The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Hudibras
HUDIBRAS. This satirical mock-epic by Samuel Butler, perhaps the wittiest poem ever written in the English language, consists of 11,000 lines of so-called “Hudibrastic” verse (Iambic tetrameter, with burlesque rhymes), and is divided into three parts, each of several cantos. The action, which fills only about 1,800 lines, is constantly interrupted by digressions upon a variety of themes. It is often stated that Hudibras is a kind of rhymed parody of ‘Don Quixote,’ which is frequently alluded to and is even travestied in several of its minor incidents; but, except far the idea of a crazy knight and his squire setting out to reform the world, Butler owes little to Cervantes, and ‘Hudibras’ might have been substantially the same had ‘Don Quixote’ never have been written. The initial suggestion might have come as well from the ‘Fairy Queen’ or from the ‘Morte D'Arthur.’ It is probable that Butler named his poem and its protagonist after Spenser's Sir Huddibras (‘Fairy Queen,’ II, 2), a knight “more huge in strength than wise in works”; though it has been suggested that he derived the name from Hugh de Bras, the patron satnt of Devonshire, where he lived for a time in the employ of Sir Henry Rosewell.
The story concerns Sir Hudibras, a religious-mad Presbyterian, and Ralpho, his squire, who set forth to reform social abuses banned by the Puritans. Their fight with the bear-baiters and their defeat; Hudibras in the stocks and his release by his Lady; his oath of flagellation — which he breaks; their rout by the merry-makers; their visit to the astrologer Sidrophel — whom they rob; plots and counter-plots by both Hudibras and Ralpho, each in turn in league with the Lady, are the main incidents of the disconnected story, which breaks off but does not end. The characterization is weak and inconsistent; the characters being in the main mere nicknames for absurdities. Hudibras, perhaps in part a caricature of Sir Samuel Luke, once an employer of Butler's, is a mixture of incongruous traits, knight errant plus Presbyterian magistrate, who, although meant to be ridiculous and cowardly, at times talks good sense and fights right valiantly. Minor characters have been identified with various members of the Puritan party, but such identification is uncertain and unimportant. The character of Sidrophel the astrologer is certainly meant for William Lilly, a notorious impostor of the day. This portrait of the universal and permanent quack is Butler's masterpiece; but the portraits of Shaftsbury and Lilburn are also admirable, and perhaps furnished Dryden with models for his ‘Absalom and Achitophel.’
The story itself, with its satire on Puritanism, serves merely as a frame on which Butler hangs his ridicule of the many excesses of contemporary life. A conservative in politics and a rationalist in religion, he was a royalist and an Episcopalian not through sentiment or religious conviction but through hatred of excess and dislike of change. Of strong, well-balanced mind and of eminent good sense, he saw in royalty and in an established church the safety of the state. Satire makes no fine distinctions, and Butler's portrait of Puritanism is of course the grossest and most unfair caricature; but in his burlesque of Puritan habits of mind and speech there was enough truth to render his satire wonderfully telling. He touches upon religion in general apart from Puritanism; upon contemporary science (the researches of the Royal Society he especially ridicules); upon matrimony; upon astrology and kindred superstitions; upon lawyers, with incidental satire on a large variety of political, moral, social and literary themes. The enormous whole forms a “commonplace-book” of satire, for which Butler's prose notebooks furnished the material, gathered through an entire life of observation and reflection and in parts talked out many a time over a bottle with his friends. ‘Hudibras’ is utterly devoid of poetry or sentiment. This is amply compensated for by its brilliant and pervasive wit, which, though so often based upon the local, or the temporary, or the recondite as to be umntelligible without the aid of explanatory notes, occasionally attains the universal, and in such passages has become a part of the language. The style of the poem, compounded of its peculiarities of metre, diction and figures of speech, is so original and individual as simply to be termed “Hudibrastic.” Butler employs the old iambic tetrameter but gives it a twist of his own by means of astonishing rhymes. He changes the vowel sounds, forces two monosyllabic words to rhyme with a dissyllable, and employs frequent trisyllabic rhymes that are always outrageous but often irresistibly comic. For all this he gained hints from his predecessors, such as Ben Jonson and John Taylor, the “water poet,” but he was the first to popularize the practice. Working with the rhyme to make the burlesque effect is Butler's habit of levying upon all fields of knowledge for his illustrations, of alluding even to the most recondite, almost unheard-of things in history, science, pseudo-science, mediæval lore of all kinds. Rabelais and Burton in prase and Cleveland in verse satire had done something of this kind, but Butler is without a peer in the range of his material and in his extravagant use of it.
Although a portion of ‘Hudibras’ was written before the execution of Charles I, even the first part was not published until 1663; a second followed in 1664, and a third and last in 1678. Thus the satire as an attack upon Furitianism lost utterly any militant value. But few works have ever gained such immediate and universal popularity. It became household property among the royalist reading public, not through whatever of permanent truth it contained, but through its partisanship. No poem in English has ever bred so many imitations. Within the century after its publication appeared at least 23 Hudibrastic satires, many of great length and of intolerable dullness and, oftentimes, of obscenity. Its influence was rife even in America, and it is notable that the only one of these imitations which shows any originality is ‘McFingal,’ an able political satire by John Trumbull the American some of whose couplets are often credited to Butler. That ‘Hudibras’ has practically ceased to be read is not altogether to the credit of the public. True, it is verbose; its political significance has passed; many of its allusions are unintelligible to the average reader; but, on the other hand, much of its satire will remain perennially applicable as long as society contains absurdities and shams, and much of its wit yet sparkles after the lapse of over two centuries.
There are many editions. That edited by Dr. Zachary Grey (Dublin 1744, rep. London 1869) is the standard; Hogarth's illustrations are in the London edition of 1726, reprinted 1775; Grey's notes are used in the three-volume London edition of 1819; the Bohn Library edition (London 1859) contains notes by Grey and Nash. Among other editions are the Aldine ‘Poetical Works of Samuel Butler’ (London 1893), and that by A. R. Waller (Cambridge, England, 1905). ‘Hudibras’ was translated by John Townley into French verse (London 1757) and by D. W. Soltau into German (Riga, 1787). Among critical studies are ‘Butler's Hudibras, ein echte zeit- und sittengemälde,’ Rudolph Boxberger (Leipzig 1876), and ‘Die Reime von Butler's Hudibras; eine metrische und lautliche Untersuchung,’ Bruno Harder (Königsberg 1900).