Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 5. Hudibras and Hudibrastic Verse

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

X. Writers of Burlesque and Translators

§ 5. Hudibras and Hudibrastic Verse

Meanwhile, Samuel Butler had discovered in Hudibras the real purpose of burlesque. If Scarron had done nothing else than to inspire, at a distance, this work of genius, we should still owe him a debt of gratitude. It was not for Butler to ridicule the ancient mythologies; he saw before his eyes the follies and pretensions of his own time and country awaiting castigation. And so, he turned the travesty magnificently to the uses of satire. He employed the artifices of contrast and anachronism beloved by the imitators of Scarron to exhibit in the clear light of absurdity the hypocrisy and meanness of presbyterians. He, too, expressed the high in terms of the low. His work is the masterpiece of its kind, unique and incomparable. It is idle to praise its technical perfection. The resource and ingenuity of the author’s rimes, the tireless exuberance of his wit, his easy movement, his bold extravagance are qualities unmatched elsewhere in literature. Nor does his wisdom lag behind his wit. He concentrates into aphorisms the fruit of his keen observation with so happy a skill that a great part of his work has passed into the possession of all Englishmen. Thousands quote him with assurance who have never turned the pages of Hudibras, who would care not a fig for his fable or his satire, even if they understood them. And, though he won instant acceptance, he defied imitation. When he had fashioned his master-piece, he broke the mould; and, for that very reason, perhaps, he became the prey of the parodists.