'A Strange Chimaera of Beasts and Men': The Argument and Imagery of Hudibras, Part I

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Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 94)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,915 words

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[(essay date summer 1973) In the following essay, Wasserman examines the way Butler sets rational man against natural animals in Hudibras, and privileges the actions of the animals over the humans.]

The general drift of Hudibras criticism is historical; its efforts have been to fix the work more securely in the social, political, and ecclesiastical contexts of Butler's age rather than to make it more available to our own. To a large extent, its serious students have been source-hunters--like the author of the early "Key" to the identities of Butler's characters--or, more recently, interpreters of historical allegory; its editors have been antiquarians--like Zachary Grey in the eighteenth century--or historians--like John Wilders in the twentieth.1 This historical emphasis is of course justified by the occasional nature of Butler's satire. But Hudibras warrants at least one other critical approach, and one which has the added merit of recommending the poem to modern readers. Read in the light of the ethical and philosophical reflections recorded in Butler's notebooks, Hudibras displays a pronounced interest in general human nature.2 Such a view of the poem reveals that Butler's satiric attention is most frequently directed upon man's ethical pretensions--specifically upon the faculty which, improperly used, encourages mankind in general to place his own kind above all others, and a particular man to place himself above all others of his own kind. That faculty, Butler believed, was reason, the natural mark of human preeminence itself, and the source of all man's artificial distinctions--for example, his absurd pretensions to an inhuman sainthood and to a heroism which presumes to justify such a claim. Sir Hudibras, the man of reason, Puritan knight extraordinary, is thus the embodiment of these tendencies--a sort of burlesque Everyman. Hudibras, as I plan to show here, is a satire on mankind, a redefinition of the sine qua non of man as folly and viciousness.

In describing Hudibras as a satire on man, I am placing the poem in a specific category of satire, one which embraces such varied examples as Rochester's "Satyr Against Mankind" and the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels, but which characterizes itself by attacking not particular individuals or groups, but the human species as a whole.3 Necessarily concerned with essential human nature, such satire typically finds the conduct of men less consistent than that of animals with the norms of Nature. George Boas has assigned the term "theriophily" to this point of view, and has traced its source, for French literature, to Montaigne's Apology for Raimond Sebond, Plutarch's Moralia, and the literary paradox, the brief, playful essay contradicting prevailing opinions on human nature.4 References in Butler's writings to all three of these sources suggest his awareness of the theriophilist tradition. Near the beginning of Hudibras, for example, Butler refers to a pertinent passage in Montaigne's Apology--that in which the author, "playing with his Cat, / Complains she thought him but an Ass" (i, 38-39),5 and, in the second canto of Part II of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420090037