« PreviousContinue »
A VICIOUS LITERATURE.
So the vices of Whitehall were mirrored in many of the chief writings of the time. All the comedies, and much of the Poetry, written from the Restoration to the close of the century, and later too, are disgustingly vicious. It took many a long year to root out the poisonous weeds that, sown in this age, spread their tangling fibres through the best soils of English poetry. Even yet the English stage has hardly been cleansed from the pollutions heaped upon it by the play-wrights, who manufactured highly-flavoured vice for the delectation of the wicked men and women that hung by the skirts of the worst of our Stuart kings.
When the theatres were re-opened at the Restoration, a new splendour was thrown around their performances. The female characters began to be personated by women. Rich dresses, beautifully painted scenes, and fine decorations, added to the attractions of the drama a dazzling effect, unknown in earlier times. Crowds flocked nightly to the play: and how were they entertained? Almost all duties to God and to man were held up to public mockery. Virtue in every form, especially truth and modesty, came in for the largest share of the comedian's jeering; the strongest sympathies of the audience were stirred, and their loudest applause drawn forth, by the triumph of the profligate, and the ridicule cast upon the victims of his
The plays of Dryden are nearly all tainted with the poisons that floated thick in the social atmosphere of the time; but those of Wycherley are, perhaps, the most diseased specimens of our dramatic literature that have lived to the present day. The satires, songs, and novels of the period also bear the brand and scars of vice, and flaunt them openly in the eyes of all. The writers of such things penned them without compunction; and there were few who thought it shame to read of vicious deeds, which sun and moon saw done by night and day without a blush or a pang of conscience. Yet there are things more dangerous than this brazen effrontery, this shameless show of iniquity. Men grow disgusted and surfeited with the grossness of paraded
DANGER OF WELL-DRESSED VICE.
sin. Edmund Burke was a great and wise man; but he said a very foolish and pernicious thing, when, at the close of his indignant outburst in memory of the fallen Queen of France, he told the world that “vice itself loses half its evil by losing all its grossness.” Never was a greater falsehood spoken. The vice which is draped in the garb of virtue, or has the varnish of an outward refinement laid over its leprosy, is tenfold more infectious and destructive than the shameless wickedness which wears no veil to hide its loathsome front.
AFTER the Restoration of King Charles II. had thrown the Puritans into the shade, a man of almost fifty years, who had seen the bloody drama of the Revolution played out, and had been thrown by the changes of those troubled years into close contact with both Cavaliers and Roundheads, wrote a poem which cast even deeper ridicule upon the men of the steeple-hat and the sad-coloured dress than all the studied mockeries of a plumed and ringleted court could do. The man was Samuel Butler; the poem was Hudibras. What Shakspere is among English dramatists, Milton among English epic poets, Bunyan among English allegorists, Butler is among the writers of English burlesque-prince and paramount. He
sprang from a lowly stock. His father farmed a few acres in the parish of Strensham in Worcestershire ; and there the poet came to life in 1612. His schooling he got in Worcester; but the want of money prevented him from enjoying the benefit of a college education, although he is thought to have resided for some time at Cambridge, hovering round the halls of learning without being able to find an entrance there.
His abilities, however, gained him a few friends. He spent some time at Earl's Coomb in his native shire, acting as clerk to Justice Jeffreys; and his leisure hours, while he held this humble post, were devoted, not alone to study, but also to the refining enjoyments of music and painting. Not long ago some sorry daubs, patching the broken windows of a house at Earl's Coomb,
AMONG THE PURITANS.
were shown as the productions of the poet's pencil. If these were his, they only afforded another proof, in addition to the myriads we already have, that there are few men who can excel in moro than one branch of art or study.
It was a happy day for Butler, which transferred him to the mansion of the Countess of Kent. We do not know in what capacity he served this rich and noble lady; but there he foundwhat, no doubt, deeply gladdened the heart of the rustic scholarthe free use of a fine library, and the conversation of a learned man, Selden, who then managed the affairs of that household. Here he lived—how long we cannot say—revelling in books of all kinds, and often repaying by literary help the kindness of the scholarly steward.
Butler's life, as it has come down to us, is full of gaps. Knocked about from one employment to another, he acquired by his very misfortunes that rare and varied knowledge of human life which he displays so admirably in “Hudibras.” The next scene in which he appears is the grave household of Sir Samuel Luke, a strict Puritan of Bedfordshire, who held a county office—that of scout-master-under Cromwell. The atmosphere which Butler here breathed must have been somewhat uncongenial; yet it was his residence among the Puritans that prepared him for his famous work, supplied material for his fine word-pictures, and sharpened his stinging pen. Little did the Roundhead knight and his quiet household think that the poor tutor, whose bubbling, irrepressible wit, no doubt often scandalized the circumspect decorum of the dining-hall, was, like a traitor in the camp, taking silent notes, soon to be printed with a vengeance.
Another gap, and Butler re-appears as secretary to the Earl of Carbery, the President of Wales, who conferred on him the stewardship of Ludlow Castle. It was then after the Restoration, and brighter days seemed to be dawning for the Royalist wit. So good were his prospects, that, although there must have been
grey hairs under the huge bush of false curls which it was then the fashion to wear, he ventured to marry, as he thought, a fortune. But ill-luck still pursued him; his wife's money vanished
A QUEER AND CLEVER BOOK.
through the failure of the securities, and Butler found himself as poor as ever. Then it was that he first came before the public as an author. The first part of “Hudibras” was 1663 published, and sprang at once into fame. The moment was most propitious, for the degraded Puritans afforded a favourite mark for the shafts of courtly ridicule. The loud insulting laugh of the Cavalier party rang everywhere, as they read verses which chimed in with every feeling they had. The Merry Monarch was so tickled with the debates between the Presbyterian justice and the Independent clerk, that he often quoted witty couplets from the book. Yet fame did not mend the fortunes of
He got promises from his noble friends, but he got little
more; and in 1680 he died obscurely in Rose Street, Covent Garden, having suffered deeply from the bitter pangs of that hope deferred, which maketh the heart sick.
“Hudibras” is justly considered the best burlesque poem in the English language. For drollery and wit it cannot be surpassed. Written in the short tetrameter line, to which Scott has given so martial a ring, its queer couplets are at once understood and easily remembered -none the less for the extraordinary rhymes, which now and then startle us into a laugh. What can we expect but broad satiric fun in a poem in which we find a canto beginning thus :
“ There was an ancient sage philosopher,
That had read Alexander Ross over."
The adventures of Don Quixote, no doubt, suggested the idea of this work. Sir Hudibras, a Presbyterian knight, and his clerk, Squire Ralpho, sally forth to seek adventures and redress grievances, much as did the chivalrous knight of La Mancha and his trusty Sancho Panza. Nine cantos are filled with the squabbles, loves, and woes of master and man, whose Puritan manners and opinions are represented in a most ludicrous light.
THE LEARNING OF HUDIBRAS.
He was in logic a great critic,