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THE materials for the Life of Samuel Butler are
very scanty. We meet everywhere with contradictory legends, but few facts really ascertained. Since the time when Dr. Johnson wrote his Life of Butler, criticism, literary and historical, has accomplished much in other directions, but for Butler it seems as if little more could now be done. Johnson himself, after sketching the leading facts of the great humourist's life, says:-'In this mist of obscurity passed the life of Butler, a man whose name can only perish with his language. The mode and place of his education are unknown ; the events of his life are variously related ; and all that can be told with certainty is that he was poor.'
Confining ourselves as far as possible, for the purposes of this edition, to what is known, as distinguished from what is conjectured, we shall find, then, the record of Butler's life to be comprized in few words. Samuel Butler the poet was born in the parish of Strensham in Worcestershire, and was named after his father, one Samuel Butler, who rented a farm from Sir William Russel, and seems to have been a person of some social status amongst his neighbours, since he kept the parish registers
and had at least sufficient education to write a fair hand. The poet was the fifth in a family of seven children, the fate of the remaining six being absolutely unknown. From the Russel family, howover, the Butlers would probably have imbibed sufficient loyalty to cause the ruin of all who were less gifted than the poet. The entry of Butler's baptism bears the date February 8th, 1612, and he lived to the age of sixty-eight, dying in 1680.
Of Butler's education the accounts are very scanty and very
unreliable. There seems to be little doubt that he was sent to the Cathedral School at Worcester, of which the head master was Mr. Henry Bright, who had the reputation of being one of the best schoolmasters of his day. If, as seems most likely, Butler never studied at either university, it is certain that his school training must have been unusually good to lay the foundation of a learning so minute and extensive as he afterwards possessed. As far as tradition goes, either Oxford or Cambridge may claim him; but the traditions are themselves so vague and even self-contradictory that we are driven to the conclusion that in all probability Butler's is one of the numerous cases where a man who has proved himself facile princeps in his particular department has owed none of his greatness to an academic training. The strongest evidence in favour of this theory is to be derived from the pecuniary position of his father. There were then no school exhibitions, tenable at the universities, at the Worcester Cathedral School, and the elder Samuel Butler, with his seven children to provide for, could hardly have been wealthy enough to bear the expenses of a collegiate education.
Soon after the completion of whatever education he did get, but at a date not accurately known, Butler was appointed clerk to one Mr. Jefferys of Earl's Croome in Worcestershire. Either during his tenure of this office or before his appointment to it, Butler seems to have studied English Law with much care and energy, compiling in ‘law French'a complete syllabus of Coke upon Littleton, as well as transcribing an entire French Dictionary. (Cf. Hudibras, I. ii. 161.) From his employment with this gentleman he was transferred, at a date and by means of influence which are now alike untraceable, to the service of the Countess of Kent, where he had access to a plentiful supply of books, and a still greater advantage in the acquaintance of John Selden. The nature of his office in the household of the Countess is unknown, as also his reasons for leaving it.
But the more important portion of Butler's life commences with his next service. His stores of general learning doubtless increased rapidly during his residence at Wrest under the patronage of the Countess of Kent. But it was on quitting that position, and taking up his abode with Sir Samuel Luke at Cople Hoo near Bedford, that Butler was first brought into daily contact with the manners and customs he was to know so intimately, and whose extravagances he was destined to ridicule in the masterpiece of English burlesque.
Sir Samuel Luke was a Presbyterian officer, a colonel in the army of the Parliament, and much trusted by Cromwell. He is the probable original of Hudibras ; though it will have to be hereafter decided, as far as may be, to what extent he must share that honour with others. From the time when Butler entered this service until the Restoration, we hear no more of him, though he must evidently have been then collecting materials for his great poem ; and it is curious to think of the consummate prudence and ability Butler must have possessed, to enable him to wait and watch in silence and make no sign, the smile suppressed upon his lip, and the biting jest stored up in his unfailing memory, or secretly committed to paper; mixing freely with the assemblies for
prayer, for council, so frequent at the house of his employer, yet in that age of universal suspicion, noticing all things, revealing nothing
Almost immediately after the Restoration, Butler was appointed secretary to the Earl of Carbery and steward of Ludlow Castle. It seems clear that, considering the nature of his last employment, he must have been favourably known in influential quarters. It is important to remark that this appointment preceded the publication of Hudibras, and therefore was in no sense an acknowledgment by the Court of Butler's literary merits. And in view of the fact that Butler had not as yet rendered any service to the Royalist cause, it is of course premature to accuse the Court of ingratitude, as Dr. Johnson does, in not having given the poet a better post. Nor was the post itself altogether contemptible. It was a public and not a private secretaryship, and it is to be feared that only too many whose services had been far more important than Butler's had proved up to this date, had to endure a lot much worse than his.
It was about this time, but at a date not certainly fixed, that Butler married a Mrs. Herbert. It is