- Fractured Meanings: Hudibras and the Historicity of the Literary Text
In his 1969 history of English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century James Sutherland offers an acute characterization of the tenuous afterlife of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras for readers in the latter part of the twentieth century. Sutherland writes:
The great popular poet of the Restoration... was Samuel Butler, whose Hudibras still remains as a sort of national monument... [But] who now reads Butler? How many twentieth-century readers setting out hopefully on that jolting and rattling journey through Hudibras have ever got beyond the first canto? Any dictionary of quotations will demonstrate beyond all possible doubt that Butler was once highly popular; but if he still has his addicts today, most modern readers know the quotations from Hudibras because they are quoted, and not because they have met them in their context. Butler’s reputation, indeed, has suffered an almost complete reversal: in his own day he was enjoyed by readers who were unlikely to read much else, but if he is read at all today it is probably by those who have read so much that they have also read Hudibras.... What Butler has to say about Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, or Quakers, predestination, the Covenant, the Directory, and much else, was once what large numbers of Englishmen wanted to have said; but today those matters have lost the burning relevance they once had, and the modern reader is likely not only to be unmoved, but also to be frequently puzzled. The poem that the Restoration reader and his sons and grandsons so enjoyed has almost completely evaporated. 1
The various issues Sutherland raises here — of popularity, meaning, reading, relevance, historicity, the instability or fragility of a texture of meanings — constitute the terrain of my interest in Butler’s Hudibras in this essay. Sutherland has characterized rather aptly the present-day “unreadability” of Hudibras, but there is also a significant oscillation in his account, a “reversal” in Sutherland’s own comments, as he moves from an assertion that Hudibras exists as “a sort of national monument” to the conclusion that, in fact, the poem “has almost completely evaporated,” both in terms of its ability to speak to the present and in terms of the place it occupies in our sense of the [End Page 529] British literary tradition or canon. In sketching out an approach to a reading of Hudibras, I want to keep in the foreground the temporal gap that becomes part of the structure of response to any literary text or cultural product — a temporal gap that is the basis for the inversion that Sutherland calls a “reversal” and that in the Restoration would have been called a “revolution.”
We look at Restoration and eighteenth-century literary texts across a span of some two or three hundred years and, generally, through a very particular (academic) institutional aperture that tends to take for granted the ability of cultural aritifacts to speak across time. In contrast, I want to begin from the premise that issues of historicity, relevance, and meaningfulness pertain to our approach to Restoration and eighteenth-century literature in general, and that with a text like Hudibras they are difficult to bracket, even provisionally. I will be arguing that two processes take place in and through the text of Hudibras: first, a process of decomposition — of the breakdown of the text into smaller and independent units of meaning, as well as the decay of intelligibility of the text with the passage of time. The second process is an opposite movement towards monumentality, towards the consolidation of a transcendant and valorized ground from which the text can continue to exert force across time. My argument is that the pressure for this latter process of monumentalization arises in large measure as a response to the first process of continual decay. More particularly, an anxious perception of textual instability in the Restoration and eighteenth century is linked to the experience of political instability in the period of the Civil Wars and through the Restoration. A compensatory and reactive investment in imperial monumentality emerges from this, shifting the locus of cultural strife from the national sphere to that of...