By Samuel Butler
Samuel Butler, (1612-1680), poet and satirist, is famous mainly as the author of Hudibras,
an English mock heroic narrative poem from the 17th century. It was when Butler was in
the service of Thomas Jefferies, Esq. of Earls Croombe that he had the opportunity to indulge
his inclinations for knowledge and study. Later he was recommended to the service of
Elizabeth Countess of Kent, in Bedfordshire where he enjoyed a literary retreat during the
civil wars. It was probably in this household that the groundwork for his ‘Hudibras’ was laid.
As per his biographers, Butler then moved into the service of Sir Samuel Luke, a rigid
Presbyterian, and a colonel in the Parliamentary army, where Butler had the opportunity to
observe some of the fanatics who attached themselves to the Puritan army.
"A Key to Hudibras" credited to Roger L'Estrange and printed with one of the work's editions
(1709) mentions Sir Samuel Luke as the model for Hudibras. The mention of Mamaluke in
the poem is a clear suggestion although Butler himself claims that Hudibras is from the West
Country making Henry Rosewell a possible candidate. These are sycophantic but sarcastic
portraits and are thought to represent personalities of the times though the actual identities are
The composition of this celebrated burlesque poem was begun during the civil war and
published in three parts in 1663, 1664 and 1678, with the first edition encompassing all
three parts in 1684. The first part of Hudibras was published in the end of 1662, though the
first edition, published anonymously, is dated 1663. The poem has an unauthentic second part
published within a year and an authentic second part, licensed in 1663, and published in
1664. The two parts, and also “The Heroical Epistle of Hudibras to Sidrophel,” were reprinted together in 1674. The work was published in three parts, each divided into three cantos with some additional heroic epistles. It is believed that a fourth Canto in the model of Virgil's Aeneid was also planned though never executed.
Hudibras is a satirical polemic upon Roundheads, Dissenters, Puritans, Presbyterians and
many of the other factions involved in the English Civil War. In fact it is the earliest satire
in English to criticize ideas rather than personages. The poem is a general satire and not a
particular libel on any characters. It is directed against the fanaticism, affectations,
hypocrisy and the pretensions of false learning in seventeenth century England. Butler's
attack on Puritans and Puritanism, in the poem, reflects the attitude of the Restoration age
toward Puritanism. Puritans were held responsible for reducing England into a state of
anarchy and bringing an end to monarchy. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras ridicules all the sects
who fought against the Crown in the conflict between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.
Published shortly after the Restoration of Charles II, the poem had immense popularity for a
Hudibras is a satire in three parts, each containing three cantos written by Samuel Butler. Its
narrative form is that of a mock romance derived from Don Quixote, in which a grotesque
Presbyterian knight, Sir Hudibras (HEW-dih-bras), a knight errant and his sectarian squire
Ralph set out on horseback and encounter a bear-baiting mob.
The description of Sir Hudibras is histrionically done and also with such sycophantic
admiration so as to reveal the vain and ludicrous real character underneath. He is highly
praised for his knowledge of logic despite being blatantly stupid throughout; yet it is his
religious fervour that remains the main target of attack.
Hudibras uses the literary form of burlesque effectively. Butler had derived his outline from
Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and his burlesque method (making everything “low” and
undignified) from Paul Scarron. In mock heroic and burlesque poems, mean and inferior
persons, things, and situations are described in a sublime style and language. The contrast
between the poem’s lofty language and its shoddy subject matter is intended to highlight
the hypocrisy and absurdity of Dissenting reformers in seventeenth century England.
The name 'Hudibras' is derived from The Faerie Queene (II, 2, 17),
“He that made love unto the eldest dame,
Was hight Sir Hudibras, an hardy man.”
The hero of Hudibras is a Presbyterian knight who marches out in search of adventures,
does so mainly to suppress those sports, and punish those trivial offences, which the
unrefined among the royalists were fond of, but which the Presbyterians and independents
loathed. Hudibras goes “a-coloneling” with his squire, Ralpho, an Independent. They
constantly argue over religious matters and, in a series of surreal adventures, are shown to be
ignorant, idiotic, cowardly, and corrupt.
The four principal actions in the poem are
Hudibras’s victory over Crowdero
Trulla’s victory over Hudibras
Hudibras’s victory over Sidrophel
The Widow’s antimasquerade
The remaining part of the poem is made up of the adventures of the Bear, of the
Skimmington, Hudibras’s conversations with the Lawyer and Sidrophel, and his long
disputations with Ralpho and the Widow. He has embodied in the characters of Hudibras,
Ralpho, Sidrophel and so on, the vices and the follies of the age in which he lived. Hence the
characters in the poem are to be treated not as individuals but as a species.
The poem has been described in the introduction on Samuel butler in the new edition (with
notes by Rev. Treadway Russel Nash D D), “as a mirror in which an Englishman might have
seen his face without becoming, Narcissus-like, enamored of it; such an honest looking-
glass” that will give an honest reflection of character and personality. The section also
mentions having achieved its objective which is that of encouraging the reader to do the act
of introspection which will reveal much like the looking-glass “the nascent symptoms of the
wrinkles of treason, of the crows-feet of fanaticism, of the drawn-down mouth of hypocrisy,
or of the superfluous hairs of self-conceit” before they present themselves in “native
hideousness”. It is also expected that such a revelation would help prevent the recurrences of
all the follies of the period satirized in ‘Hudibras’.
Sir Hudibras sets out on horseback on an expedition against the follies and amusements of the
age. The argument also includes a sardonic reference to the unfinished works ‘La Francaide’
by Pierre de Ronsard and ‘Gondibert’ by Sir William Davenant.
The Canto 1 opens with a reference to the English civil war between the supporters of the
monarchy of Charles I and the opposing Parliamentarians in England, Scotland and Ireland.
While the crafty and scheming opposition were busy setting people against the monarchy,
much of the public remained ignorant of what was actually happening. The fear that
possessed them was mainly about superstitions and Popery in the church and about tyranny in
the state. Butler reminds us that religion is the metaphorical young mistress for whose
affection men are forever contesting. This line echoes the lines from Sir John Suckling’s
‘Brennoralt a Tragedy’, “Religion now is a young mistress here/ For which each man will
fight and die at least:” The Puritans put their hands behind the ears at sermons in the hope of
hearing them better or rather they responded best to the instigations. And thus the seeds of rebellion were sown by the seditious preachers who had crept into many churches inciting people against the government in church and state. These preachers used the pulpit as instruments of sedition like the drums on battlefields.
And the knight Sir Hudibras decided to leave his abode as an active justice of peace. He was
a proud and mighty warrior who would never allow a blow to pass without revenging, except the
one by which he is knighted by the king. He was a military as well as a civil officer. He was
great at fighting, but he was equally good at winning over the dissenting parties to his side. In
other words he could either make peace, and settle disputes among his neighbors or if they
did not agree, he could bind them over to sessions for trial.
From the serious, the poem plunges into the burlesque in the lines which compare the knight to an amphibious rat that can survive on land and in water. The author wonders which quality to praise, that he was
wise or that he was fat. Nothing much could be said about his brains and the talk was that he
was considered worse than an ass by the people who knew him well. He makes a reference to
a famous quote by Michel de Montaigne “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is
not playing with me rather than I with her?” Montaigne had a feeling that his cat had a very
poor opinion about his intellectual skills. Butler goes on to comment that the cat would have
thought worse about Hudibras if at all she had a chance to know him. The reputation however
had nothing to do with actuality because the only reason why he did not use his wit or
intellect was because he was shy. He used his intellect very rarely as men would wear their
best clothes only on special occasions. of both only before those who knew neither. On the
pretext of giving him high encomiums the author is exposing him as a pretentious saint, a
hypocrite and a shallow pedant. The language he knew best was Hebrew, the one which even
the most unsophisticated can master with ease. His knowledge of Hebrew was so good that
one may even think that he was a Jew and not a Christian.
Butler then proceeds to satirize the abuses of human learning. He was supposedly a master of
logic and criticism. But the debates he involved in, saw him refuting the very arguments he
was supposed to support. And he would take up the weirdest of arguments even when there is
apparently no chance of winning. The examples given are hilarious, like he would undertake
to prove that a man is not a horse or that a lord would be an owl.
“A Calf an alderman, a goose a justice”- (doggerel-comic verse in irregular rhythm)
Butler also mentions the corruption rampant during the period. The committee men were
cheaters who harassed and oppressed the country devouring the property of those they did not
favour, all under the authority of the parliament. The committee men are compared to the
rooks, a type of black bird that eats grains and hence called cheaters. Hudibras was an orator
who could effectively use coughing as ornaments of speech. His affected speech, supposedly
Babylonish dialect, was actually a mix of English, Greek and Latin resembling the sound
produced by Cerberus, the three headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades in Greek
mythology. Even when his vocabulary failed him, he was quick to invent new words and
hoodwink the unsuspecting listeners. Ridiculing him further, Butler says that this trick would
have been more effective than the one used by Demosthenes the famous Greek statesman
orator to correct his speech disability. For his arithmetic skills Hudibras is compared to two
obscure people Tycho Brake or Erra Pater. Erra Pater is supposed to have been some quack
astrologer whose worthless book of the rules was much in demand among the vulgar. Butler
uses anticlimax for his act of burlesque Hudibras. He would use trigonometry to calculate the
dimensions of a loaf of bread or roll of butter and algebra to know the time. He was so
learned and scholarly that he could understand everything he read. He was also quick to
evade any difficulty with a counter question. Regardless of logic or propriety he would quote
wise sayings even though he himself had no idea what they meant. He is also believed to
have had the ability to know the nature of things by abstract and could make them into
reality. Butler further satirizes abstract notions of metaphysicians, calling the metaphysical
natures the ghosts or shadows of real substances. But truth itself had to assume a tangible
form for Hudibras to understand. Yet he was as proficient in divining as Alexander Hales,
also called doctor irrefragable, Thomas Aquinas or Dun Scotus. He was even better than all
of them in foolish engagements that people indulge in when out of their minds. He would
deliberately create issues so that he can find solutions and impress people with his remarkable
divining skills that could restore faith with ease. However rarely had he even noticed the
scars that he had left behind on the corpus of faith. He knew where exactly Paradise was and
all that is described in the bible about the fall of Man. Butler makes a direct attack on the
Presbyterians calling them militants fighting with the establishment. In all great fights, they
took immense pleasure in contradicting each other even in the most trivial of matters. They
would show great distress and bad temper if anything went amiss in matters of religion. They
worshipped with such spite that any minor offence that went by the name of sin was punished
with damnation. They contended for absolute freedom in rites and ceremonies, and the
discipline of the church, but denied the liberty of man’s will. They considered themselves as
equivalent to saints incapable of sinning when the rest were all embodiments of sin. The
Presbyterians thought it sinful to eat plum porridge or minced pies at Christmas. The
cavaliers (king’s supporters) on the other hand fell into the opposite extreme and ate and
drank plentifully. These puritans were like the stubborn followers of Mahomet in Koran, the
ass (Alborach) and widgeon (pigeon) to deny delicious food all in the name of religion. In the
Koran, it is mentioned that Angel Gabriel brought to Mahomet a milk white beast called
Alborach, to take him to God. Alborach is believed to have made Mahomet promise to
procure him an entrance into paradise. He is supposed to have had a tame pigeon eating seeds
from his ears giving the impression that the bird was whispering divine communications.
Hudibras was like the prophet and had hypocrisy and nonsense as his closest allies
recommended by none other than his own conscience.
Form of the poem
Hudibras was written in an iambic tetrameter in closed couplets, with feminine rhymes (a
rhyme between stressed syllables followed by one or more unstressed syllables). Instead of
pentameter, the lines were written in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is the same as in
heroic verse (aa, bb, cc, dd, etc.), but Butler uses feminine rhyme for humor. This verse form
is now referred to as Hudibrastic. The poem is an exceptional composition on account of
Butler’s brilliant treatment of the octosyllabic metre, his clever, jangling rhymes, his use of
unusual expressions and obscure erudition. The dramatic meter indicates tales of dramatic
deeds, but the subject matter and the unusual rhymes make it into a burlesque.
The diction is typical of burlesque poetry, depicting low and mean persons and things.
Through this use of irony and satire, Butler paints an unflattering picture of the Puritans.
Though Hudibras is Butler’s major work, the style has become antiquated and less intelligible
to the modern reader. Yet the learning, wit and humour stand unrivalled and displayed in the
brightest hues. The poem is also remarkable for the propriety of words and thoughts elegantly
adapted to the occasion.