The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 9. Hudibras and its Models
Hudibras may be described as a mock-heroic poem dealing with the pretensions and hypocrisies of the presbyterians, independents and other sects which were subversive of the monarchy at the time of the great rebellion. Though it was not published till after the restoration of Charles II, Butler’s sympathies were ardently royalist; but his pen, so far as we know, was engaged only fitfully in support of his convictions. His object in putting together in a considerable poem an account of the events and opinions which he had quietly recorded during the convulsive struggles of the nation must have been to ingratiate himself with the king after his return. The impelling motive may well have been poverty, together with the desire of fame.
The first known attempt at mock-heroic poetry was Batrachomyomachia, or the battle between frogs and mice, a burlesque on the Iliad, at one time absurdly attributed to Homer. Butler, of course, was acquainted with this poem, and wittily parodies title and subject in his Cynarctomachy, or Battle between Bear and Dogs. He was probably influenced, also, by Skelton, who, although a man of learning, attacked cardinal Wolsey and the clergy in short rimes of “convivial coarseness and boisterous vigour.” But Butler’s model in style, to a very great extent, must have been Scarron, almost an exact contemporary, whose Virgile travesti was published in 1648–52; so Butler, who was versed in French literature, could easily adopt the salient features of this poem in Hudibras, which was not published till 1663. On the other side, Scarron shows acquaintance with English affairs, e.g. in the following couplet:
The name “Hudibras” is derived from The Faerie Queene (11, 2, 17), and the setting of the poem is obviously imitated from Don Quixote, save that the imitation is a complete reversal of the attitude of the original. Cervantes treats the vanishing chivalry of Spain in a gentle and affectionate spirit, while showing the impossibility of its continuance in the changed conditions of life. In Don Quixote, every element of grandeur and nobility is attributed to the most ordinary and meanest person, building, incident or surrounding; an inn is a castle, an inn-keeper a knight, flocks of sheep are armies; a barber’s basin is a golden helmet in the vivid imagination of the knight; a mess of acorns set before him prompts a discourse full of regret at the passing away of the Golden Age, when Nature herself provided simple, wholesome fare for all, without necessity for resorting to force or fraud; and justice prevails throughout. Notwithstanding the absurdity and impossibility of this revival, the reader’s sympathy is ever on the side of the chivalric madman, even in his wildest extravagance. In Hudibras, on the contrary, the “blasoning” or description of the knight and squire, while following the most accredited forms of chivalric romance, serves only to set forth the odious squalor of the modern surroundings. The knight’s mental qualifications are given in great detail and, after that, his bodily accomplishments—all in a vein of satirical exaggeration. Butler’s purpose is to show everything in its vilest aspect. Instead of making common affairs noble in appearance, the poem reveals the boastful pretensions of the puritan knight by describing both his equipment and that of his squire squalid and beggarly, while his purpose is, not to excite pity for the poverty and wretchedness of these pitiful champions, but to provoke contempt for the disgusting condition of the wretched pair and to bring down further odium upon it. It is genre painting with a vengeance, and fully realises the account given by Pliny of the art of Piraeicus: “He painted barbers’ shops and cobblers’ stalls, asses and dishes of food, and the like, thus getting the name of ‘painter of low life’; ([char]) and giving the highest pleasure by such representations.” Our own Morland and Hogarth well answer such a description, and we are fortunate in possessing illustrations of Hudibras designed by the latter. The sympathy between the painter and the poet must have been complete.
That Hudibras going forth “a colonelling” is intended to represent Sir Samuel Luke is made pretty clear by the speech:
All this is adapted from Cervantes or Rabelais, who themselves parodied the chivalric romances in the apparelling and blasoning of their heroes: in the same vein, Butler goes on to describe the steed and the squire. The horse was mealymouthed, blind of one eye, like the mare of Rabelais’s Catchpole, and wall-eyed of the other; there are also reminiscences of Rosinante and of Gargantua’s mare. It was of a grave, majestic pace, and is compared with Caesar’s horse, which would stoop to take up its rider, while this one stooped to throw Hudibras. The saddle was old and worn through, and the horse’s tail so long and bedraggled that it was only serviceable for swishing mire on the rider.
Ralpho the squire is an independent, with a touch of the anabaptist, despising booklore and professing to be learned for salvation by means of “gifts” or “new-light,” in the phraseology of those sects. Here comes in a loan from Rabelais in the account of Ralpho’s mystic learning. Her Trippa in Pantagruel is based on Henricus Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, author of De Occulta Philosophia; these writers and Pythagorean numbers are employed in the description of the squire’s accomplishments in quack astrology and almanac writing. Ralpho is a tailor and, like Aeneas and Dante, has seen “hell”—a sartorial term of the age, meaning a receptacle for shreds and scraps.