Samuel Butler And 'Hudibras'
by Ian Jack Lecturer in English, the University of Cambridge (1957) (From Literary Criticism)

Nor is the world so well understood by observation of the little Good that is in it, as the Prodigious variety of Wickednes Folly and Madnes with which it is Possest. (Samuel Butler: Characters and Passages from Note-books, p. 344)

Butler took the name of his hero from Spenser, and his great comedy cannot be understood without glancing back to The Faerie Queene. In Book II, which is concerned with Temperaunce, Sir Guyon reaches a castle inhabited by three sisters. The youngest loves pleasure, the second moderation, while the third is a sour hater of all delights. Sir Hudibras, who is contrasted with Sans-loy, the wooer of the younger sister, makes his suit to the eldest. In a stanza which throws a great deal of light on Hudibras, he is described as 'an hardy man',

Yet not so good of deeds, as great of name,
Which he by many rash adventures wan,
Since errant armes to sew he first began;
More huge in strength, then wise in workes he was,
And reason with foole-hardize ouer ran;
Sterne melancholy did his courage pass,
And was for terror more, all armed in shining brass.—(II, ii, st. 17.)

Butler's Hudibras resembles Spenser's in being more famous than he deserves, in having more strength than wisdom, and in being inspired less by true courage than by 'melancholy' (in this context, madness). But by giving his hero this name Butler does not only indicate the main traits of his character: he also states his own attitude to the civil wars and the discontents which led up to them. The suggestion is that the Royalists, or the more extreme among them, bear an affinity to the youngest daughter Perissa and her lover Sans-loy; that the Parliamentary Party may be similarly compared to the eldest daughter and her wooer Hudibras; while the poet himself, and all moderate men, support the 'great rule of Temp'raunce'.

The title is not the only thing about Hudibras which reminds one of The Faerie Queene. In its whole conception and organization Butler's poem has affinities with Spenser's. The parallel between the adventures of Sir Hudibras and those of the hero of each of the Books of The Faerie Queene must have been deliberate. Like one of Spenser's knights, Butler's hero is involved in continual disputes and adventures, and woos a lady. But in all his endeavours he is an un-Spenserian failure.

The fact that Butler was familiar with the Renaissance doctrine of the heroic poem has a bearing on Hudibras which is frequently overlooked. Butler knew as well as Spenser or Milton that an allegorical meaning was expected in any long poem, and in fact Hudibras has something of the same complexity as The Faerie Queene. The strong element of the roman à clef has always been recognized; and there is no doubt that the poem was intended to embody a complicated allegory. As each of Spenser's knights represents one of the cardinal virtues, or the striving for that virtue, so Sir Hudibras represents one of the basic vices. John Dennis suggested that Hudibras is a satire on hypocrisy. Sir Hudibras is Hypocrisy embodied. Near the beginning of the poem the reader is told that 'Hipocrisie and Non-sence' are in control of Sir Hudibras's conscience; hypocrisy is satirized with particular intensity throughout; and in the brilliant passage, parodying the confessional dialogues and self-communings of the Dissenters, in which Ralpho scares Hudibras into thinking him a supernatural 'Voice', he asks him point-blank:

Why didst thou chuse that cursed Sin,
Hypocrisie, to set up in?

To which the knight replies, without demur:

Because it is the thriving'st Calling,
The onely Saints-Bell that rings all in. —(III, i, 1221-1224.)

Throughout Hudibras great emphasis is laid on the difference between profession and performance, outer seeming and inner reality. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in this poem every species of human folly and crime is represented as a species of hypocrisy.

Although political satire is the most obvious 'end' of Hudibras, therefore, Hazlitt was right when he remarked that Butler

'could not, in spite of himself, narrow his mind
And to party give up what was meant for mankind'.

There are many passages where Butler makes no pretence to be limiting his satire to a political party, but attacks lawyers, women, the Royal Society, and pedantry of every kind. If Hudibras had been completed it seems likely that every type represented in Butler's prose 'Characters' would have found its niche in a comprehensive 'Anatomy of Melancholy'.

In giving his satire this wide scope Butler was following the tradition of such books as Barclay's Ship of Fools and the Encomium Moriae of Erasmus. Another writer whose work may have encouraged Butler to widen the scope of his satire was Jonson, for whom he had a great admiration. As in Volpone and The Alchemist, Jonson's main satire against greed is accompanied and enriched by incidental attacks on other species of folly and sin, so in Hudibras hypocrisy is only the principal target.

Butler in general ridicules not persons, but things', said Hazlitt, 'not a party, but their principles, which may belong, as time and occasion serve, to one set of solemn pretenders or another'.

Because Butler was a man of genius, what began as a political burlesque ended as what Dennis truly called a very just satire.

No passage in Hudibras is more familiar than that in which Butler ridicules his hero's addiction to rhetoric:

For Rhetoricke he could not ope
His mouth, but out there flew a Trope:
And when he hapned to break off
I' th' middle of his speech, or cough,
H' had hard words, ready to shew why,
And tell what Rules he did it by.—(I, i, 81-86.)

Such satire was thoroughly conventional: one has only to turn to Erasmus to find all the charges that Butler brings against rhetorical pedantry brilliantly deployed by the greatest of all the humanists. What is satirized is not rhetoric itself but the pedantic affectation of rhetoric, fine words and elaborate figures out of season. It would be a serious mistake to suppose that Butler is here rebelling against old attitudes; and it would be equally false to imagine, from his satire on rhetoric, that he himself had no use for it. What Butler wrote of Sprat —

'The Historian of Gresham Colledge, Indevors to Cry down Oratory and Declamation, while He uses nothing else' (Characters, p. 424)

— is equally true of himself. The point is important because the modern reader, knowing little of decorum and the accepted 'kinds', has a natural tendency to regard Hudibras as inspired doggerel and its author as a literary jester who knew no other way of writing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Butler's other works make it clear that Sir William Temple's description of Rabelais as 'a Man of Excellent and Universal Learning as well at Wit' is no less applicable to him.

It follows that Butler's choice of verse and style was deliberate. The limited value of metrical notations appears in the fact that the same name must be given to the metre of Hudibras as to that of Marvell's To his Coy Mistress and The Garden, as well as many parts of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. Like the iambic pentameter, the tetrameter is endlessly adaptable: it is the use that Butler makes of it, the tune that he plays on it, that is significant. What is particularly remarkable is the rushing vigour of Hudibras, the unfailing energy of the verse.

Butler's metre cannot usefully be considered in isolation from the other aspects of his idiom, for there is a perfect partnership between his versification and his diction. Even if the verse itself were what is misleadingly termed 'heroic' (iambic pentameters rhyming in pairs), any serious attempt at the 'harmonious numbers' appropriate to heroic verse in the full sense would be ludicrously out of place as an accompaniment to the prosaic diction which is Butler's chosen medium. For this reason Dryden's censure of the metre of Hudibras must be read rather as a reflection of his own choice of a suitable metre for satire than as impartial literary criticism.

The characteristic mode of satire in Hudibras is that of describing everything in the most undignified manner possible. Satire and the sympathetic feelings are absolutely incompatible. Butler's aim is to kill any sympathy which the reader may feel for the subject of his satire, moving him instead to amusement and contempt. There is nothing indirect in the working of the satire. The method is that of straightforward 'diminution': the reader is told that the quarrels which led to the civil war were of no more account than a brawl for a whore, and his acceptance of this view is made inevitable (at least temporarily) by the fact that the whole affair is described in an idiom which ridicules everything it touches. Butler's subject is as different as possible from that of the romantic epic poet. Instead of Ariosto's

Le donne, i cavallier, I'arme, gli amori,
Le cortesie, l'audaci imprese,

he is concerned with light wenches and prudish viragos, costermongers and fanatics, rudeness in every sense and of every kind. And his style is equally remote from that of heroic verse. The elementary principle on which he works is that while many people might sympathize with a crowd, no one cares to take sides with a rout. The essence of low satire could not be more simple.

All has not been said of what Johnson called the 'original and peculiar' diction of Hudibras when it has been assigned to the category of low style. It is remarkably varied. The second paragraph of the poem, for example, introduces a new element, that of parody:

A Wight he was, whose very sight wou'd
Entitle him Mirror of Knighthood;
That never bent his stubborn knee
To any thing but Chivalry. (I, i, 15-18 —(my italics).)

This element of literary satire demands modifications of style which enhance the variety of the poem.

The critical attitude which inspires the parodies in Hudibras is precisely that which one would expect of Butler, an Augustan conservatism looking back to classical models and suspicious of innovation. The principal targets are such writers of 'romantic' epics as Ariosto, Spenser, and Davenant. Other unclassical genres which are parodied include the ballad, the metrical romance of the Middle Ages, which survived among humble readers during the seventeenth century, and the prose heroic romances so popular in France and England during Butler's lifetime. Although Butler has his fling at modern translators, the great classical epics themselves are parodied comparatively seldom.

The literary satire which finds expression in perpetual 'allusions' throughout Hudibras is only one aspect of a comprehensive critique of the uses and abuses of the English language. No less than Rabelais or James Joyce, Butler was a fascinated student of language. Odd words interested him as much as odd ideas. It would not be hard to imagine him spending an evening with Robert Burton listening to the swearing of the bargees at Folly Bridge. It may be that he had no need to go out of his way to find freaks of language. If there is any truth in the tradition that he was at one time secretary to Sir Samuel Luke, he must have had every opportunity of hearing the latest in cant terms. Perhaps he used some of his numerous notebooks for recording the words he heard. With an intense satiric mastery he culled the language of sectarians and pedants of every sort. Hudibras became the receptacle of this wealth of strange words; as a result it has a greater variety of idiom than any other poem in the language.

Yet it would be quite wrong to think of Butler simply as an enthusiast for odd words. He lived in an age of linguistic flux when the native genius of 'the finest of the vernacular tongues' seemed to many good judges to be in peril. Sprat complained that the language had

'receiv'd many fantastical terms, which were introduced by our Religious Sects ... and Translators' (History of the Royal Society, p. 42).

Dryden returned to this subject time and time again.

'I have endeavoured to write English', he wrote in his first considerable critical essay, which appeared in the same year as the Second Part of Hudibras, 'as near as I could distinguish it from the tongue of pedants, and that of affected travellers. Only I am sorry, that (speaking so noble a language as we do) we have not a more certain measure of it, as they have in France.'

In this revival of the Renaissance zeal for ennobling the vernacular, Butler played his own part.

'That Barbarous Canting which those use who do not understand the sense and Propriety of a Language'

is continually a target of his satire.

'This Canting runs through all Professions and Sorts of men', Butler added, 'from the judge on the Bench to the Beggar in the Stocks' (Characters... p. 312);

and he laid all these sources under contribution for his great satire. His use of the special vocabularies of trades and professions may be regarded as a satirical footnote to the dispute about 'terms of art' which raged so fiercely from the early Renaissance onwards.

'The Tearms of all Arts are generally Nonsense', he wrote, 'that signify nothing, or very improperly what they are Meant to do, and are more Difficult to be learn'd then the things they are designed to teach' (Characters..., p. 445).

The cant of lawyers he found even more objectionable than that of astrologers; it is satirized in the language of the practitioner whom Sir Hudibras consults about his complicated affairs. He says that he can find his client plenty of 'Knights of the Post',

ne'er-do-wells who live
By letting out to hire, their Ears,
To Affidavit-Customers:
At inconsiderable values,
To serve for jury-men, or Tales,
Although retain'd in th' hardest matters,
Of Trustees, and Administrators. —(III, iii, 729-734.)

The affectation of legal terms by the half-educated so common among the Roundheads is unsparingly parodied in the speeches of Sir Hudibras, who delights to give authority to his pronouncements by a judicious smattering of the 'Barbarous French' and Latin of the law. His verbal habits are precisely those which John Eachard censured when he described

'a sort of Divines, who, if they but happen of an unlucky hard word all the week, ... think themselves not careful of their flock, if they lay it not up till Sunday, and bestow it amongst them, in their next preachment' (The Grounds, & Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy and Religion Enquired into, in Arber's English Garner, vii (1883), p. 268).

Like Eachard's preacher, the Knight disdains words 'such as the constable uses' as much as matter 'such as comes to the common market'.

While the diction of Hudibras is remarkably varied, it is the astonishing profusion of witty images that distinguishes it most sharply from the common run of burlesques. It is clear from the 'character' of A Small Poet and from numerous prose jottings that Butler was keenly interested in the analogical uses of language. Like Bacon's, indeed, his was

'a mind keenly sensitive to all analogies and affinities ... spreading as it were tentacles on all sides in quest of chance prey'.

If ever a man was haunted by 'the demon of analogy', it was he.

As one would expect, a very large number of the images in Hudibras are of the 'diminishing' sort characteristic of direct satire. The realistic bent of Butler's mind led him to fill his satire with imagery from the most commonplace objects of daily use, 'Out-of-fashion'd Cloaths', bowls, watches that go 'sometime too fast, sometime too slow', 'a Candle in the Socket', and beer 'by Thunder turn'd to Vineger'. He takes his choice from the familiar things of the farmyard and kitchen-hearth, children's games and men's employments. Images from animals are particularly common. Mahomet

Had Lights where better Eyes were blind,
As Pigs are said to see the Wind. —(III, ii, 1107-1108.),

The Rump Parliament

With new Reversions of nine Lives,
Starts up, and, like a Cat, revives. — (III, ii, 1629-30.)
We Dissenters — says one of them — have friends who
Are only Tools to our Intrigues,
And sit like Geese to hatch our Eggs. — (III, ii, 895-6.)


... All Religions flock together,
Like Tame, and Wild-Fowl of a Feather. — (III, ii, 1455-6.)

These are only a few of the animal-images from a single canto: to quote more would be tedious. What is remarkable is the effect that Butler achieves. By crowding his poem with similes from animals of 'low' associations like dogs, cats, pigs, and mice he gains an effect of homely caricature. The reader feels that no more is needed to demonstrate the folly of Butler's targets than reference to the store of common sense summed up in the nation's proverbs and homely sayings.

In creating this profusion of imagery Butler was again adapting to the purposes of his own satire a common practice of the Dissenters, who were accused, with justice, of being 'indiscreet and horrid Metaphor-mongers'.

'As for the common sort of people that are addicted to this sort of expression in their discourses', Eachard complained in 1670, 'away presently to both the Indies! rake heaven and earth! down to the bottom of the sea! then tumble over all Arts and Sciences! ransack all shops and warehouses! spare neither camp nor city, but that they will have them!'

Sir Hudibras's proud principle, never to speak 'to Man or Beast, in notions vulgarly exprest' (II, i, 157-8), inspires the speeches of many of Butler's characters: in nothing is its meaning more clearly illustrated than in their imagery.

As might be expected, it is not only the Dissenters whose verbal habits are parodied in the imagery of Hudibras. A connoisseur of folly in all its forms, Butler was equally amused by the extravagances of the poets of his day, and satirized their commonplace images:

Some with Arabian Spices strive
To embalm her cruelly alive;
Or season her, as French Cooks use
Their Haut-gusts, Buollies, or Ragusts;
Use her so barbarously ill,
To grind her Lips upon a Mill,
Until the Facet Doublet doth
Fit their Rhimes rather than her mouth;
Her mouth compar'd t' an Oyster's, with
A row of Pearl in't, stead of Teeth. — (II, i. 595-604.)

Of the prevalent fashions none interested Butler more than the different varieties of the Metaphysical idiom, now (in spite of numerous late appearances) past its hey-day. As he turned the pages of such poets as Donne and Cowley and of his friends Davenant and Cleveland, there was nothing that drew his attention more frequently than their bold juxtapositions of ideas. His own relation to the Metaphysical poets is never more evident than in some of his images:

His Body, that stupendious Frame,
Of all the World the Anagram,
Is of two equal parts compact
In Shape and Symmetry exact.
Of which the Left and Female side
Is to the Manly Right a Bride. — (III, i, 771-6.)

Butler was the first comic poet to invade the territory of Metaphysical verse and use with genius the spoils that he found there. More brilliantly than any previous poet, he used 'wit' for the purposes of low satire. As a result he occupies a distinctive place in the evolution of the idioms of English poetry in the later seventeenth century. Hudibras was one of the principal channels by which the 'wit' of the earlier part of the century was transmitted to the greatest of the Augustans.

Yet it would be a mistake to think of Butler too narrowly as a satirist. Dennis found

'a vivacity and purity in his Language, wherever it was fit it should be pure, that could proceed from nothing but from a generous Education, and from a happy Nature'

(my italics). Such a passage as this illustrates what Dennis meant:

For though out-number'd, overthrown,
And by the Fate of War run down;
Their Duty never was defeated,
Nor from their Oaths and Faith retreated.
For Loyalty is still the same,
Whether it win or lose the Game;
True as a Dial to the Sun,
Although it be not shin'd upon.
— (III, ii, 169-176.)

This is not 'high style', which would be out of place; but there are no cant terms in these lines, the diction is pure, and the image is handled with a remarkable felicity. The same is true of the Heroical Epistle of Hudibras to his Lady, which is not the work of a man completely unskilled in the mode of writing which it parodies. Indeed, Hudibras contains a number of passages that would lend distinction to any lyric of the age:

For as we see th' eclipsed Sun
By mortals is more gaz'd upon,
Than when adorn'd with all his light
He shines in Serene Sky most bright:
Sun So Valor in a low estate
Is most admir'd and wonder'd at. — (I, iii, 1051-6.)

No 'Caroline lyrist' could do better than this:

To bid me not to love,
Is to forbid my Pulse to move, — (II, i, 343-4.)

or excel this image, perhaps the finest of all:

Like Indian-Widows, gone to Bed
In Flaming Curtains to the Dead. — (III, i, 639-40.)

Such a simile reminds one for a moment that Butler was a younger contemporary of Henry King. Occasionally in reading him one hears the rhythms of the Caroline lyric resonant beneath the surface of the verse. A gift for epigram was not the only thing he had in common with Andrew Marvell.

In spite of the 'kinds' there was in the seventeenth century no such hard-and-fast distinction between 'poetry' (conceived of as a serious and, indeed, solemn thing) and 'light verse' as became a commonplace in the nineteenth century. As many of the love-poems of the time make clear, verse was a much subtler instrument then than it was later to become. A poet could modulate from one level of seriousness to another in a couplet, or within a single line. Satire and elegy, burlesque and 'the lyric note' were not always mutually exclusive. The best Augustan poetry retains something of this subtlety of tone. Butler's distinction is twofold. He took over a traditional manner of 'low' writing and used it with a brilliance and variety of effect which were new things, and which led Dennis to call him 'a whole Species of Poets in one'. And, secondly, he differed from earlier burlesque writers in using this amazing idiom 'with a just design, which was to expose Hypocrisie'. So doing, Butler was true to his own ideal of satire:

'A Satyr', he wrote, 'is a kinde of Knight Errant that goe's upon Adventures, to Relieve the Distressed Damsel Virtue, and Redeeme Honour out of Inchanted Castles, And opprest Truth, and Reason out of the Captivity of Gyants or Magitians' (Characters, p. 469).

By adapting burlesque to the fundamental requirement of decorum, a worthy and unifying 'end', Butler was able to write one of the greatest comic poems in the language.