70
a year. The wittiest man in England was handed over
by the king and courtiers — to the maintenance of whose
worthless ascendancy he had sacrificed his whole genius — to
the tender mercies of bailiffs, and to all the ills of which
poverty is ever the legal heir. Burns, however, was in one
point happier than Butler. His fierier temperament and
stronger passions conducted him to an earlier grave; and, in
another point, he was happier still — having written, not for a
party, but for a people ; his popularity has been of a far
more enviable kind, and promises to be more enduring.

As soon as Burns was dead, his country's concealed and
crushed love for him burst out in various ways : in new
editions of his works — in subscriptions for his widow — and
in the ascription to him of poems and songs which he never
wrote. This mark of respect, at least, was speedily paid to
Butler's memory also. Three small volumes of his " Remains "
in verse and poetry appeared ; but all of them were spurious,
except some lines on Duval, a noted highwayman, and two
or three prose fragments of little moment or merit. Mr
Thyer, a keeper of a public library in Manchester, and a


contemporary of Johnson and Warburton, published in 1759
a collection of "Remains," in two large volumes, of prose and
verse, undoubtedly genuine, which are now included in his
works. He had obtained them through the descendants of
Mr Longueville, Butler's friend. He told Dr Johnson that
he had in his possession the common-place book of the poet,
containing Hudibras in germ — the greatest part of those witty
remarks and pithy apothegms which were afterwards to be
worked into the tissue of the poems, noted down in prose.
But it, and some other unpublished productions — such as a
French Dictionary, and part of a Tragedy on Nero, which are
said to have been seen by Bishop Atterbury — seem now
irrecoverably lost, and though they were found, would pro-
bably be of very little value. Since, imitations of " Hudibras,"
too numerous to be recounted, have proved its great

Such is really all we can tell about Butler himself, unless
it be to add, that, according to Aubrey, " he was of a middle
stature, strong-set, high-coloured, with a head of sorrel hair,
a good fellow, and latterly much troubled with the gout."
We pass to speak of his genius and writings.

Aubrey, in the passage we have just quoted, calls him a
man of a " severe and sound judgment," and says that he
showed it by the great disdain he felt for the poetiy of Waller.
No reader of " Hudibras," or his other productions, can doubt
that honest Aubrey is in this correct. Butler had one of the
sharpest and most sagacious of intellects — an intellect which,
if not much conversant either with the heights or the depths
of ideal and metaphysical thought, pierced far below the sur-
faces, and saw most distinctly the angles and edges of things.
His mind had all that brawny commonsense, that natural in-
evitable insight which distinguished Swift, Cobbett, and
Burns. What a number of strong pointed sentences — notice-
able still more for their truth and sense, than for their wit —
could be picked out from his writings in proof of this ! We
have often had occasion to remark, that if a man happen to
possess one mental quality in great abundance, the world in
its haste, and the ordinary fry of critics in their conceit, imme-


diately proceed to deny him every other, or to derogate from
the quality of those they are obliged to concede. This has
been very much the case with Butler. Wit being his most
singular, has been called his sole property — for his enormous
learning, of course, is only held to prove his diligence ! Now,
in fact, Butler had some other qualities, higher in value, if
not so wonderful in vastness, as his wit. He had, as we have
asserted above, much home-spun^ clear-sighted, practical wis-
dom. But he had also, we intend to prove, not a little of the
real vis-vivida — the fire, fancy, and inspiration of a poet.
Some authors have wit and imagination in nearly equal quanti-
ties, and it is their temjperament^ or circumstances, or creed,
which decides the question, which of the two they shall spe-
cially use or cultivate. Had Butler been a Puritan, instead
of a Cavalier, he could have indited noble, serious poetry. As
it is, he has interspersed, amid the profuse wit and ridicule of
" Hudibras," some exquisite touches of grave poetry — touches
sometimes as delicate as they are few — always as striking in
efiect as they are brief in the time of execution. Take the
picture of Bruin, in all its shaggy, pictm*esque perfection.
Laugh at him, if ye dare !

" The gallant Bruin marcli'd next him,
With visage formidably grim,
And rugged as a Saracen,
Or Turk of Mahomet's own kin,
Clad in a mantle della guerre,
Of rough impenetrable fur ;
And in his nose, like Indian king,
He wore for ornament a ring ;
About bis neck a threefold gorget.
As rough as trebled leathern target ;
Armed, as heralds, cant and langued,
Or, as the vulgar say, sharp-fanged."

Or hear this fine love-flourish, which ought to have been

" The sun and day shall sooner part,
Than love or you shake off my heart.
The sun, that shall no more dispense
His own, but your bright influence.


I'll carve your name on barks of trees,
With true love-knots and flourishes,
That shall infuse eternal spring
And everlasting flourishing :
Where'er you tread, your foot shall set
The primrose and the violet ;
Nature her charter shall renew.
And take all hves of things from you."

Why, this might have come from the fair Eosalind, in the
Forest of Arden, and sounds softly as an enamoured wave
breaking in whispers upon a shore of silver sand !
We give only two others.

" For as we see th' eclipsed sun
By mortals is more gazed upon,
Than when, adorn'd with all his light,
He shines in serene sky most bright ;
So valour in a low estate
Is. most admired and wonder'd at."

The second makes Warburton (not the warmest of critics)
break out into a rapture —

" The moon puU'd ofi" her veil of light,
That hides her face by day from sight,
{Mysterious veil, of brightness made,
That '5 hoth her lustre and her shade),
And in the lanthom of the night.
With shining horns, hung out her light ;
For darkness is the proper sphere
Where aU false glories used t' appear."

The reader will notice, too, that all his descriptions of
battles, all his similes, and all his single serious lines, are
amazingly spirited, and were they severed from the ludicrous
context, would produce the effects of high poetry. Through
his smaller productions, too, such as his " Lines on Drunken-
ness," on " Plagiarism," and on " The Abuse of Human
Learning," we find scattered not a little genuine and manly
poetry. " Hudibras " has incomparably less imagination
than " Don Juan ; " it has much more than Swift's poetry
or prose. But Butler resembles these two writers in this —
that he is constantly jerking us down fi'om rather lofty and


imaginative heights, to the meanest and most laughable con-
ceptions. All burlesque writers, of course, try this — it is one
essential part of their art ; hut few have done it so quietly,
yet quickly, with such invisible art and magical dexterity, as
the three we have thus classed together. They go to their
work of burlesque with as much determination as if it were
the most important work in the world. They lose no oppor-
tunity of interjecting low and ludicrous images. They never
spare their own finest passages, but dash in, without remorse,
some odd incongruity or coarse word, which damages their
serious effect, and secures their ludicrous triumph. Thus
Byron closes his powerful picture of the ship's crew escaping
from the wreck with the lines —

" They grieved for those that perish'd with the cutter —
And also for the biscuit casks, and butter."

And thus — to name one out of a thousand examples —
Butler, at the close of the passage formerly quoted about
love, says —

" Only our loves shall stiU survive,
New worlds and natures to outUve ;
And, like to herald's moons, remain
All crescents, without change or wane."

One main feature, we repeat, of burlesque poetry, un-
doubtedly lies in this merciless mangling of its own beautiful
creations. But when the creations are, as sometimes with
Butler, and often with Byron, consummately fine, we feel
regret that the necessities of their plan compel them to such a
sacrifice — and think of a Hercules degrading himself into a

Of the three, Butler has much less humour, but incom-
parably more wit. The odd analogies, the quaint quirks of
fancy, the images, brought from such distant and opposite
regions, to confront each other, and wonder how they ever
came to meet — the jumble of all sublime and all ridiculous,
all lofty and all low objects and ideas, in Hudibras are
amazing, and remind you of what the great Sydenham Exhi-
bition would become, were an earthquake, without swallowing


it up, shaking it into confusion, intermixing the plants of the
tropics with those of the Arctic circle, marrying the sable and
the sloth, the Polar bear and the hippopotamus, and clothing
the marbles of Italian statuary with the plaids and philabegs
of Caledonia. Who, even while mourning over such a cha-
otic ruin, as a whole, would not be forced to laugh " loud
laughters three " over the queer details of the catastrophe — a
catastrophe which the all-learned and all-laughing genius of
Butler has symbolized in his poem. Hudibras is an Ency-
clopsedia turned topsy-turvy — a large joking Geography — a
Universal History, first reduced to its component parts, and
then bound up again in the oddest possible style, and with all
its pages awry. Butler says of his hero —

" He could not ope
His moutli, but out there flew a trope."

It is a faithful description of the mock epic, as well as of its
mock hero. But the tropes, too, are generally mock tropes.
To all his classical allusions, to all his scholastic learning, to

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerThe poetical works of Samuel Butler (Volume v. 1) → online text (page 1 of 16)