Butler, Samuel

, a poet of a very singular cast, was born at Strensham in Worcestershire, and baptized Feb. 8, 1612. His father’s condition is variously represented. Wood mentions him as competently wealthy; but the author of the short account of Butler, prefixed to Hudibras, who, Dr. Johnson erroneously says, was Mr. Longueville, asserts he was an honest farmer with some small estates who made a shift to educate his son at the grammar-school of Worcester, under Mr. Henry Bright, from whose care he removed for a short time to Cambridge; but, for want of money, was never made a member of any college. Wood | leaves us rather doubtful whether he went to Cambridge of Oxford; but at last makes him pass six or seven years at Cambridge, without knowing in what hall or college: yet it can hardly be imagined that he lived so long in either university, but as belonging to one house or another; and it is still less likely that he could have so long inhabited a place of learning with so little distinction as to leave his residence uncertain. Dr. Nash has discovered that his father was owner of a house and a little land, worth about eight pounds, a year, still called Butler’s tenement. Wood had his information from his brother, whose narrative placed him at Cambridge, in opposition to that of his neighbours, which sent him to Oxford. The brother’s seems the best authority, till, by confessing his inability to tell his hall or college, he gives reason to suspect that he was resolved to bestow on him an academical education, but durst not name a college, for fear of detection. Having, however, discovered an early inclination for learning, his father placed him at the free-school of Worcester; whence he was sent, according to the above report, for some time to Cambridge. He afterwards returned to his native country, and became clerk to one Mr. Jefferys of Earl’s Croomb, an eminent justice of the peace for that county, with whom he lived some years in an easy and reputable station. Here he found sufficient leisure to apply himself to whatsoever learning his inclinations led him; which was chiefly history and poetry; adding to these, for his diversion, music and painting.*


The anonymous author of his life tells us, he had seen some pictures, said to be of Butler’s drawing, in Mr. Jefferys’s family in 171Q. His early inclination to that noble art procured him afterwards the friendship of Mr. Samuel Cooper, one of the most emi nent painters of that time. Life, p. 5. Some pictures, said, to be his, were shewn to Dr. Nash, at Earl’s Croomb; but when he inquired for them some years afterwards, he found them destroyed, to stop windows, and owned that they hardly deserved a better fate.

He was afterwards recommended to that great encourager of learning, Elizabeth countess of Kent; in whose house he had not only the opportunity of consulting all kinds of books, but of conversing with Mr. Seldeo, who often employed him to write letters beyond sea, and translate for him. He lived some time also with sir Samuel Luke, a gentleman of an ancient family in Bedfordshire, and a famous commander under Oliver Cromwell. Whilst he resided in this gentleman’s family, it is generally supposed that he planned, if he did not write, the celebrated Hudibras; under which character it is thought he intended | to ridicule that knight. After the restoration of Charles II. he was made secretary to Richard earl of Carbury, lord president of the principality of Wales, who appointed him. steward of Ludlow-castle, when the Court was revived there. In this part of his life, he married Mrs. Herbert, a gentlewoman of a good family; and lived, says Wbod^ upon her fortune, having studied the common law, but never practised it. A fortune she had, says his biographer, but it was lost by bad securities. In 1663 was published the first part, containing three cantos, of the poem of “Hudibras,” which, as Prior relates, was made known at court by the taste and influence of the earl of Dorset, and when known, it was necessarily admired: the king quoted, the courtiers studied, and the whole party of the royalists applauded it. Every eye watched for the golden shower which was to fall upon the author, who certainly was not without his share in the general expectation. In 1664 the second part appeared; the curiosity of the nation was rekindled, and the writer was again praised and elated. But praise was his whole reward. Clarendon, says Wood, gave him reason to hope for “places and employments of value and credit;” but no such advantages did he ever obtain. It is reported, that the king once gave him 300 guineas; but of this temporary bounty we find no proof. Wood relates that he was secretary to Villiers duke of Buckingham, when he was chancellor of Cambridge: this is doubted by the other writer, who yet allows the duke to have been his frequent benefactor. That both these accounts are false there is reason to suspect, from a story told by Pack, in his account of the life ef Wycherley, and from some verses which Mr. Thyer has published in the author’s Remains. “Mr. Wycherley,” says Pack, “had always laid hold of any opportunity which offered of representing to the duke of Buckingham how well Mr. Butler had deserved of the royal family, by writing his inimitable Hudibras; and that it was a reproach to the court, that a person of his loyalty and wit should suffer in obscurity, and under the wants he did. The duke always seemed to hearken to him with attention enough; and, after some time, undertook to recommend his pretensions to his majesty. Mr. Wycherley, in Jiopes to keep him steady to his word, obtained of his grace to name a day, when he might introduce that modest and unfortunate poet to his new patron. At last an appointment was made, and the place of meeting was | agreed to be the Roebuck. Mr. Butler and his friend attended accordingly: the duke joined them; but, as the devil would have it, the door of the room where they sat was open, and his grace, who had seated himself near it, observing a pimp of his acquaintance (the creature too was a knight) trip by with a brace of ladies, immediately quitted his engagement, to follow another kind of business, at which he was more ready than in doing good offices to men of desert; though no one was better qualified than he, both in regard to his fortune and understanding, to protect them; and, from that time to the day of his death, poor Butler never found the least effect of his promise!”*

He had promises of a good place from lord Clarendon; but they were never accomplished. No one was more generous to him than the earl of Dorset, who, being himself an excellent poet, knew how to set a just value upon the ingenious performances of others; and we are told, he owed it to that noblernan, that the court tasted his Hudibras. It soon became the chief enterlainment of the king, who often pleasantly quoted it in conversation. It is said his majesty ordered Butler the sum of 3000l. but the order being written in figures, somebody through whose hands it passed, by cutting off a cypher, reduced it to 500l. It passed all the offices without any fee, at the solicitation of Mr. William Longueville of the Temple, lord Danby being at that time high treasurer. When Mr. Longueville brought this order, Butler, calling to mind that he owed more than that sum to different persons, desired Mr. Longueville to pay away the whole gratuity, which that gentleman did accordingly, and Butler did not receive a shilling of the king’s bounty, This seems to have been the only court favour he ever received. “Granger was informed by Dr. Pearce, who named for his authority Mr. Lowudes of the treasury, that Butler had a yearly pension of an hundred pounds, This is contradicted by all tradition, by the complaints of Oldharn, and by the reproaches of Dryden and I am afraid will never be confirmed.” Dr. Johnson.

Such is the story. The verses are written with a degree of acrimony, such as neglect and disappointment might naturally excite; and such as it would be hard to imagine Butler capable of expressing against a man who had any claim to his gratitude. Notwithstanding this discouragement and neglect, he still prosecuted his design; and in. 1678 published the third part, which still leaves the poem imperfect and abrupt. How much more he originally intended, or with what events the action was to be concluded, it is vain to conjecture. Nor can it be thought strange that he should stop here, however unexpectedly. To write without reward is sufficiently unpleasing. He had now arrived at an age when he might think it proper to be in jest no longer, and perhaps his health might now begin to fail. He died Sept. 25, 1680; and Mr. Longueville, having unsuccessfully solicited a subscription for his internment in Westminster abbey, buried him at his own cost | in the chureb-yard of Covent Garden. Dr. Simon Patrick read the service. About sixty years afterwards, Mr. Barber, a printer, lord mayor of London, bestowed on him a monument in Westminster abbey.

After his death were published three small volumes of his posthumous works, and lately, two volumes more have been printed by Mr. Thyer of Manchester, indubitably genuine. From none of these pieces can his life be traced, or his character discovered. Some verses, in the last collection, shew him to have been among those who ridiculed the institution of the Royal Society, of which the enemies were for some time very numerous and very acrimonious; for what reason it is hard to conceive, since the philosophers professed not to advance doctrines, but to produce facts; and the most zealous enemy of innovation must admit the gradual progress of experience, however he may oppose hypothetical temerity. In this mist of obscurity passed the life of Butler, a man whose name can only perish with his language. The mode and place of his education are unknown; the events of his life are variously related; and all that can be told with certainty is, that he^ was poor.

In these particulars we have chiefly followed the account drawn up by Dr. Johnson for his edition of the English Poets, and must refer to the same for that eminent critic’s masterly dissertation on the merit of Butler as a poet. In 1744, Dr. Grey published an edition of Hudibras, 2 vols. 8vo, with plates by Hogarth, and notes illustrative of those passages and allusions which, from the lapse of time, were becoming obscure. This long remained the standard edition, until in 1794, Dr. Nash, the historian of Worcestershire, published a new edition in 2 vols. 4to, and one of notes, abridged, improved, and corrected from Dr. Grey’s edition; with an inquiry into the life of Butler, containing, however, few particulars that are not generally known. 1


Biog. Biog. Johnson’s Poets. —Cibber's Lives, &c.