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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

II. Samuel Butler

§ 13. The Methods in the Composition of the Work

It may be well here, in retrospect, to examine Butler’s methods in the composition of his poem. The date of publication, three years after the restoration, is sufficient to suggest that it must have found an appreciative audience, at a time when the events to which it referred were fresh in men’s minds, and when, as we know, a violent reaction against puritanism had set in. The learning and scientific knowledge displayed, the turns of wit, racy metaphors and quaint rimes have secured its continuance as an English classic; but, much of the legal knowledge having become obsolete, or being too technical for ordinary readers, and many of the minor historical allusions being forgotten, a continuous perusal of the book requires unusual perseverance. Moreover, the length of some of the descriptions of persons or events is trying to the patience, although the illustrations or parallels in themselves are pertinent and acute. The sparkling wit and humour displayed enlightens and relieves the discussions which make up much of the book. Humorous as are the arguments, the witty and whimsical comparisons serve as flashlights to bring into relief what might otherwise become dull by reason of its length.

Thus, the peculiarities of religious tenets are illustrated by the presbyterians, who

  • Compound for sins they are inclin’d to
  • By damning those they have no mind to,
  • and, in their cantankerousness, are
  • Still so perverse and opposite,
  • As if they worshipp’d God for spite;
  • and by the independents and anabaptists, who are dubbed “land and water saints”; the latter are said
  • To dive like wild-fowl for Salvation
  • And fish to catch Regeneration.
  • Ralpho, who has a touch of the anabaptist, when rising from his bed, is said to “adventure Resurrection.” A classical comparison is found in Achilles, who was
  • anabaptiz’d free of wound
  • All over, but the pagan heel.
  • The sects are ever squabbling for change of doctrine,

  • As if Religion were intended
  • For nothing else but to be mended.
  • The philosophical virtuoso, Sir Kenelm Digby, is gibed at in the description of the pouch worn by Orsin, the pugnacious bear-ward,

  • Replete with strange hermetick Powder
  • That Wounds nine miles point-blank would solder;
  • and Hudibras is represented as spurring his courser,
  • Conveying sympathetic Speed
  • From Heel of Knight to Heel of Steed.
  • Homeric and classical similes and allusions are frequent in the first two parts. We have the intervention of “Pallas,” who came in shape of Rust,” to prevent a pistol going off, and “Mars, who still protects the stout”; a stone that strikes Ralpho is compared to that hurled by Diomed. Hudibras, in assisting Ralpho to his feet, boasts that

  • Caesar himself could never say
  • He got two vict’ries in a day
  • As I have done, that can say, twice I
  • In one day veni, vidi, vici.
  • Perhaps the comparisons from common life are more amusing; for instance, the celebrated simile:

  • And like a Lobster boil’d, the Morn
  • From black to red began to turn;
  • though this is not quite equal to its original in Rabelais, who says that lobsters are cardinalised by boiling. Very comic is the comparison of a sword that had fallen from its owner’s grip to deserting rats.
  • He snatched his Whiniard up, that fled
  • When he was falling from his Steed,
  • As Rats do from a falling House.
  • This is Pliny’s ruinis imminentibus musculi praemigrant. The whole poem is a storehouse of such borrowings.