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 (8 February 1613 - 25 September 1680) was an English poet and satirist. He is remembered now chiefly for a long satirical burlesque poem on Puritanism entitled Hudibras.


Butler was born in Strensham, Worcestershire and baptised 14 February 1613. He was the son of a farmer and was educated at the King's School, Worcester, under Henry Bright (whose teaching is recorded favourably by Thomas Fuller, a contemporary writer, in his Worthies of England). 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. Through Lady Kent he met John Selden who influenced his later writings. He also tried his hand at painting but was reportedly not very good at it; one of his editors reporting that "his pictures served to stop windows and save the tax" (on window glass).

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 first part of Hudibras was published, and the other two in 1664 and 1678 respectively. One fan was Charles II, who granted him a pension.

Notwithstanding the popularity of Hudibras, Butler was neglected by the Court and died in 1680, although whether in a state of poverty as often claimed and how much this may have been a self imposed exile either by choice or because of his sharp satirical wit is uncertain. John Aubrey in his notebook jottings called Brief Lives records that Charles II gave him a gift of £300 and that he had been secretary to George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, when the latter was chancellor of the University of Cambridge; Butler was close enough to Buckingham to collaborate with him in The Rehearsal, a satirical play mocking the heroic drama of the time.

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



 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 was republished in the late 1700s and 1800s in a version edited with notes by Treadway Russell Nash.

Other writingsEdit

Most of Butler's other writings never saw print until they were collected and published, in 1759. Butler wrote many short biographies, epigrams and verses, the earliest surviving from 1644. Of his verses, the best known is "The Elephant on the Moon", about a mouse in a telescope, a satire on Sir Paul Neale of the Royal Society. Butler's taste for the mock heroic is shown by another early poem Cynarctomachy, or Battle between Bear and Dogs, which is both a homage to and a parody of a Greek poem ascribed to Homer, Batrachomyomachia. His supposed lack of money later in life is strange as he had numerous unpublished works which could have offered him income including a set of Theophrastan character sketches which were not printed until 1759. Many other works are dubiously attributed to him.

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.[1]


  • 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


Butler is commemorated by a memorial, with a bust, in the east aisle of Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[2]



  • 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.
  • The Poetical Works: From the texts of Dr. Grey and Mr. Thyer. London: J. Bell (The Poets of Great Britain), 1777.
  • The Poetical Works (collated by Thomas Parke). London : Suttaby Evance & Fox, 1812.
  • The Genuine Poetical Remains (edited by Robert Thyer). London: J. Booker, 1827.
  • The 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.
  • The 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.[3]

See alsoEdit



  1. 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.
  2. Samuel Butler, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  3. Search results = au:Samuel Butler 1680, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 16, 2016.

External links Edit


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