Wednesday 10 July 2024

Review: Hudibras by Samuel Butler

 Just before I got into eighteenth century literature, I discovered Pepys. I loved the honesty, openness and joy of his diaries and, as a man in my very early twenties, was not quite mature enough to see what an utter slimeball he could also be. Rather like how there are many eighteenth century projects that revel in the lives of prostitutes as bawdy good fun and neglect the real desperate nature of it, I saw Pepys’s amorous dalliances as picturesque fun. Something I no longer can, which has soured the reading of him for me.

There are some elements of Pepys’s diary that are still very relatable though, and one of them is his relationship with Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. Buying the first volume when it was the hot new thing, hearing about its “drollery” and feeling he “needs go find it out”. Ultimately, he was disappointed, finding it not very funny. What’s more he worries he was showing “some ill humour to be so against that which all the world cries up to be the example of wit”.

So, when the second volume came out, he went to the booksellers again to get a copy of Hudibras “which I buy not but borrow to read, to see if it be as good as the first, which the world cries so mightily up; though it hath not a good liking in me, though I had tried by twice or three times reading to bring myself to think it witty.” Finally, he had to admit to himself, “I cannot, I confess, see enough where the wit lies”.

I completely understand his utter irritation at simply not ‘getting’ something that everyone else is raving about. I like the fact that he says he read it two or three times, trying to like it but failing. As someone who has been diverted down their own media/literary/cultural path, I sometimes find myself at a place where I simply can’t understand the appeal (The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, I’m looking at you). So I thought I’d read Hudibras and see how I got on.

Hudibras is in many ways a take on Don Quixote. An opinionated, high-minded knight sets off with his squire and they find themselves embroiled in petty street fights, tangles with wizards and having philosophical discussions about their different views on the world. Though, in Hudibras, these discussions often end up in vigorous arguments also.

The difference is that Hudibras has not been turned by reading chivalric fiction, but religious and political pamphlets, being a Colonel in the parliamentary army during the English Civil War. Ralph, his squire has been equally radicalised by the works of dissenters and puritans. The book is set after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, to be known to history as Tumble-Down Dick, to successfully replace him. Change is in the air and King Charles II will shortly be invited back onto the throne. Their time is over.

At the outset, they spy a street-fiddler and some people setting up a session of bear-baiting. Having various reasons to dislike these practices (mainly odd ones about the symbolism of the bear-baiting) they wade into the crowd, imprison the fiddler and accidentally set the bear free, causing chaos. Having won this battle, they congratulate themselves on their goodness before the crowd come back, beat them up and put them in the pillory as punishment for the damage they’ve done.

A rich widow comes and pays their bail, on the proviso that Hudibras promises to whip himself in contrition. He, falling in love with her money, tries to woo her but she is immune, declaring she will only love someone who doesn’t love her. Winning this widow is now Hudibras’s chief goal in the book.

He goes to the wizard Sidrophel to get advice on the best way to woo the widow, but the two get into an argument about the legality of magic and Hudibras knocks him and his assistant down. Ralph goes to get the authorities, but Hudibras robs the wizard and runs away, hoping to lay the blame on his squire. 

Hudibras goes to the widow, to boast of his beating of Sidrophel and claim he was whipped himself, claiming her hand (and fortune) in marriage but Ralph has already been there and told her what really happened. Ralph and the widow lay a trap for Hudibras, dressing citizens as devils and attacking him, making him admit his bad intentions towards the widow. Finally, Hudibras gets advice from a lawyer and writes a letter to the widow, hoping she’ll admit to agreeing to marry her, which he can use to sue her into doing so. The widow writes a letter back, avoiding that trap and upbraiding Hudibras and men and general - then it ends.

Another important difference between Don Quixote and Hudibras is the style. Don Quixote is sometimes named as the first novel, and although this can easily be debated, it is in a long, prose style. Hudibras is written in rhymed octosyllabic couplets, sometimes called the Hudibrastic and used by later writers (especially 18th century ones) to write mock-epics and satirical verse. The style well suits its use, there’s an epic-poem quality to the metre that the forced/weak/surprising rhymes then puncture. Though, over the length of the whole poem, it can get tired and repetitive, and I often found my attention straying as I read. Ned Ward, of The London Spy fame, once tried to translate the whole of Don Quixote into Hudibrastic verse. I’m fond of Ned, but I don’t think I could read that.

The humour is often very bottom focused, the word bum being used fifteen times in the text (Oddly the word trepan is used thirteen). I’m not immune to an arse joke, especially delivered elegantly and in verse. There’s a description of Hudibras being enamoured by his lover’s fart that I enjoyed; “When i’mprisoned air escaped her/ It pufft him with poetic rapture.” I think it’s the verb ‘pufft’ that really works here.

There’s also a very good bit which takes the piss of bagpipes; 

“Then bagpipes of the loudest drones,
With snuffling broken-winded tones,
Whose blasts of air, in pockets shut
Sound filthier than from the gut,
And make a viler noise than swine
In windy weather, when they whine.”

Butler does have an eye-catching way of putting things and, when he isn’t stringing a metaphor along beyond breaking point, has a decent sense of aphorism. I’m sure I’ve heard the phrase, “Doubtless the pleasure is as great/ Of being cheated as to cheat”. I also enjoyed the description of “moist and crazy brains” and of wives who “ride their husbands like night-mares.”

Another very engaging part was the discussion about politics since the Civil War and the sense that after killing a king, anything is possible, no matter how absurd - a feeling I’ve had since Brexit. Some people want to ban wedding rings, as it means a person is marrying only a person’s finger, not their person. Some want to detach themselves from Catholicism by renaming every place, street, church and person named after a saint. Some are for abolishing black-pudding, unthinkable.

Strangely, for all the knock-about humour and talk about religion and politics, Hudibras is best when talking about the positions of men and women, and even finds itself in a place that could be labelled feminist. 

Hudibras initially tries to flatter and woo the widow in a traditional way. He tells her that he will honour the very shadows of her shoelaces. She immediately puts him in her place, noting that he’s not interested in her at all, but her money. She tells Hudibras he can pay her back by whipping himself, and that maybe she might consider his suit, something he keeps trying to wiggle out of and she enforce.

They have many back and forwards about the place and nature of women. Hudibras compares them to pirates, using make-up as a false flag to trap their prey. She says that women to have to conceal themselves and, like a face behind a carnival mask, women have to hide their talents, playing stupid before prospective lovers. Finally, Hudibras declares that women, being made by God for men, should give themselves up for any men and have no freedom of their own. The widow replies by asking why women always have men in their debt then. She lists all the women who have secretly, and not so secretly ruled and exerted power through men. That men are weak and easily lead, and that women know how to lead them. She, and the book, concludes; “Let men usurp th’ unjust dominion, as if they were the better women.” It’s a powerful ending to a mostly silly book.

Wednesday 3 July 2024

Review: The Life of Orator Henley by Graham Midgley

Graham Midgley’s The Life of Orator Henley was a revelation. I’d come across the figure of Orator Henley before, he was one of the big targets of The Dunciad, a running joke in The Grub Street Journal and one of the inspirations behind Christopher Smart’s drag review The Old Woman’s Oratory. What this book does is establish John Henley as more than a joke and even makes a case for him as a fascinating individual with some interesting ideas.

Born in Melton Mowbray, home of the pork pie, Henley was the son of a popular clergyman. He has a succesful school career at Oakham school before going to university in Cambridge. There his individuality and forward-looking nature seemed to assert itself, describing Str John’s college as “where I had the stupidity to be educated.” He found the place narrow, dull, incurious and utterly unequipped to give him the skills he would need for being a good vicar. What’s more the selection process to take holy orders struck him as a scam.

He went back to Melton Mowbray where he reformed the local school. He banned rote learning and corporal punishment, encouraging the pupils to develop their own individual thoughts and modes of expression. Compared to Johnson’s own ‘rational’ plans for education at Edial, Henley actually questioned the core practices and subjects of schooling.

Feeling that Melton Mowbray was too small a stage, he moved to the capital with the hope of getting a nice, fat London living. He maintained himself with regular preaching and lecturing gigs at some churches, and by slaving for booksellers. He created a series of ‘plain and useful’ grammar books in a range of languages. It was a good idea, but he wrote them all himself and simply didn’t know the twenty-odd languages featured in the series, trying to crib his knowledge from other books. Ultimately, it was a good idea badly executed and it brought him his first detractors. (He also wrote an epic poem about the Biblical Queen Esther, which is pretty good by all accounts.)

Despite a good start, he failed to advance in the church. Partly because his patron pulled out of politics and partly because the Bishop of London made some promises to him he didn’t keep (and thus earned Henley’s lifelong enmity). Henley decided to set up his own church, The Oratory. it was initially set up above a meat market, which exposed him to jibes about his butcher audience from then on. He wanted to return to the practices of a more primitive, ‘pure’ church, free of the accumulated dross of centuries (and bishops). He also wanted his Oratory to be more than a place of worship, but also a place of learning and set up lessons, lectures and educational pamphlets.

This was when the attacks really started. Henley wore his clerical garb at all times, even when he got drunk down the pub. He preached in a dramatic manner, a style which he felt grabbed his audience and communicated his messages better but many felt was over-theatrical. He also believed that all subjects could be interpreted religiously and held the potential for good lessons. As a result, he’d preach about political scandals, fashions and other seemingly frivolous things. He also believed that humour and satire were important tools in a preacher’s arsenal and the site of a man in cloak and bands cracking satirical jokes from the pulpit was too much for many. From his point of view, his peaching held, “universality of scope, liveliness of elocution and the various instruments of laughter” but to others he was a ranting weirdo. His fondness for puns didn’t help.

Most shockingly, his Oratory took money at the door to attend. While other churches lived off tithes, taxes, collections and even the renting of pews, pay-to-entry was far too close to theatre to his detractors. It was also possible to buy season tickets, with medallions of gold, silver and Bath-metal providing different privileges. He later tried to float The Oratory as a business, trying to get shareholders. These methods to pay for The Oratory easily led to accusations that he was only in it for the money, and Henley was able to live in middle-class comfort. Of course, he heavily denied this, saying, “little is got by an oratory: it is no occasion for envy”. What’s more, he felt his congregants got a good bang for their buck, not only with his lively style but his commitment to several original sermons a week, when other clergy would re-use their sermons or even buy them off other people. Samuel Johnson wrote a number of sermons for his friend, John Taylor.

As time went on, the religious side of The Oratory diminished. His celebrations of ‘primitive eucharist’ reduced in numbers, and his popular Monday evening lectures, which consisted of satirical news round-ups became the main event. The educational element of The Oratory kept going, and he offered lessons to teach people to “think, distinguish, definite reason, demonstrate, to dispute, conclude self-evidently” &c. Like his grammar books, this seems like a great idea, a people’s university - but he tried to teach everything himself and it ultimately seems like one of those pointless online ‘universities’.

The Oratory ran for thirty years, so it must have served somebody. It seems that there was an initial rush as people checked out the novelty, including Voltaire and Pope. Then things dropped off a bit, with bursts of attendance when Henley’s name was on people’s lips.

To maintain The Oratory in people’s minds, Henley wrote adverts. These started as hyperactive but straightforward accounts of the topics he would cover but mutated over the years. The adverts started featuring odd little tics, like “hei-day”, “job and hiccup” and “oh, my poor spectacle case”. Instead of describing the topics, they would feature strange little phrases or tortured puns. It was easy to assume he’d gone mad but Henley admitted that he “had written advertisements as seemingly incoherent as possible.” To understand the advert, you’d have to go to The Oratory. It’s essentially magazine-based clickbait.

Henley even had a place to run these adverts, his own magazine The Hyp-Doctor which ran every Tuesday for eleven years. In it, Henley played the character of Dr Isaac Ratcliffe of Elbow Lane, a doctor who cured ‘hyp’, short for ‘hypochondria’ and perceived as a form of melancholy. Despite one bookseller saying Henley’s name on books was “sufficient to make them be thrown aside”, The Hyp Doctor was often talked about and lived a long life.

John Henley is known to the present day from the reports of his enemies, and he made many of those. One of the fiercest was Alexander Pope, who eviscerated him in The Dunciad. Even more damning were the notes in the Variorum edition which attacked Henley personally. Henley believed these notes were written by Richard Savage, who had a hatred of him after he preached a sermon against Savage’s acquittal for murder. From then on, Pope was a main target, and Henley was just as nasty, mocking his size, deformity and describing his new poems as ‘diarrhoea’. 

Pope then set up The Grub Street Journal and left it in capable satirical hands. The newspaper attacked him for the majority of its run; parodying him, sending people to make notes on his sermons, and turning his incomprehensible adverts into poems. Like most of his attackers, The Grub Street Journal ended before Henley’s Oratory did.

The other big ‘war’ was against Christopher Smart, who parodied the name of Henley’s Oratory in his Mother Midnight drag shows. Henley, wishing to defend his brand, attacked Smart, especially for his female persona and rumoured visits to Molly Houses. One of his sermons was titled, ‘Pimlico Molly Midnight translated to Rump Castle’ - Pimlico being a gay cruising spot. Smart seemed to enjoy the bantering back and forth in his The Midwife magazine and on stage and presumably the publicity helped them both. 

As fascinating as this book is about Henley’s professional life, there isn’t much about his personal. He had a wife, Mary, who mainly stayed in the background. This seems to be because Henley didn’t have a personal life. Even on his off time, he wandered pubs and coffee houses, seeking arguments. When he died, he had no-one to leave his effects to. He had no friends.

This lack of friends seems the key to Henley’s failure. Had he collaborated on some of his projects, they may have been more successful. He may be remembered as an educational innovator or pioneer of a new kind of church but because he did everything himself, he had no-one to cover for his defects or help carry his loads. It’s impressive The Oratory lasted for thirty years until his death, but his inability to work with others meant it died when he did and his only legacy was as the butt of a joke.