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"While Butler, needy wretch was yet alive,
see him, when starv'd to death, and turn'd to dust,
The poet's fate is here in emblem shewn,
he ask'd for bread, and he receiv'd a stone.
The principal poem of our poet stands unrivalled in it's ingenuity, wit, and learning. It is intended to ridicule that party which subverted the monarchy and church of England in the reign of Charles 1. The fable of this burlesque heroic is copied from Don Quixote; the knight's name and something of his character are borrowed from Spencer's Fairy Queen.
"He that made love unto the eldest dame,
was hight Sir Hudibras, an hardy man."
What the poem of Hudibras would have been if the author had finished it, cannot be conjectured. The work as a whole is deficient in incident and interest; it's general objects are of a local nature, and it's political allusions are now almost obsolete, for the manners which gave them birth exist no longer. Indeed this long poem can be read through by few but as a task.
Dr. Aikin says "the personages of the story are so contemptible, what is to become of them? It must also be confessed, that the diction and imagery are not free from coarseness and vulgarity. Butler has been famous for his double rhymes, which often, from their oddity, heighten the ludicrousness of the matter; yet they are frequently halting and imperfect, and the style and versification in general are careless and slovenly. In these respects he is much inferior to Swift, who, with more ease and true familiarity, has also, in his best pieces, an air of good company, which Butler wants." Addison, speaking of false wit, says, "I must subjoin the double rhymes, which are used in doggrel poetry, and generally applauded by ignorant readers.
If the thought of the couplet in such compositions be good, the rhymes add little to it; and if bad, it will not be in the power of the rhyme to recommend it. I am afraid, that great numbers of those, who admire the incomparable Hudibras, do it more on account of those doggrel rhymes, than of the parts that really deserve admiration. I am sure, I have heard
"When pulpit, drum ecclesiastick,
was beat with fist instead of a stick,"
"There was an ancient sage philosopher,
more frequently quoted than the finest pieces of wit in the whole poem." Spec. v. i, 60.
Dr. Johnson, after a statement that the original idea of Hudibras is to be found in the history of Don Quixote, says, "Cervantes had so much kindness for his knight, that however he embarasses him with absurd distresses, he gives him so much sense and virtue as may preserve our esteem: wherever he is, or whatever he does, he is made by matchless dexterity commonly ridiculous but never contemptible. But for poor Hudibras, his poet had no tenderness: he chuses not that any pity should be shewn or respect paid him; he gives him up at once to laughter and contempt, without any quality that can dignify or protect him. Every reader regrets the paucity of events, and complains that in the poem of Hudibras, as in the history of Thucydides, there is more said than done. The scenes are too seldom changed, and the attention is tired with long conversations. The great source of pleasure is variety. Uniformity must tire at last tho' it be uniformity of excellence. If unexhaustible wit could give perpetual pleasure, no eye could ever
leave half-read the work of Butler; for what poet has ever brought so many remote images so happily together? By the first paragraph the reader is amused, by the next he is delighted, and by a few more strained to astonishment; but astonishment is a toilsome pleasure: he is soon weary of wondering and longs to be diverted. Whatever topic employs our author, he shews himself qualified to expand and illustrate it with all the accessories that books can furnish: he is found not only to have travelled the beaten road, by the bye-paths of literature; not only to have taken general surveys, but to have examined particulars with minute inspection. If the French boast of the learning of Rabelais, we need not be afraid of confronting them with Butler. But the most valuable parts of his performance are those which retired study and native wit cannot supply. Butler had not suffered life to glide beside him unseen or unobserved.. He had watched with great diligence the operations of human nature, and traced the effects of opinions, humour, interest, and passion. From such remarks proceeded that great number of sententious distichs which have passed into conversation, and are added as proverbial axioms to the general stock of practical knowledge. But human works are not easily found without a perishable part. Of the ancient poets every reader feels the mythology tedious and oppressive. Of Hudibras, the manners being founded on opinions, are temporary and local, and therefore become every day less intelligible and less striking. The diction of this poem is grossly familiar, and the numbers purposely neglected, except in a few places where the thoughts by their native excellence secure themselves from violation, being such as mean language cannot
express. The measure is quick, sprightly, and colloquial, suitable to the vulgarity of the words and the Jevity of the sentiments. But such numbers and such diction can gain regard only when they are used by a writer whose vigour of fancy and copiousness of knowledge entitle him to contempt of ornaments, and who, in confidence of the novelty and justness of his conceptions can afford to throw metaphors and epithets away. To another that conveys common thoughts in careless versification, it will only be said, "Pauper videri Cinna vult, et est pauper." meaning and diction will be worthy of each other, and criticism may justly doom them to perish togethNor, even tho' another Butler should arise, would another Hudibras obtain the same regard." Several imitations of Hudibras have been attempted, such as "The second Part of Hudibras," "Butler's Ghost," ""The occasional Hypocrite," and others, but without success. The author of the first of those pieces is supposed to have been ridiculed in Butler's description of Whackum's skill in poetry. The verses are excellent and may serve as a specimen of our author's wit, and humour.
"Besides all this, he serv'd his master
and rhymes appropriate cou'd make =
that, circled with the long-ear'd guests,
nor porter's burthen pass'd along,
of monsters, or their dear delight
which none does hear but would have hung,
Hud. p. ii, can. iii, v. 358.
Some time after Butler's death, 3 small volumes were published as his posthumous works; but as they added nothing to the reputation of the author of Hudibras, they have been deemed spurious. Two small volumes, certainly genuine, where published as his posthumous works, in 1759, by Mr. Thyer, of the public library, Manchester, from manuscripts received from Mr. Longueville. A new edition of Hudibras was published in 1744, by Zachary Grey, LL. D. with Jarge annotations, and a preface, in two volumes, 8vo. The large poem of Hudibras is too local and obsolete to be selected from; the following pieces are therefore taken as favourable specimens of Butler's manner, style, wit, and originality. Satire was his forte and indignation gave it keenness.