Samuel Butler (or Boteler), (1612-1680), English poet, author of Hudibras, son of Samuel Butler, a small farmer, was baptized at Strensham, Worcestershire, on the 8th of February 1612. He was educated at the King's school, Worcester, under Henry Bright, the record of whose zeal as a teacher is preserved by Fuller (Worthies, Worcestershire). After leaving school he served a Mr Jeffereys of Earl's Croome, Worcestershire, in the capacity of justice's clerk, and is supposed to have thus gained his 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." He was then recommended to Elizabeth, countess of Kent. At her home at Wrest, Bedfordshire, he had access to a good library, and there too he met Selden, who sometimes employed him as his secretary. But his third sojourn, with Sir Samuel Luke at Cople Hoo, Bedfordshire, was not only apparently the longest, but also much the most important in its effects on his career and works.
We are nowhere informed in what capacity Butler served Sir Samuel Luke, or how he 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 Presbyterian, "a colonel in the army of the Parliament, scoutmaster-general for Bedfordshire and governor of Newport Pagnell," Butler must have had the most abundant opportunities of studying from the life those who were to be the victims of his satire; he is supposed to have taken some hints for his caricature from Sir Henry Rosewell of Ford Abbey, Devonshire. But we know nothing positive of him until the Restoration, when he was appointed secretary to Richard Vaughan, 2nd earl of Carbery, lord president of the principality of Wales, who made him steward of Ludlow Castle, an office which he held from January 1661 to January 1662. About this time he married a rich lady, variously described as a Miss Herbert and as a widow named Morgan. His wife's fortune was afterwards, however, lost.
Early in 1663 Hudibras: The First Part: written in the Time of the Late Wars, was published, but this, the first genuine edition, had been preceded in 1662 by an unauthorized one. On the 26th of December Pepys bought it, and though neither then nor afterwards could he see the wit of "so silly an abuse of the Presbyter knight going to the wars," he repeatedly testifies to its extraordinary popularity. A spurious second part appeared within the year. This determined the poet to bring out the second part (licensed on the 7th of November 1663, printed 1664), 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 of Butler. On the publication of Hudibras he was sent for by Lord Chancellor Hyde (Clarendon), says Aubrey, and received many promises, none of which was fulfilled. He is said to have received a gift of £300 from Charles II., and to have been secretary to George Villiers, 2nd duke of 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.
Butler's satire on Buckingham in his Characters (Remains, 1759) shows such an intimate knowledge that it is probable the second story is true. Two years after the publication of the third part of Hudibras he died, on the 25th of September 1680, and was buried by his friend 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." A portrait by Lely at Oxford and others elsewhere represent him as somewhat hard-featured.
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, that Butler's actual service 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 - Charles 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 notes on the subject are Aubrey's, that "he might have had preferments at first, but would not accept any but very good, so at last he had none at all, and died in want"; and the memorandum of the same author, that "satirical wits disoblige whom they converse with, etc., consequently make to themselves many enemies and few friends, and this was his manner and case."
Three monuments have been erected to the poet's memory - the first in Westminster Abbey in 1721, by John Barber, mayor of London, who is spitefully referred to by Pope for daring to connect his name with Butler's. In 1786 a tablet was placed in St Paul's, Covent Garden, by residents of the parish. This was destroyed in 1845. Later, another was set up at Strensham by John Taylor of that place. Perhaps the happiest epitaph on him is one by John Dennis, which calls Butler "a whole species of poets in one."
Hudibras itself, though probably quoted as often as ever, has dropped into the class of books which are more quoted than read. In reading it, it is of the utmost importance to comprehend clearly and to bear constantly in mind the purpose of the author in writing 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 unconnected, - meanwhile to subject the principles and manners of which these characters were the incarnation to ceaseless satire and raillery. The triumphant solution of the problem 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; throughout we have little really kept before us but the sordid vices of the sectaries, their hypocrisy, their churlish ungraciousness, 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 doggerel metre, never heavy or coarse, but framed 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 Rosewell 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 Ménippée have been noticed by Voltaire, and though English writers have sometimes ignored or questioned them, are not to be doubted. The art, perhaps the most terrible of all the weapons of satire, of making characters without any great violation of probability represent themselves 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, is the tendency to delineate humours instead of characters, and to draw from the outside rather than from within.
Attempts have been made to trace the manner and versification of Hudibras to earlier writers, especially in Cleveland's satires and in the Musarum Deliciae of Sir John Mennis (Pepys's Minnes) and Dr James Smith (1605-1667). But if it had few ancestors it had an abundant offspring. A list of twenty-seven direct imitations of Hudibras in the course of a century may be found in the Aldine edition (1893). Complete translations of considerable excellence have been made into French (London, 1757 and 1819) by John Townley (1697-1782), a member of the Irish Brigade; and into German by D.W. Soltau (Riga, 1787); specimens of both may be found in R. Bell's edition. Voltaire tried his hand at a compressed version, but not with happy results.