Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Butler, Samuel (1612-1680)
BUTLER, SAMUEL (1612–1680), poet, was the fifth child and the second son of Samuel Butler, a Worcestershire farmer, and a churchwarden of the parish of Strensham, where the poet was baptised on 8 Feb. 1612. The entry is in his father's handwriting. The elder Samuel Butler owned a house and a piece of land, which was still called Butler's tenement fifty years ago; the value of this was about 8l. a year (see Notes and Queries, 6th series, iv. 387, 469). According to Aubrey, however, the poet was not born in this Strensham house, but at a hamlet called Bartonbridge, half a mile out of Worcester. The father, according to Wood, leased of Sir Thomas Russell, lord of the manor of Strensham, an estate of 300l. a year. The boy was educated in Worcester free school. He has been identified, but against probability, with the Samuel Butler who went up to Christ Church, Oxford, from Westminster in 1623; another legend, somewhat better supported, says that he proceeded for a short time, about 1627, to Cambridge. It is probable that the first of several situations which he occupied was that of attendant, with a salary of 20l. a year, to Elizabeth, countess of Kent, at her residence of Wrest in Bedfordshire. The fact that he found Selden under the same roof makes it probable that this occurred in 1628. Selden seems to have interested himself in Butler's talents, and to have trained his mind. The young man spent several years at Wrest, and employed his leisure in studying painting under Samuel Cooper, or more probably with him, for Cooper was not yet illustrious. Butler is said to have painted a head of Oliver Cromwell from life; his pictures were long in existence at Earl's Coombe in Worcestershire, but were all used, in the last century, to stop up broken windows. Butler spent some years of his early life at Earl's Coombe as clerk to a justice of the name of Jeffereys. He seems to have served as clerk or attendant to a succession of country gentlemen. One of these was Sir Samuel Luke of Cople Hoo, near Bedford, a stiff presbyterian, and one of Cromwell's generals. This person sat for the character of Hudibras,
A Knight as errant as e'er was;
At the age of fifty Butler suddenly became famous. Fifteen years before, in the puritan houses where he had lived, he had strung his pungent observations and jingling satirical rhymes into a long heroi-comic poem. The times had changed, and this could now be produced without offence to the ruling powers. On 11 Nov. 1662 was licensed, and early in 1663 appeared, a small anonymous volume entitled ‘Hudibras: the first part written in the time of the late wars.’ This is the first genuine edition, but the manuscript appears to have been pirated, for an advertisement says that ‘a most false and imperfect copy’ of the poem is being circulated without any printer's or publisher's name. Exactly a year later a second part appeared, also heralded by a piracy. The book was introduced at court early in 1663 by the Earl of Dorset, and was instantly patronised by the king. Copies of the first editions of ‘Hudibras’ not very unfrequently have inscriptions showing that they were the gift of Charles II to their first owner. Butler has himself recorded this royal partiality for his book:—
He never ate, nor drank, nor slept,
But ‘Hudibras’ still near him kept;
Nor would he go to church or so,
But ‘Hudibras’ must with him go.
It was, however, the scandal of the age, that though the king was lavish in promises, he never did anything to relieve Butler's poverty. Lord Clarendon also greatly admired him, and had his portrait painted for his own library, but in spite of all his promises gave him no employment. The neglect of Butler is one of the commonplaces of literary morality, but the reader is apt to fancy that Butler was not easy to help. It is not plain that he had any talent, save this one of matchless satire; and in his private intercourse he was unpleasing. From childhood ‘he would make observations and reflections on everything one said or did;’ he had few friends, and was not careful to retain those few. He lived in poverty and obscurity for seventeen years after the first appearance of ‘Hudibras,’ publishing a third part of that poem in 1678 (the different forms of which are described in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 6th ser. vi. 108, 150, 276, 311, 370, 454), and two slight pieces, the ‘Geneva Ballad’ in 1674, and an ‘Ode to the Memory of Du-Val’ in 1671. In 1672 he printed an abusive prose tract against the nonconformists, called ‘Two Letters.’ Butler in his later years was much troubled with the gout, and from October 1679 to Easter 1680 he did not stir out of his room. He lived in Rose Street, Covent Garden, until he died of consumption, although he was not yet seventy, on 25 Sept. 1680. His best friend, William Longueville, a bencher of the Inner Temple, tried to have Butler buried in Westminster Abbey, but found no one to second him in this proposal. He therefore buried the poet at his own expense, on the 27th, in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Covent Garden. Aubrey says:—‘In the north part, next the church at the east end; his feet touch the wall; his grave 2 yards distant from the pilaster of the door, by his desire, 6 foot deep.’ Wood describes Butler as ‘a boon and witty companion, especially among the company he knew well.’ Aubrey writes of Butler's appearance: ‘He is of a middle stature, strong set, high coloured, a head of sorrel hair, a severe and sound judgment, a good fellow.’ This writer, who knew him pretty well, gives us an idea that the legend of Butler's poverty was exaggerated in the reaction which began in his favour soon after his death. A tradition is preserved by Granger that Butler was in receipt of a pension of 100l. a year at the time of his death.
The success of ‘Hudibras,’ and a rumour that a large quantity of Butler's unpublished manuscript was in existence, encouraged the production of a great many spurious posthumous collections of his verses. For some reason or other, however, the papers of Butler were preserved untouched by William Longueville, who bequeathed them to his son Charles, and he in his turn to a John Clarke of Walgherton in Cheshire. This gentleman, in November 1754, consented to allow R. Thyer, the keeper of the public library in Manchester, to examine them. The result was the publication in 1759 of two very interesting volumes, entitled ‘The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler.’ These volumes contain much that is only second in merit to ‘Hudibras’ itself, among others a brilliant satire on the Royal Society, entitled ‘The Elephant in the Moon,’ and a series of prose ‘Characters.’ The collection of manuscripts from which these were selected was sold in London to the British Museum in 1885, and is now numbered there (MSS. Addit. 32625–6). Several of the pieces are still unpublished. ‘Hudibras,’ which received the honour of being illustrated by Hogarth in 1726, was several times carefully edited during the eighteenth century (for an account of the illustrated editions see Notes and Queries, 4th series, xi. 352, and 5th series, iii. 456). The edition of Dr. Grey, which appeared first in 1744, is still considered the standard one. ‘Hudibras’ was translated into French verse with great skill by John Townley (1697–1782). In 1721 a monument to Butler was raised in Westminster Abbey, at the expense of the lord mayor, John Barber, a graceful act which Pope rewarded in two spiteful lines:
But whence this Barber? that a name so mean
Should, join'd with Butler's, on a tomb be seen.
A portrait of Butler by Lely is in the gallery at Oxford; another by Lely was painted for Clarendon (see Evelyn's Diary, Bray and Wheatley, iii. 444); Soest painted a third portrait, which was engraved for Grey's edition of ‘Hudibras.’[Very little has been discovered with regard to Butler's life beyond what Wood (Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss) iii. 874) reported. That little was mainly given to the world by Dr. Nash, in the second volume of his Collections for the History of Worcestershire, in 1782. There have been no later discoveries than those made by Nash more than a century ago. Oldys made some notes for a life of Butler, which are in Brit. Mus. MS. Addit. 4221, pp. 198–203. See also Granger's Biog. Hist. iv. 38–40.]