Samuel Butler

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.