Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

On the Hero of Hudibras; Butler Vindicated.

That great Original, the author of HUDIBRAS, has been recently censured for exposing to ridicule the Sir Samuel Luke, under whose roof he dwelt, in the grotesque character of his hero. The knowledge of the critic in our literary history is not curious; he appears to have advanced no further than to have taken up the first opinion he found; but this served for an attempt to blacken the moral character of BUTLER! “Having lived,” says our critic, “in the family of Sir Samuel Luke, one of Cromwell’s captains, at the very time he planned the Hudibras, of which he was pleased to make his kind and hospitable patron the hero. We defy the history of Whiggism to match this anecdote,”1 as if it could not be matched! Whigs and Tories are as like as two eggs when they are wits and satirists; their friends too often become their victims! If Sir Samuel resembled that renowned personification, the ridicule was legitimate and unavoidable when the poet had espoused his cause, and espoused it too from the purest motive — a detestation of political and fanatical hypocrisy.2 Comic satirists, whatever they may allege to the contrary, will always draw largely and most truly from their own circle. After all, it does not appear that Sir Samuel sat for Sir Hudibras; although from the hiatus still in the poem, at the end of Part I., Canto I., his name would accommodate both the metre and the rhyme. But who, said Warburton, ever compared a person to himself? Butler might aim a sly stroke at Sir Samuel by hinting to him how well he resembled Hudibras, but with a remarkable forbearance he has left posterity to settle the affair, which is certainly not worth their while. But Warburton tells, that a friend of Butler’s had declared the person was a Devonshire man — one Sir Harry Rosewell, of Ford Abbey, in that county. There is a curious life of our learned wit, in the great General Dictionary; the writer, probably Dr. Birch, made the most authentic researches, from the contemporaries of Butler or their descendants; and from Charles Longueville, the son of Butler’s great friend, he obtained much of the little we possess. The writer of this Life believes that Sir Samuel was the hero of Butler, and rests his evidence on the hiatus we have noticed; but with the candour which becomes the literary historian, he has added the following marginal note: “Whilst this sheet was at press, I was assured by Mr. Longueville, that Sir Samuel Luke is not the person ridiculed under the name of HUDIBRAS.”

It would be curious, after all, should the prototype of Hudibras turn out to be one of the heroes of “the Rolliad;” a circumstance which, had it been known to the copartnership of that comic epic, would have furnished a fine episode and a memorable hero to their line of descent. “When BUTLER wrote his Hudibras, one Coll. Rolle, a Devonshire man, lodged with him, and was exactly like his description of the Knight; whence it is highly probable, that it was this gentleman, and not Sir Samuel Luke, whose person he had in his eye. The reason that he gave for calling his poem Hudibras was, because the name of the old tutelar saint of Devonshire was Hugh de Bras.“ I find this in the Grubstreet Journal, January, 1731, a periodical paper conducted by two eminent literary physicians, under the appropriate names of Bavius and Mævius,3 and which for some time enlivened the town with the excellent design of ridiculing silly authors and stupid critics.

It is unquestionably proved, by the confession of several friends of Butler, that the prototype of Sir Hudibras was a Devonshire man; and if Sir Hugh de Bras be the old patron saint of Devonshire, (which however I cannot find in Prince’s or in Fuller’s Worthies,)4 this discovers the suggestion which led Butler to the name of his hero; burlesquing the new saint by pairing him with the chivalrous saint of the county; hence, like the Knight of old, did

Sir Knight abandon dwelling,

And out he rode a Colonelling!

This origin of the name is more appropriate to the character of the work than deriving it from the Sir Hudibras of Spenser, with whom there exists no similitude.

It is as honourable as it is extraordinary, that such was the celebrity of Hudibras, that the workman’s name was often confounded with the work itself; the poet was once better known under the name of HUDIBRAS than of BUTLER. Old Southern calls him “Hudibras Butler;” and if any one would read the most copious life we have of this great poet in the great General Dictionary, he must look for a name he is not accustomed to find among English authors — that of Hudibras! One fact is remarkable: that, like Cervantes, and unlike Rabelais and Sterne, Butler in his great work has not sent down to posterity a single passage of indecent ribaldry, though it was written amidst a court which would have got such by heart, and in an age in which such trash was certain of popularity.

We know little more of Butler than we do of Shakspeare and of Spenser! Longueville, the devoted friend of our poet, has unfortunately left no reminiscences of the departed genius whom he so intimately knew, and who bequeathed to Longueville the only legacy a neglected poet could leave — all his manuscripts; and to his care, though not to his spirit, we are indebted for Butler’s “Remains.” His friend attempted to bury him with the public honours he deserved, among the tombs of his brother-bards in Westminster Abbey; but he was compelled to consign the bard to an obscure burial-place in Paul’s, Covent Garden.5 Many years after, when Alderman Barber raised an inscription to the memory of Butler in Westminster Abbey, others were desirous of placing one over the poet’s humble gravestone. This probably excited some competition: and the following fine one, attributed to Dennis, has perhaps never been published. If it be Dennis’s, it must have been composed in one of his most lucid moments.

Near this place lies interred

The body of Mr. Samuel Butler,

Author of Hudibras.

He was a whole species of Poets in one!

Admirable in a Manner

In which no one else has been tolerable;

A Manner which began and ended in Him;

In which he knew no Guide,

And has found no Followers.6

To this too brief article I add a proof that that fanaticism which is branded by our immortal Butler can survive the castigation. Folly is sometimes immortal, as nonsense is sometimes irrefutable. Ancient follies revive, and men repeat the same unintelligible jargon: just as contagion keeps up the plague in Turkey by lying hid in some obscure corner, till it breaks out afresh. Recently we have seen a notable instance where one of the school to which we are alluding declares of Shakspeare that “it would have been happy if he had never been born, for that thousands will look back with incessant anguish on the guilty delight which the plays of Shakspeare ministered to them.”7 Such is the anathema of Shakspeare! We have another of Butler, in “An Historic Defence of Experimental Religion;” in which the author contends, that the best men have experienced the agency of the Holy Spirit in an immediate illumination from heaven. He furnishes his historic proofs by a list from Abel to Lady Huntingdon! The author of Hudibras is denounced, ”One Samuel Butler, a celebrated buffoon in the abandoned reign of Charles the Second, wrote a mock-heroic poem, in which he undertook to burlesque the pious puritan. He ridicules all the gracious promises by comparing the divine illumination to an ignis fatuus, and dark lantern of the spirit.”8 Such are the writers whose ascetic spirit is still descending among us from the monkery of the deserts, adding poignancy to the very ridicule they would annihilate. The satire which we deemed obsolete, we find still applicable to contemporaries!

The FIRST part of Hudibras is the most perfect; that was the rich fruit of matured meditation, of wit, of learning, and of leisure. A mind of the most original powers had been perpetually acted on by some of the most extraordinary events and persons of political and religious history. Butler had lived amidst scenes which might have excited indignation and grief; but his strong contempt of the actors could only supply ludicrous images and caustic raillery. Yet once, when villany was at its zenith, his solemn tones were raised to reach it.9

The SECOND part was precipitated in the following year. An interval of fourteen years was allowed to elapse before the THIRD and last part was given to the world; but then everything had changed! the poet, the subject, and the patron! The old theme of the sectarists had lost its freshness, and the cavaliers, with their royal libertine, had become as obnoxious to public decency as the Tartuffes. Butler appears to have turned aside, and to have given an adverse direction to his satirical arrows. The slavery and dotage of Hudibras to the widow revealed the voluptuous epicurean, who slept on his throne, dissolved in the arms of his mistresses. “The enchanted bower,” and “The amorous suit,” of Hudibras reflected the new manners of this wretched court; and that Butler had become the satirist of the party whose cause he had formerly so honestly espoused, is confirmed by his “Remains,” where, among other nervous satires, is one, “On the licentious age of Charles the Second, contrasted with the puritanical one that preceded it.” This then is the greater glory of Butler, that his high and indignant spirit equally satirised the hypocrites of Cromwell and the libertines of Charles.

1 Edinburgh Review, No. 67-159, on Jacobite Relics.

2 In a pamphlet entitled “Mercurius Menippeus; the Loyal Satyrist, or Hudibras in Prose,” published in 1682, and said to be “written by an unknown hand in the time of the late Rebellion, but never till now published,” is the following curious notice of Sir Samuel, which certainly seems to point him out as the prototype of Hudibras;

Whose back, or rather burthen, show’d

As if it stoop’d with its own load.

The author is speaking of Cromwell, and says, “I wonder how Sir Samuel Luke and he should clash, for they are both cubs of the same ugly litter. This Urchin is as ill carved as that Goblin painted. The grandam bear sure had blistered her tongue, and so left him unlicked. He looks like a snail with his house upon his back, or the Spirit of the Militia with a natural snapsack, and may serve both for tinker and budget too. Nature intended him to play at bowls, and therefore clapt a bias upon him. One would think a mole had crept into his carcass before ’tis laid in the churchyard, and rooted in it. He looks like the visible tie of Æneas bolstering up his father, or some beggarwoman endorsed with her whole litter, and with a child behind.”

3 Bavius and Mævius were Dr. Martyn, the well-known author of tha dissertation on the Æneid of Virgil, and Dr. Russel, another learned physician, as his publications attest. It does great credit to their taste, that they were the hebdomadal defenders of Pope from the attacks of the heroes of the Dunciad.

4 There is great reason to doubt the authenticity of this information concerning a Devonshire tutelar saint. Mr. Charles Butler has kindly communicated the researches of a Catholic clergyman, residing at Exeter, who having examined the voluminous registers of the See of Exeter, and numerous MSS. and records of the diocese, cannot trace that any such saint was particularly honoured in the county. It is lamentable that ingenious writers should invent fictions for authorities; but with the hope that the present authors have not done this, I have preserved this apocryphal tradition.

5 He was buried outside the church in the angle at the north-west corner, where the wall originally stood which bounded the churchyard.

6 A monument was put up in the church in 1786 by a subscription among the parishioners. It exhibits a bust of Butler and a rhyming inscription in very bad taste.

7 See Quarterly Review, vol. viii. p. 111, where I found this quotation justly reprobated.

8 This work, published in 1795, is curious for the materials the writer’s reading has collected.

9 The case of King Charles the First truly stated against John Cook, Master of Gray’s Inn, in Butler’s “Remains.”

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