A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Importance of "Hudibras"

Samuel Butler (1612-1680)
On 26 December 1662 Samuel Pepys, upon being told of a “new book of Drollery in verse called Hudebras, I would needs go find it out; and met with it at the Temple, cost me 2s-6d”. However, when he got it home and began to read it, he found it “so silly an abuse of the Presbyter-Knight going to the wars, that I am ashamed of it; and by and by meeting at Mr. Townsends at dinner, I sold it to him for 18d.”

Nevertheless, by 6 February 1663 Pepys had a change of heart, “and so to a bookseller’s in the Strand and there bought Hudibras again, it being certainly some ill humour to be so set against that which all the world cries up to be the example of wit – for which I am resolved once again to read him and see whether I can find it or no.” In other words, by February, the book was so popular that the usually self-assured Pepys had begun to doubt his own judgment in not liking it.

Later in 1663, a second part was published and Pepys, ever the man of fashion, duly went to his bookseller to seek it out, “which I buy not but borrow to read, to see if it be as good as the first, which the world cries so mightily up; though it hath not a good liking in me, though I had tried by twice or three times reading to bring myself to think it witty.” The man was nothing if not persistent (as many a London tavern-keeper’s wife could no doubt have attested). This attempt at tackling Hudibras went no better than the previous ones; Pepys finally judged that “I cannot, I confess, see enough where the wit lies”.

So what was this book that the intelligentsia in Restoration England cried up so mightily for its wit? It was a mock heroic poem published in three parts between 1662 and 1677, which satirized (mostly) the parliamentary side during the Civil War. Its central character was the hapless fictional Puritan gentleman soldier, Sir Hudibras. To be honest, the story is not very compelling, especially to the modern reader, and Pepys had a fair point in finding the language a little low. But there is no denying that its author, Samuel Butler (1612-1680), had a lively sense of humour.

I will not attempt to give a plot summary here. If you want to know the plot, I suggest that you go and read it yourself. Or look it up on Wikipedia. However, long-time readers of this blog will have noted by now that quotations from Hudibras appear sprinkled here and there with some frequency. Here are some examples with which I’ve previously bespattered my posts, which may give you some sense of Butler’s wit.

“‘Mong these there was a Politician,
With more heads than a Beast in Vision,
And more Intrigues in ev’ry one,
Than all the Whores of Babylon:
So politick, as if one eye
Upon the other were a Spy;
*        *        *
And when he chanc’d t’escape, mistook
For Art, and Subtlety, His Luck,
So right his Judgment was cut fit,
And made a Tally to his wit,
And both together most Profound
At Deeds of Darkness under ground:
As th’Earth is easiest undermin’d
By vermine Impotent and Blind.”
(Part III, Canto II, 351-356 and 393-400)

(The above lines appeared in a post as part of a description of Stephen Harper)

“He knew what’s what, and that’s as high
As Metaphysick wit can flie.”

And as a sample of the mock heroic style, that curious mixture of the lofty and the sinking, one cannot do much better than the “Argument” to Part I, Canto I, which opens Butler’s work:

Sir Hudibras his passing worth,
The manner how he sally’d forth:
His Arms and Equipage are shown;
His Horse’s Vertues, and his own.
Th’ Adventure of the Bear and Fiddle
Is sung, but breaks off in the middle.

Now, if Hudibras is so great, why does nobody read it anymore? The main reason probably has to do with the specificity of the subject matter. The work is full of “inside jokes”, and if you don’t have a pretty deep knowledge of the history of the Civil War years and the persons and events alluded to, much of the humour will be lost on you. It also doesn’t help that Butler was a well-educated man who made frequent references to obscure seventeenth-century – and earlier – works of philosophy, astrology, and divinity. It didn’t take long before this caused problems for readers. I have a 1739 edition of the work (with illustrations by Hogarth that became popular in their own right), which the editor has found it necessary to generously lard with explanatory footnotes. An 1811 edition, also in my possession, wisely converts these into endnotes, thereby freeing up the pages for actual verse. Clearly the printed page was getting too cluttered. The current scholarly edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967, John Wilders, ed.), a virtuoso performance in the editorial arts, besides incorporating those early footnotes, devotes about a quarter of the total volume length to detailed explanatory endnote commentary. In other words, for even the most academic modern reader Hudibras has become a text to grapple with rather than to read for pleasure.

No, I can’t blame people for no longer being interested in reading Hudibras. Well, with one qualification: I would blame scholars of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English literature and history for not reading it, since Hudibras was so well-known to literate people of those times as to have been quoted almost as much as Shakespeare or the Bible. I would go so far as to say, a student of the period must have at least a working familiarity with the work in order to be regarded as trustworthy or competent from a scholarly point of view. This judgment seems harsh, but not in light of Hudibras’ influence on the culture of that time. I shall give two examples where an otherwise very good scholar has undermined their own authority by demonstrating ignorance of Butler’s work.

The first example comes from James Leheny’s otherwise quite good edition of Joseph Addison’s Freeholder (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). In Freeholder No. 3 (30 December 1715), Addison offers a satirical character sketch of a Jacobite rebel. The rebel says “I must needs say I gained my Commission by my Horse’s Vertues, not my own”. Now, anyone familiar with Hudibras would have immediately recognized this as an obvious allusion to that opening  “Argument” to Part I, Canto I, quoted above (“His Arms and Equipage are shown; / His Horse’s Vertues, and his own”). Unfortunately, Leheny misses this. Instead, he takes this opportunity to offer a lengthy footnote on the English rebels who joined the Scots, and how they consisted mostly of horse, and their horses being hunting horses not fit for battle. This gloss is, speaking charitably, only marginally relevant to Addison’s text. It is possible that Leheny thought the allusion to Butler too obvious to require comment, but if so, why descant on the unfitness of rebel horses at such length? Better an obvious gloss than a meandering and irrelevant one. And given how unfamiliar Hudibras is to modern readers, I doubt that the allusion is so obvious as to require no comment. The fact is, Hudibras has become so obscure a text, that an otherwise competent scholar of the period can get away with being blissfully ignorant of it. But the Spectacled Avenger shall not let such ignorance pass.

The second example comes from Peter Laslett’s magisterial edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690), which has for decades now been the last word on that text. In his “Preface” to the Two Treatises, Locke complains of the doctrine of passive obedience to monarchy being spread from the pulpit by high-flying churchmen of the time. He writes that “There cannot be done a greater Mischief to Prince and People, than the Propagating wrong Notions concerning Government, that so at last all times might not have reason to complain of the Drum Ecclesiastick.” Now that last phrase of Locke’s is clearly a reference to Hudibras, Part I, Canto I, lines 9-12:

“When Gospel-trumpeter, surrounded
With long-ear’d rout, to Battel sounded,
And Pulpit, Drum Ecclesiastick,
Was beat with fist, instead of a stick”

To this Laslett inserts a footnote, in which he unhelpfully glosses “Drum Ecclesiastick” as “pulpit”, and then proceeds to an irrelevant quotation from James Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha (1681) about “wind blown theologues”. Now, we know that Locke read Tyrrell and knew him personally, but there is absolutely nothing in his words here to justify the inference that he had Tyrrell in mind. Laslett has overlooked Locke’s obvious allusion to Butler, instead going much further afield to find an allusion that is neither obvious nor warranted. I can only surmise that this is because Laslett was not familiar with Hudibras.