« VorigeDoorgaan »
The hero of Butler is a Presbyterian Justice, who, 4 in the confidence of legal authority, and the rage of zealous ignorance, ranges the country to repress superftition and correct abuses, accompanied by an independent Clerk, disputatious and obstinate, with whom he often debates, but never conquers him.
Cervantes had so much kindness for Don Quixote, that, however he embarrasses him with absurd distreises, he gives him so much sense and virtue as may preserve our esteem : wherever he is, or whatever he does, he is made by matchless dexterity commonly ridiculous, but never contemptible.
But for poor Hudibras, his poet had no tenderness; he chuses nor that any pity should be shewn or respect paid him : he gives him up at once to laughter and contempt, without any quality that can dignify or protect him.
In forming the character of Hudibras, and descrising his person and habiliments, the author seems to labour with a tumultuous confusion of diffimilar ideas. He had read the history of the mock knights-errant ; he knew the notions and manners of a Presbyterian magistrate, and tried to unite the absurdities of both, however distant, in one personage. Thus he gives him that pedantic oftentation of knowledge which has no relation to chivalry, and loads him with martial encumbrances that can add nothing to his civil dignity. He sends him out a colonelling, and yet never brings him within sight of war.
If Hudibras be considered as the representative of the Presbyterians, it is not easy to say why his weapons should be represented as ridiculous or useless ; for, whatever judgement might be passed upon their know,
ledge or their arguments, experience had sufficiently fhown that their swords were not to be despised.
The hero, thus, compounded of swaggerer and pedant, of knight and justice, is led forth to action, with his squire Ralpho, an Independant enthusiast,
Of the contexture of events planned by the author, which is called the action of the poem, since it is left imperfect, no judgement can be made. It is probable, that the hero was to be led through many luckless adventures, which would give occasion, like his attack upon the bear and fiddle, to expose the ridiculous rigour
of the sectaries; like his encounter with Sidrophel and Whacum, to make superstition and credulity contemptible; or, like his recourse to the low retailer of the law, discover the fraudulent practices of different professions.
What series of events he would have forined, or in what manner he would have rewarded or punished his hero, it is now vain to conjecture. His work must have had, as it seems, the defect which Dryden imputes to Spenser; the action could not have been one; those could only have been a succession of incidents, each of which might have happened without the rest, and which could not all cooperate to any single conclusion.
The discontinuity of the action might however have been easily forgiven, if there had been action enough: but I believe every reader regrets the paucity of events, and complains that in the poem of Hudibras, as in the history of Thucydides, there is more said than done. The scenes are too seldom changed, and the attention is tired with long conversation.
It is inderd much more easy to form dialogues than to contrive adventures. Every position makes way for
an argument, and every objection dictates an answer. When two disputants are engaged upon a complicated and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end the controversy. But whether it be that we comprehend but few of the possibilities of life, or that life itself affords little variety, every man who has tried knows how much labour it will cost to form such a combination of circumstances, as shall have at once the grace of novelty and credibility, and delight fancy without violence to reason.
Perhaps the Dialogue of this poem is not perfect. 36 Some power of engaging the attention might have been added to it, by quicker reciprocation, by seasonable interruptions, by sudden questions, and by a nearer approach to dramatick spriteliness; without which, fictitious speeches will always tire, however sparkling with sentences, and however variegated with allusions,
The great source of pleasure is variety. Uniformity must tire at last, though it be uniformity of excellence. We love to expect; and, when expectation is disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting. For this impatience of the present, whoever would please, must make provision. The skilful writer irritat, mulcet, makes a due distribution of the still and animated parts. It is for want of this artful intertexture, and those necessary changes, that the whole of a book may be tedious, though all the parts are praised.
If unexhaustible wit could give perpetual pleasure, no eye would ever leave half-read the work of Butler ; for what poet has ever brought so many remote images fu happily together? It is scarcely possible to peruse a
page without finding some association of images that was never found before. By the first paragraph the reader is amused, by the next he is delighted, and by a few more strained to astonishment; but astonishment is a toilsome pleasure; he is soon weary of wondering, and longs to be diverted.
Omnia vult belle Matho dicere, dic aliquando
Et bene, dic neutrum, dic aliquando male. 31 Imagination is useless without knowledge : nature
gives in vain the power of combination, unless study and observation supply materials to be combined. Butler's treasures of knowledge appear proportioned to his expence': whatever topic employs his mind, he shews himself qualified to expand and illustrate it with all the accessories that books can furnish : he is found not only to have travelled the beaten road, but the byepaths of literature; not only to have taken general surveys, but to have examined particulars with minute inspection.
If the French boast the learning of Rabelais, we need not be afraid of confronting them with Butler.
But the most valuable parts of his performance are those which retired study and native wit cannot supply, He that merely makes a book from books may be useful, but can scarcely be great. Butler had not suffered life to glide beside him unseen or unobserved. He had watched with great diligence the operations of human nature, and traced the effects of opinion, humour, interest, and passion. From such remarks proceeded that great number of sententious distichs which have passed into conversation, and are added as proverbial axioms to the general stock of practical knowledge.
When any work has been viewed and admired, the first question of intelligent curiosity is, how was it performed ? Hudibras was not a hasty effusion; it was not produced by a sudden tumult of imagination, or a short paroxyfm of violent labour. To accumulate such a mass of sentiments at the call of accidental desire, or of sudden necessity, is beyond the reach and power of the most active and comprehensive mind. I am informed by Mr. Thyer of Manchester, the excellent editor of this author's reliques, that he could shew fomething like Hudibras in prose. He has in his poffeffion the common-place book, in which Butler reposited, not such events or precepts as are gathered by reading ; but such remarks, similitudes, allusions, assemblages, or inferences, as occasion prompted, or meditation produced; those thoughts that were generated in his own mind, and might be usefully applied to some future purpose. Such is the labour of those who write for immortality.
But human works are not easily found without a perishable part. Of the ancient poets every reader feels the mythology tedious and oppressive. Of Hudibras, the manners, being founded on opinions, are temporary and local, and therefore become every day less intelligible, and less striking. What Cicero says of philosophy is true likewise of wit and humour, that “ time effaces the fi&tions of opinion, and confirms " the determinations of Nature." Such manners as depend upon standing relations and general passions are co-extended with the race of man; but those inodifications of life, and peculiarities of practice, which are the progeny of error and perverseness, or at beit of some accidental influence or transient persuasion, muft perish with their parents.