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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

§ 8. Contents of The Genuine Remains: Characters

The Characters must have been suggested by the fashion brought into vogue by Casaubon’s translation of Theophrastus’s Characters in 1592, feebly imitated by bishop Hall, and superficially by Sir Thomas Overbury, and exemplified more effectively in Earle’s Microcosmographie (1628–33). Earle was a fellow of Merton and a great friend of Lord Falkland; Clarendon, who met Earle at Falkland’s country house, Great Tew, near Oxford, and was much taken with the refined scholar, refers to Microcosmographie as some very “witty and sharp discourses” which brought the author into repute. It might, therefore, be an interesting matter for speculation as to how far Clarendon himself was indebted (for suggestions at least) to the numerous essays of this kind during the first half of the seventeenth century, in composing the wonderful delineations of character which are the chief ornaments of his History of the Rebellion.

Butler’s Characters remained in manuscript for about a century and, though brought to light in 1759 in The Genuine Remains, they have by no means received the attention they deserve. While, perhaps, not closely adhering to the model of Theophrastus, they are full of witty sallies and quips which bring into relief the absurdities and hypocrisy displayed by the presbyterian members of Sir Samuel Luke’s coterie. Butler had a special genius for noting points of comparison and making similes from small matters in common life, or from extraordinary relations of travellers or observers in fantastic science, such as Sir Kenelm Digby and Cornelius Agrippa; his bent being essentially satirical, he had, while with Sir Samuel Luke, a rare opportunity of observing and recording the revelations made by the “caterwauling brethren,” the self-styled saints, whose pretentions he unmasks in his Hudibras.

Most of his Characters are merely general, but others, especially the longer, such as “A Modern Politician,” “An hypocritical Non-conformist,” “A Republican,” “A State-Convert,” “A modern Statesman,” “A Fifth Monarchy man,” “A small Poet,” “A Lawyer,” “A Virtuoso,” “A Justice of Peace,” “A Fanatic,” “An Hermetic Philosopher,” are evidently to be referred to actors on the political stage of that time, and must have supplied matter for Hudibras; there are passages that have so close a resemblance to their counterparts in the poem that one must have been derived from the other; though there are some points in the Characters which show that they must have been written (at least in part) after 1664.

Of Earle’s Characters, about ten coincide in their subject with those of Butler, and it is interesting to compare the different styles of treatment to be found in these writers. But, in every case, the method is the same. The character is drawn not in outline, but by a number of minor traits that all tell in the same direction till the portrait is fully completed. The besetting sin of the artist in this kind of description is that he often does not know when to take his hand from the picture, and goes on elaborating details till the reader is wearied.