Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Butler, Arthur John
BUTLER, ARTHUR JOHN (1844–1910), Italian scholar, born at Putney on 21 June 1844, was eldest of six children of William John Butler [q. v.], at that time curate of Puttenham, near Guildford. His mother was Emma, daughter of George Henry Barnett, banker, of Glympton Park, Woodstock. On both parents' sides he was connected with Stratford Canning [q. v.], first cousin of George Canning Stratford being maternal grandfather of his mother, and great-grand-uncle (by marriage) of his father.
After a childhood at Wantage, affectionately dominated by parents of strong if differing characters, both devoted pioneers of the tractarian movement, Arthur went in 1852 with a scholarship to St. Andrew's College, Bradfield. From Bradfield he proceeded at Easter 1857 to Eton, where he was Newcastle select (1861-3), Tomline prizeman (1862), and captain of oppidans (Michaelmas 1862-Easter 1863). From Eton he passed to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a scholarship. He won the Bell university scholarship in 1864, and graduated eighth classic in the tripos of 1867, and as a junior optime in mathematics. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in the same year. In 1870 he reluctantly left Cambridge on accepting a post as examiner under the board of education. He worked in the education office, Whitehall, until 1887, when an invitation to become salaried partner in the publishing firm of Rivington tempted him from a routine which had never been congenial. After the amalgamation of Messrs. Rivington with the firm of Longmans ho transferred his services to Messrs. Cassell & Co. as chief editor. In 1894 he relinquished business, and was appointed an assistant commissioner on secondary education. Subsequently from 1899 until death he was engaged at the Public Record Office in editing 'Calendars of Foreign State Papers' from 1577 onwards, of which he published four volumes between 1901 and 1909. In 1898 he became professor of Italian language and literature at University College, London, and also filled that office till the end.
Butler, who 'had a Roman integrity of character but no Roman pride,' was an accomplished scholar, owing his reputation to activities lying outside his official or business services. His most important work was his contribution to the study of Dante, under whose spell he came first during his time at Cambridge. He was in point of time the first Englishman to replace the old dilettante enjoyment of the 'Divine Comedy' by exact and disciplined study, and (obedient to Cambridge tradition) to treat it as Person or Shilleto would have treated a Greek or Latin classic. His 'Purgatory of Dante,' a prose translation with notes, appeared in 1880 (2nd edit. 1892); his 'Paradise' in 1885 (2nd edit. 1891); his 'Hell' in 1892. In 1890 he edited the Italian text. In 1893 he put forth a translation of Scartazzini's 'Companion to Dante'; in 1895 a small work on 'Dante, his Times and his Work' (2nd edit. 1897). 'The Forerunners of Dante' (1910), an annotated selection from the Italian poets before 1300, was finished a few days before his death. Other scholars have followed and may have outstripped him, but Butler was 'the breaker of the road.' Much leisure was also devoted to translating French and German works, of which the chief were 'Memoirs of Baron de Marbot' (1892); 'Letters of Count Cavour and Mme. de Circourt' (Count Nigra's edit. 1894); 'Select Essays of Sainte-Beuve' (1895); 'Memoirs of Baron Thiébault' (1896), and 'The History of Mankind,' by Prof. Friedrich Ratzel (1896). He edited the English version of 'Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman' (1898). At the same time for thirty-five years Butler wrote for the 'Athenæum,' and was an occasional contributor to magazines on his favourite topics Dante, mountaineering, Eton, the Napoleonic campaigns; but much of his most characteristic writing was spent in fugitive contributions to the press, which were always trenchant, original, humorous, and exhibited an unusual blend of inborn churchmanship with an outspoken and militant liberalism.
From school days Butler was also a mountaineer, delighting in Alpine expeditions off the beaten track. In a prefator note to the 'Alpine Journal' (vol. xv. 1892), he wrote that the 'centres' were from various causes almost totally unknown to him, that his acquaintance with the chain of 'Mont Blanc was founded on dim schoolboy recollections of a walk round the lower cols in days when the Alpine Club itself did not exist; that he had not seen Zermatt for nearly a quarter of a century, while Grindelwald remained to him merely a place on the map. In 1886, when he became a member of the Alpine Club, he brought to it an intimate knowledge—beyond challenge by any mountaineer in Europe—of the Oetzthal Alps, which he first attacked in 1874, and revisited many times, with an ardour that was almost a passion, up to 1890. His attitude towards climbing for mere display may be gathered from a single sentence in a note of this last expedition, in which he and his companion were badly baffled by fogs. On one occasion they missed the peak of their assault and wandered on in a mist until 'We found ourselves on the top of something.' The mist lifted and 'it became clear that we had strayed on to the top of the highest and most northerly of the Hennesiegelköpfe. When we got back, Praximarer (the landlord), who is probably as good an authority as anyone, said that he knew of no previous ascent, nor can I conceive any reason why there should ever have been one.' Butler became editor of the 'Alpine Journal' in 1890, and supervised it until the close of 1893 (vols. xv. and xvi.). He delighted in the dinners of the A.D.C. (Alpine Dining Club). He was a member of the band of 'Sunday Tramps' which (Sir) Leslie Stephen organised in 1882, ranking number ten on the original list (cf. Maitland's Life of Stephen).
Butler died at Weybridge on 26 Feb. 1910, and was buried at Wantage. He married on 6 April 1875, Mary, daughter of William Gilson Humphrey, vicar of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, and left issue one son and six daughters.
A small oil portrait by Lady Holroyd belongs to Mrs. Butler.
[Life and Letters of William John Butler, ed. A. J. Butler, 1897; Alpine Journal, vols. xv. xvi. and to 1890 passim; Maitland, Life of Sir Leslie Stephen; The Times, 28 Feb. and 8 March 1910; Athenæum, 5 March 1910; Cambridge Review, notice by Sir Frederick Pollock, March 1910; Eton College Chronicle and Eton Register; private letters and records.]