Samuel Butler Facts
The English poet Samuel Butler (ca. 1613-1680) is best known as the author of "Hudibras," a long comic poem that satirizes the Puritans.
The exact date of Samuel Butler's birth is unknown. He was baptized Feb. 14, 1613, in Strensham, Worcestershire. The son of a yeoman farmer, he attended the King's School in Worcester. Shortly after leaving school, about 1628, he entered the service of Elizabeth, Countess of Kent, at her home at Wrest, Bedfordshire. At Wrest he enjoyed the use of the countess's magnificent library and met some of the most learned men of his time.
During the period of the Commonwealth, Butler served as clerk to a number of country magistrates, several of whom were dedicated Puritans. While in the households of these men, he seems to have suppressed his own religious and political convictions and to have busied himself with the writing of Hudibras. It seems probable that Butler modeled his character of the ridiculous Sir Hudibras on the characters of at least two of his Puritan employers.
It was not until after the death of Cromwell that Butler published his first essay, Mola asinaria (1659), pleading for the restoration of the Stuarts. In 1662 Butler began publishing Hudibras in installments. The first part, written in rhyming octosyllabic couplets, appeared late in 1662, the second in 1663, and the third in 1677. It was an immediate success, particularly with the King and his court. Many of the surviving copies of the first edition are inscribed as gifts of Charles II to members of the court, and the number of pirated versions and spurious sequels of the poem testify to its popularity with the general public.
Although Hudibras brought Butler fame, he seems to have lived in relative obscurity after 1663. Little is known of his character and occupation during the years in which he produced the bulk of his writings. Of moderate height and strong build, he is said to have been "a good fellow" possessing "severe and sound judgment." Records show that he was employed as secretary to secretary to George Villiers, 2d Duke of Buckingham, for some time in the early 1670s. It is believed that he remained in London after 1677, occupying a room in Rose Alley, Covent Garden. He died Sept. 25, 1680.
Butler's contemporaries seem to have held Charles II responsible for the poverty in which the poet spent his last years. But in 1677 Charles granted Butler an annual pension of £100. He was buried at the expense of William Longueville, who later collected his unpublished manuscripts. These were kept intact by Longueville's heirs and published in 1759. The volumes contained much occasional poetry, a satire on the Royal Society entitled "The Elephant on the Moon," and a series of prose character sketches.
Further Reading on Samuel Butler
The most interesting discussion of Butler and his work is by John Wilders in his edition of Hudibras (1967). An earlier biographical account is Jan Veldkamp, Samuel Butler: The Author of Hudibras (1923). Critical discussions of Hudibras and its place in English literary tradition include Edward Ames Richards, Hudibras in the Burlesque Tradition (1937), and Ian Jack, Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry, 1660-1750 (1952).
Additional Biography Sources
Veldkamp, Jan, Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
The English novelist and essayist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a critic of established religious, social, and scientific ideas.
Samuel Butler was born on Dec. 4, 1835, in Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, the son of the local vicar. In a time of common paternal absolutism, his childhood seems to have been bleak and graceless. After taking a degree at Cambridge, he came into open conflict with his father over the question of his future profession, and at last he emigrated to New Zealand to become a sheep farmer. But though free of his father, he was not free of revolt, and the spirit of resentful rebelliousness marked much of his later life. In New Zealand he read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and wrote a series of newspaper articles setting forth Darwin's ideas and ingeniously applying the evolutionary hypothesis to machines. Having made a modest fortune, he returned to England in 1864.
Erewhon (1872), Butler's first book, is a mixture of satire, utopian theories, and serious speculation masked as whimsy. Set in the frame of a trip to an unknown land (Erewhon is an anagram of "no-where"), it has no real plot but is rather a description and discussion of the customs and institutions of Erewhon. In this land moral failings are treated as mental illness and cured by a "straightener," but physical illness and misfortune are considered crimes and severely punished. Children sign certificates absolving their parents of responsibility for their birth, and education is carried on in the College of Unreason.
Butler's reflections on orthodox religion, begun in New Zealand, issued in The Fair Haven (1873), an ironic attempt to reconcile the New Testament with rationalistic criticism. In Life and Habit he returned to the question of evolution. In Evolution Old and New (1879), Unconscious Memory (1880), and Luck, or Cunning? (1887), he developed his ideas with an increasingly self-righteous resentment of what he conceived to be the Darwinians' deliberate concealment of the truth. Butler hoped to be able to restore will, intelligence, and design to a universe apparently made meaningless by the blind process of natural selection.
The novel The Way of All Flesh, Butler's most famous work, was written between 1872 and 1885. It is the supposed biography of Ernest Pontifex, narrated by an older friend with an unrelenting candor deliberately affronting conventional pieties. The account of a grimly repressive childhood is based on Butler's own youth. As a young man, Ernest swings from naive religious zeal to despairing disillusionment, is imprisoned for propositioning an innocent girl, and upon his release makes a disastrous marriage. Finally free, he turns to a career as writer and intellectual gadfly, exposing the evils and hypocrisies of the established institutions and values that had twisted his own life.
Erewhon Revisited (1901) returns to the problem of religion and examines the relationship between rational truth and religious faith.
Further Reading on Samuel Butler
The primary biographical source is Henry Festing Jones, Samuel Butler: A Memoir (2 vols., 1919). A shorter, more critical biography is Clara G. Stillman, Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern (1932). Two good studies of Butler's ideas are P. N. Furbank, Samuel Butler (1948), and Basil Willey, Darwin and Butler: Two Versions of Evolution (1960).
Additional Biography Sources
Butler, Samuel, Butleriana, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.
Jones, Henry Festing, Samuel Butler: a sketch, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Raby, Peter, Samuel Butler: a biography, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.