What the Butler Saw; Chris Upton Examines the Life and Times of Satirist Samuel Butler - the First One, That Is

The Birmingham Post (England), May 8, 2009 | Go to article overview

What the Butler Saw; Chris Upton Examines the Life and Times of Satirist Samuel Butler - the First One, That Is


Byline: Chris Upton

It's a happy circumstance that there are generally not two famous people with the same name. When I mention John Keats, it's pretty obvious that I'm referring to the author of Ode to a Nightingale and not some other John Keats who worked as a grocer in Oldbury.

There are, however, two literary Samuel Butlers. To make things more confusing, both of them wrote satire, both tried their hand at painting and both came from the Midlands. Of the first one, the guidebooks, biographical dictionaries and literary histories always say "the author of Hudibras". Of the second and later of the two (1835-1902), they say "author of Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh". Such titles are bandied around as if they help, but (sadly) I do not imagine many now read The Way of All Flesh, fewer still Hudibras.

Once we have set aside Samuel Butler II, because he hailed from Nottinghamshire, we can safely concentrate on Samuel Butler I. There are a few pieces of biographical house-keeping to deal with before we can get on to Hudibras.

Butler was born in 1612 at Strensham in Worcestershire, better known today for its motorway services than for its literary associations.

Samuel Butler was of farming stock but the family was prosperous enough to be able to send young Samuel to the King's School in Worcester. Here he was taught by one of the foremost classicists of his day, Henry Bright.

Biographical notes will also add "Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras".

Samuel may have found time for a brief stay at one of the two universities, but there's no evidence of matriculation or graduation. The next time we come across him, Butler is working as a secretary to Thomas Jeffrey of Earls Croome, where he picked up a knowledge of the law, did some reading and dabbled in painting.

Earls Croome Court still stands, between Pershore and Upton and close to the parish church where Butler's erstwhile employer is buried. Of Thomas Jeffrey, the guidebooks unanimously declare: "Died 1650. His secretary was the author of Hudibras." How often is a book name-checked and never read? Samuel Butler's art was not going to make his fortune. One uncharitable editor in the 18th century said of his paintings that they "served to stop windows and save the tax". Instead, Butler's career, had to be built on his reputation as a good secretary. …

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