Samuel Butler by Pieter Borsseler

Samuel Butler (1612-1689). Portrait by Pieter Borsseler (fl.1665-1684), circa 1665.. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Samuel Butler
Born 8 February 1612
Strensham, Worcestershire
Died 25 September 1680 (aged 68)
Nationality English
Notable works Hudibras (1663-1668)

Samuel Butler (baptized 8 February 1612 - 25 September 1680) was an English poet and satirist. He is most famous as the author of Hudibras, the most memorable burlesque poem in the English language and the first English satire to make a notable and successful attack on ideas rather than on personalities.[1]



Butler was the son of a Worcestershire farmer. In early youth he was page to the Countess of Kent, and thereafter clerk to various Puritan justices, some of whom are believed to have suggested characters in Hudibras. After the Restoration he became secretary to the Lord President of Wales, and about the same time married a Mrs. Herbert, a widow with a jointure, which, however, was lost. In 1663 the 1st part of Hudibras was published, and the other 2 in 1664 and 1668 respectively. This work, which is to a certain extent modelled on Don Quixote, stands at the head of the satirical literature of England, and for wit and compressed thought has few rivals in any language. It is directed against the Puritans, and while it holds up to ridicule the extravagancies into which many of the party ran, it entirely fails to do justice to their virtues and their services to liberty, civil and religious. Many of its brilliant couplets have passed into the proverbial commonplaces of the language, and few who use them have any idea of their source. Butler, notwithstanding the popularity of his work, was neglected by the Court, and died in poverty.[2]

Youth and educationEdit

Butler was the 5th child and the 2nd son of Samuel Butler, a Worcestershire farmer, and a churchwarden of the parish of Strensham, where the poet was baptised on 8 February 1612. The entry is in his father's handwriting. The elder Samuel Butler owned a house and a piece of land, which was still called Butler's tenement in the 19th centuy;; the value of this was about 8l. a year (see Notes and Queries, 6th series, iv. 387, 469). According to Aubrey, however, the poet was not born in this Strensham house, but at a hamlet called Bartonbridge, 1/2 a mile out of Worcester. The father, according to Wood, leased of Sir Thomas Russell, lord of the manor of Strensham, an estate of 300l. a year.[3]

The boy was educated in Worcester free school. He has been identified, but against probability, with the Samuel Butler who went up to Christ Church, Oxford, from Westminster in 1623; another legend, somewhat better supported, says that he proceeded for a short time, about 1627, to Cambridge.[3]

Early careerEdit

It is probable that the first of several situations which he occupied was that of attendant, with a salary of 20l. a year, to Elizabeth, countess of Kent, at her residence of Wrest in Bedfordshire. The fact that he found Selden under the same roof makes it probable that this occurred in 1628. Selden seems to have interested himself in Butler's talents, and to have trained his mind.[3]

The young man spent several years at Wrest, and employed his leisure in studying painting under Samuel Cooper, or more probably with him, for Cooper was not yet illustrious. Butler is said to have painted a head of Oliver Cromwell from life; his pictures were long in existence at Earl's Coombe in Worcestershire, but were all used, in the last century, to stop up broken windows.[3]

Butler spent some years of his early life at Earl's Coombe as clerk to a justice of the name of Jeffereys. He seems to have served as clerk or attendant to a succession of country gentlemen. One of these was Sir Samuel Luke of Cople Hoo, near Bedford, a stiff presbyterian, and one of Cromwell's generals. This person sat for the character of Hudibras,

A Knight as errant as e'er was;[3]

but some of the touches are said to be studied from another puritan employer of Butler's, Sir Henry Rosewell of Ford Abbey in Devonshire. It is supposed that Butler spent some time in France and Holland, which indeed his own writings show.[4]

He is not known to have published anything, or to have attained the smallest reputation, until after the death of Cromwell. In 1659, at the age of 47, he first appeared before the public with an anonymous prose tract, in favor of the Stuarts, entitled Mola Asinaria. Perhaps in reward for this service, he was appointed secretary to Richard, earl of Carbury, when he was made lord president of Wales in 1660. Lord Carbury made Butler steward of Ludlow Castle. Some bills in which his name occurs are published in ‘Notes and Queries’ (1st ser. v. 5).[4]

He married soon after this, his wife being differently described as a spinster of the name of Herbert and as a widow of the name of Morgan. Whatever her name was, she was supposed to be well dowered, and Butler probably had the rashness to resign his appointment at Ludlow on that account, for he certainly did not hold it more than a year. He lived comfortably on his wife's jointure for a time, till the money was lost on bad securities.[4]

The obscurity which hangs over every part of Butler's life makes it impossible to say whether he did or did not succeed in securing the patronage of George, duke of Buckingham. Wycherley told a lively story which, if true, shows that Butler was not so successful; but Butler has left a sketch of Buckingham which, though extremely satirical, seems founded on such study as a secretary alone would have the opportunity of making.[4]


At the age of 50 Butler suddenly became famous. 15 years before, in the puritan houses where he had lived, he had strung his pungent observations and jingling satirical rhymes into a long heroi-comic poem. The times had changed, and this could now be produced without offence to the ruling powers.[4]

On 11 Nov. 1662 was licensed, and early in 1663 appeared, a small anonymous volume entitled Hudibras: The first part; written in the time of the late wars. This is the first genuine edition, but the manuscript appears to have been pirated, for an advertisement says that "a most false and imperfect copy" of the poem is being circulated without any printer's or publisher's name.[4]

Exactly a year later a 2nd part appeared, also heralded by a piracy. The book was introduced at court early in 1663 by the Earl of Dorset, and was instantly patronised by the king. Copies of the 1st editions of Hudibras not very unfrequently have inscriptions showing that they were the gift of Charles II to their owner. Butler has himself recorded this royal partiality for his book:—

He never ate, nor drank, nor slept,
But ‘Hudibras’ still near him kept;
Nor would he go to church or so,
But ‘Hudibras’ must with him go.[3]

It was, however, the scandal of the age, that though the king was lavish in promises, he never did anything to relieve Butler's poverty. Lord Clarendon also greatly admired him, and had his portrait painted for his own library, but in spite of all his promises gave him no employment.[5]

The neglect of Butler is one of the commonplaces of literary morality, but the reader is apt to fancy that Butler was not easy to help. It is not plain that he had any talent, save this one of matchless satire; and in his private interactions he was unpleasing. From childhood "he would make observations and reflections on everything one said or did;" he had few friends, and was not careful to retain those few.[5]

Wood, though, describes Butler as "a boon and witty companion, especially among the company he knew well." Aubrey writes of Butler's appearance: "He is of a middle stature, strong set, high coloured, a head of sorrel hair, a severe and sound judgment, a good fellow." This writer, who knew him pretty well, gives us an idea that the legend of Butler's poverty was exaggerated in the reaction which began in his favor soon after his death.[5]

Last yearsEdit

Butler lived in poverty and obscurity for 17 years after the first appearance of Hudibras, publishing a 3rd part of that poem in 1678 (the different forms of which are described in Notes and Queries, 6th ser. vi. 108, 150, 276, 311, 370, 454), and 2 slight pieces, the "Geneva Ballad" in 1674, and an "Ode to the Memory of Du-Val" in 1671. In 1672 he printed an abusive prose tract against the nonconformists, called Two Letters.[5]

Butler in his later years was much troubled with the gout, and from October 1679 to Easter 1680 he did not stir out of his room. He lived in Rose Street, Covent Garden, until he died of consumption, although he was not yet 70, on 25 Sept. 1680. [5]

His best friend, William Longueville, a bencher of the Inner Temple, tried to have Butler buried in Westminster Abbey, but found no one to second him in this proposal. He therefore buried the poet at his own expense, on the 27th, in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Covent Garden.[5]



 Hudibras is directed against the Puritans and holds up to ridicule the extravagancies into which many of the party ran. The work stands at the head of the satirical literature of England, and for wit and compressed thought has few rivals in any language. Many of its brilliant couplets have passed into the proverbial commonplaces of the language, and few who use them have any idea of their source. It was widely popular and spawned many imitators. Hudibras is to a certain extent modelled on Don Quixote but unlike that work, it has many more references to personalities and events of the day. Butler was also influenced by satirists such as John Skelton and Paul Scarron's Virgile travesti; a satire on classical literature particularly Virgil.
  • Butler, Samuel, Hudibras: The Second Part, London 1663. Facsimile ed., 1994, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, ISBN 978-0-8201-1469-9.

Hudibras, which received the honor of being illustrated by William Hogarth in 1726, was several times carefully edited during the 18th century (for an account of the illustrated editions see Notes and Queries, 4th series, xi. 352, and 5th series, iii. 456). The edition of Dr. Grey, which appeared in 1744, is still considered the standard one. Hudibras was translated into French verse with great skill by John Townley (1697–1782).[5]

Other writingEdit

The success of Hudibras, and a rumour that a large quantity of Butler's unpublished manuscript was in existence, encouraged the production of a great many spurious posthumous collections of his verses.[5]

For some reason or other, however, the papers of Butler were preserved untouched by William Longueville, who bequeathed them to his son Charles, and he in his turn to a John Clarke of Walgherton in Cheshire. This gentleman, in November 1754, consented to allow R. Thyer, the keeper of the public library in Manchester, to examine them. The result was the publication in 1759 of 2 very interesting volumes, The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler. These volumes contain much that is 2nd in merit only to ‘Hudibras’ itself, among others a brilliant satire on the Royal Society, entitled "The Elephant in the Moon," and a series of prose "Characters." The collection of manuscripts from which these were selected was sold in London to the British Museum in 1885, and is now numbered there (MSS. Addit. 32625–6). Several of the pieces are still unpublished.[5]

Editions of Butler's works were issued by Bell (3 volumes, 1813), and Johnson (2 volumes, 1893).[2]

Critical introductionEdit

by William Ernest Henley

Sanuel Butler, grievously miscalled "the Hogarth of Poetry," seems to have been mainly a self-taught man. After leaving Worcester Cathedral School he started in life as justice’s clerk to a Mr. Jefferies, at Earl’s Croome. He was next at Wrest in Bedfordshire, in the service of the Countess of Kent, and here he met and worked for John Selden. Finally he formed part of the household of Sir Samuel Luke, a Presbyterian Colonel, ‘scout-master for Bedfordshire and governor of Newport Pagnell.’ At the Restoration he was made secretary to the President of Wales and steward of Ludlow Castle, and in 1662, at full fifty years old, he published the first part of the immense lampoon whose authorship has given him his place in English letters. The second part of Hudibras was issued in 1663; the third in 1678. Two years afterwards Butler died....

Aubrey, who was of his friends, describes him as a ‘good fellow’ but ‘cholerique’ and ‘of a severe and sound judgement’; and adds in this connection, ‘satyrical wits disoblige whom they converse with, and consequently make themselves many enemies and few friends, and this was his case.’ So that the ‘mist of obscurity’ in which his latter years were past may after all have been a mist of his own raising.

During his lifetime Butler published but the three parts of Hudibras, a couple of pamphlets, and an ode on the exploits and renown of the illustrious Claude Duval, which last, in its grave extravagance of irony, is, by anticipation, not unsuggestive of Fielding’s ‘Jonathan Wild.’ Three volumes of Remains, mostly spurious, were published in 1715; but in 1759 Thyer of Manchester put forth a couple of volumes of prose and verse selected from Butler’s manuscripts, and these, with some scraps printed later on, are all that is known to exist of him.

His chief work, that one on which his fame is wholly founded and of which he was himself most careful and diligent, is Hudibras. As a whole it is now-a-days hard reading. It is long, antiquated, exasperatingly discursive. The greater part of it has fallen naturally into disuse and disregard. The most popular of its innumerable dicta have got degraded into mere colloquialisms, and remind us of coins effaced and smoothed by centuries of currency. But Hudibras is none the less as notable in these days as it was at the epoch of its birth. It has been more largely read and quoted than almost any book in the language. It contains the best and brightest of Butler, and is a perfect reflex of his mind and temper. To give an idea of it by means of extracts is almost impossible. The poet’s fecundity of illustration and argument is astonishing; his volubility is bewildering; his intelligence of things is indefatigable. He treats of much, and that at such length that he takes many thousand verses to pass his heroes through some two or three adventures. To know him as he was, his work must be read as a whole, and diligently.

His literary origins in Hudibras are not far to seek. His matter he must have acquired during his stay with Sir Samuel Luke, when he had such opportunity of study from the life as has fallen to the lot of but few. It was in the work of Canon Le Roy and the band of brave wits responsible for the Satyre Menippée that he learned to make a proper use of the material he had gathered, and acquired in perfection the art of placing his butts and victims in an absolutely odious light. His genius, it is true, had little or nothing dramatic in it; and the harangues of Hudibras and the Lady and the Squire have not the personal and human ring in them that is to be discerned in those of Mayenne and the Sieur de Pierrefont. But they proceed on the same principle with these; like these, they extenuate nothing and set down everything in malice; of these they are in some sort the worthy successors.

For his manner, Butler found a something of it in Cleveland. The acute, imaginative intelligence of abuse that is a distinguishing feature in that wandering satirist is a distinguishing feature in Butler also. In Cleveland, flashing his random speeches at the enemies of his party and his king, there are to be found as it were the rough beginnings of the patient, persistent, laborious author of Hudibras. The broken scholar, hawking at a parcel of lay-elders, "Those state-dragoons, Made up of ears and ruffs like ducatoons"; or girding at the members of a "Mixed Assembly" as so many "parboiled lobsters, where there rules The fading azure and the coming gules"; or reflecting, in connection with the Scots he hated, "Lord! what a godly thing is want of shirts"; or crying out of Rupert that he had "a copyhold of victory," is not remote from the maker of disparates and burlesque apophthegms, the epigrammatist, now contumelious and now the reverse, we know in Hudibras. It must be added that Butler is not less polished and orderly than Cleveland is rough and careless; that Butler is nearly always apt enough to be final, and that Cleveland hangs or misses fire a dozen times for once he hits; that Butler in fine is an artist in raillery, and that Cleveland is at best but a clever amateur.

Lastly, it was from Cervantes that Butler took the idea of his fable and of his chief personages. His object was to vilify and scourge the Roundheads and not to imitate or parody Cervantes; otherwise the act that converted the good Alonso Quijada into an evil caricature of the Abstract Presbyterian Colonel, and Panza his squire into a monstrous and unseemly charge of an Independent servitor, would be not less infamous than the doings of Wycherly with Molière and Shakespeare. Butler however, did but choose the great originals of his grotesques as the two most popular figures in European literature, and his instinct in this matter — the instinct of the true parodist — did him yeoman service; the public of the Restoration must have felt to Hudibras and Ralpho as to the oldest friends they had.

Thus much secured, the rest was easy. It was not for Butler to make his figments human; for, as Mr. Saintsbury has observed, "to represent anything but monsters some alleviating strokes must have been introduced"; and as Butler wanted, not to finally embody the sectaries he hated, but to make as much fun out of them as possible, he did right to deal in monsters, and in monsters only. Hudibras, accordingly, is but a hunched back, a beard, and a collection of old clothes and rusty iron; Ralpho has no outward presence at all; while spiritually both man and master are merely compact of vileness and of folly. Butler had the court at his back, and the crowd as well; he gave them of the stuff they liked; and it was his function for some twenty years to pelt and belabour and defile the brace of pitiful scarecrows he had contrived, and so make sport for a winning side that could not forget it once had been in other circumstances.

It is the steady and persistent exercise of this function that has procured him much of the neglect with which he is visited. Fashions change; the bogies of one epoch become the heroes of the next, and what yesterday was apt and humorous is balderdash and out of date to-morrow. That which we praise in Butler now is that for which two centuries ago no man regarded him. He is tedious, trivial, spiteful, ignoble, where he once was sprightly, exact, magnanimous, heroic. But he had an abundance of wit of the best and truest sort; he was an indefatigable observer; he knew opinions well, and books even better; he had considered life acutely and severely: as a rhythmist he proceeded from none and has had no successor; his vocabulary is of its kind incomparable; his work is a very hoard of sentences and saws, of vigorous locutions and picturesque colloquialisms, of strong sound sense and robust English. And when all against him has been said that can be, there remains enough of good in his verse to prove that, great as it is, his reputation was well earned and justly bestowed.[6]


  • A News-monger is a Retailer of Rumour, that takes up upon Trust, and sells as cheap as he buys. He deals in a perishable Commodity, that will not keep: for if it be not fresh it lies upon his Hands, and will yield nothing. True or false is all one to him; for Novelty being the Grace of bothe, a Truth grows stale as soon as a Lye. — Samuel Butler (17th c.), Characters


A tradition is preserved by Granger that Butler was in receipt of a pension of 100l. a year at the time of his death.[5]

Butler is commemorated by a memorial, with a bust, in the east aisle of Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[7] The monument was raised in 1731, at the expense of the lord mayor, John Barber, a graceful act which Pope rewarded in two spiteful lines:

But whence this Barber? that a name so mean
Should, join'd with Butler's, on a tomb be seen.[5]

A portrait of Butler by Lely is in the gallery at Oxford; another by Lely was painted for Clarendon (see Evelyn's Diary, Bray and Wheatley, iii. 444); Soest painted a third portrait, which was engraved for Grey's edition of Hudibras.[5]

There is a memorial plaque to Butler in the small village church of Strensham, Worcestershire, near the town of Upton upon Severn, his birthplace.



  • Hudibras. London: J.G. for Richard Marriott, 1663;
    • also published as Hudibras: The first part. London: T. Roycroft for John Martyn & James Allestry, 1664.
    • Hudibras: The second part. London: T. Roycroft for John Martyn & James Allestry, 1664.
    • Hudibras: The first and second parts. London: T.N. for John Martyn & Henry Herringman, 1674, 1678.
    • Hudibras: The third and last part. London: Simon Miller, 1678.
    • Hudibras. London: Robert Horne, 1679; London: T.N. for Henry Herringman, 1684; London: Richard Parker, 1689; London: T. Horne, J. Walthoe, J. Nicholson, B. Took, D. Midwinter, J. Tonson, B. Cowse, & M. Wellington, 1716
    • (edited by John Wilders). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1967
    • (facsimile edition), Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970.
  • Poetical Works: From the texts of Dr. Grey and Mr. Thyer. London: J. Bell (The Poets of Great Britain), 1777.
  • Poetical Works (collated by Thomas Parke). London : Suttaby Evance & Fox, 1812.
  • Genuine Poetical Remains (edited by Robert Thyer). London: J. Booker, 1827.
  • Poetical Works (edited by George Gilfillan). Edinburgh: James Nichol / London: James Nisbet / Dublin: W. Robertson, 1854.


  • Prose Observations (edited by Hugh De Quehen). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press / New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Posthumous Works in Prose and Verse (with A Key to Hudibras, by Roger L'Estrange). (2 volumes), London: Sam. Briscoe, 1715.
  • Genuine Remains (edited by Robert Thyer). London: C. Baldwyn, 1822.
  • Satires, and miscellaneous poetry and prose (edited by René Lamar). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1928.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[8]

How to Make the Best of Life by Samuel Butler

How to Make the Best of Life by Samuel Butler

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1886) "Butler, Samuel (1612-1680)" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 8 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 74-76  Wikisource, Web, Dec. 22, 2017.


  1. Samuel Butler English author (1612-1680), Encyclopædia Britannica Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Dec. 22, 2017.
  2. 2.0 2.1 John William Cousin, "Butler, Samuel (satirist)," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 66. Web, Dec. 22, 2017.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Gosse, 74.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Gosse, 75.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 Gosse, 76.
  6. from William Ernest Henley, "Critical Introduction: Samuel Butler (1612–1680)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 14, 2016.
  7. Samuel Butler, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  8. Search results = au:Samuel Butler 1680, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 16, 2016.

External links Edit