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.

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