Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Samuel Butler (16121680)
[Samuel Butler was born in 1612 and died in 1680. The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler, Author of Hudibras, were published in 1759 by R. Thyer, Keeper of the Public Library at Manchester. Less than half of the two volumes is in verse; the remainder, in prose, consists of a few tracts, principally of political satire and controversy, a series of Characters belonging to the same class of writing as Sir Thomas Overburys and Earles Microcosmography, and a few selections from Butlers commonplace-books. The editor had manuscript authority for most, not all, of the contents of his book, and the British Museum possesses some of the manuscript sources in Butlers own hand, and some of Mr. Thyers transcripts. Of these MSS. a considerable portion remains unedited: sixty-six characters transcribed but not sent to the press,one of them being the character of a publisher,and a great quantity of miscellaneous notes, for which Butler himself has provided headings, Learning and Knowledge, Religion, Reason, Opinion, Nature, History (with a notice of the Kingdom of Yvetot), Princes and Governments, Contradictions. The last, with Inconsistent Opinions, is a favourite theme. Of the series of Characters there are four in the authors hand, written out fair, numbered and paged, with English headings in Greek letters; Bankrupt, numbered 202, paged 237, dated 6th October 67; War, 206, 13th October 67; Horse-courser, 204, 8th October 67; Churchwarden, 203, 8th October 67. At least twenty of these essays seem to have been lost. The character of an Hector is here printed from the MS. (Add. 32,626); the other three are from the Remains.]
HUDIBRAS contains the essence of Butlers studies; the ingredients of his satire are to be found in his prose collections;1 his prose essays refer, sometimes explicitly, to the work by which he had made his name. But though Hudibras is Butlers masterpiece, it does not reveal the whole of his mind. In Hudibras things are finished and pointed; but much of the authors life was spent in what he is fond of calling owl-light, and in a mood too sore to be contented with epigram. The resemblance between Butler and Swift, which is not marked in Hudibras, comes out strongly in Butlers prose. It is not only that both Butler and Swift are disposed to take the claims of modern science rather lightly, or to parody Boyles Meditations. The resemblance is deeper than that; it lies in their common devotion to an ideal of a reasonable life, free from exaggeration; in their want of mercy for confusion of thought, and disproportion in studies, for the pretentions of philosophers and theologians, for the enthusiasms of the dunce, and the infallibility of the churl. Butler is not hopeful: he loses his good spirits when he takes off the mask of Harlequin. In religion and the civil life the wisest and ablest are fain to comply and submit to the weakest and most ignorant for their own quiet and convenience. And all the business of the world is but diversion, and all the happiness in it than mankind is capable of, anything that will keep it from reflecting upon the misery, vanity, and nonsense of it; and whoever can by any trick keep himself from thinking of it, is as wise and happy as the best man in it.
In so far as this temper is to be found in the prose fragments, they are the complement of Hudibras, and a better document for the interpretation of Butlers mind. Hudibras is too glaring, and cannot express the simpler ideas of Butler. His ruling and characteristic ideas are generally quite simple and unaffected, and the chief of them is an admiration of simplicity and of good sense. Together with that, there is the conviction of the rarity of good sense, and the impression that the ways of the world are generally extravagant. This age will serve to make a very pretty farce for the next, if it have any wit to make use of it. The satire and the fancy of Butler are to be found in Hudibras, but his irony and the sublimer form of contempt are in his prose.
The Characters are very various, some of them commonplace, and not in any striking way distinguishable from the common form in this kind of writing. Some of them, however, are drawn from the life, and touched off with all the skill of the master of surprises and strange analogies. One is an undisguised portrait of A Duke of Bucks: this is the prose counterpart of the character of Zimri. He endures pleasures with less patience than other men do their pains. The character of a small poet has some general traits in it:he calls a slovenly nasty description great Nature, and dull flatness strange easiness. It is meant, however, as the author is at no trouble to hide, for Edward Benlowes. The Rosicrucian philosophers are portrayed with equal care, and with much less ill-will: they are now carrying on a thorough Reformation in the celestial worldthey have repaired the old spheres, that were worn as thin as a cob-web, and fastened the stars in them with a screw, by which means they may be taken off and put on again at pleasure. Among the more general descriptions there are not wanting strokes as cutting as the jerk of the rhymes of Hudibras. As in the account of the Ranter:he is a monster produced by the madness of this latter age, but if it had been his fate to have been whelpd in old Rome, he had past for a prodigy, and had been received among raining of stones and the speaking of bulls, and would have put a stop to all public affairs until he had been expiated. In the more conventional characters it is not infrequent to come upon pieces of wit like this variation on the old theme of the moralistspride in clotheshis soul dwells in the outside of him, like that of a hollow treea figure that is poetically right, and imaginative.
The style of the Characters was fixed by tradition when Butler wrote, and he does not reject the established form, except occasionally in the greater length of some of his essays, and in the personal references. Of his other writings many are burlesque or mock-heroicthe Speech made at the Rota, John Audlands Letter to William Prynne, and William Prynnes to John Audland, and the Occasional Reflection on Dr. Charltons Feeling a Dogs Pulse at Gresham College, by R. B., Esq. The Two Speeches made in the Rump Parliament, when it was restored by the Officers of the Army in the year 1659, are more serious arguments, in which the Presbyterians and the Independents are made dramatically to annihilate one another. In The Royal Martyr vindicated against John Cook, and several others, Pains-takers in the Mysteries of Rebellion, Butler uses the common weapons of serious controversy.
Note 1. I am informed by Mr. Thyer of Manchester, the excellent editor of this authors reliques, that he could show something like Hudibras in prose. He has in his possession the commonplace-book, in which Butler reposited, not such events or precepts as are gathered by reading, but such remarks, similitudes, allusions, assemblages, or influences, as occasion prompted, or meditation produced; those thoughts that were generated in his own mind, and might be usefully applied to some future purpose. Such is the labour of those who write for immortality.JOHNSON: Life of Butler. [back]