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- Samuel Butler: A Sketch - 1/7 -


by Henry Festing Jones

Samuel Butler was born on the 4th December, 1835, at the Rectory, Langar, near Bingham, in Nottinghamshire. His father was the Rev. Thomas Butler, then Rector of Langar, afterwards one of the canons of Lincoln Cathedral, and his mother was Fanny Worsley, daughter of John Philip Worsley of Arno's Vale, Bristol, sugar-refiner. His grandfather was Dr. Samuel Butler, the famous headmaster of Shrewsbury School, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield. The Butlers are not related either to the author of 'Hudibras', or to the author of the 'Analogy', or to the present Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Butler's father, after being at school at Shrewsbury under Dr. Butler, went up to St. John's College, Cambridge; he took his degree in 1829, being seventh classic and twentieth senior optime; he was ordained and returned to Shrewsbury, where he was for some time assistant master at the school under Dr. Butler. He married in 1832 and left 1 Shrewsbury for Langar. He was a learned botanist, and made a collection of dried plants which he gave to the Town Museum of Shrewsbury.

Butler's childhood and early life were spent at Langar among the surroundings of an English country rectory, and his education was begun by his father. In 1843, when he was only eight years old, the first great event in his life occurred; the family, consisting of his father and mother, his two sisters, his brother and himself, went to Italy. The South-Eastern Railway stopped at Ashford, whence they travelled to Dover in their own carriage; the carnage was put on board the steamboat, they crossed the Channel, and proceeded to Cologne, up the Rhine to Basle and on through Switzerland into Italy, through Parma, where Napoleon's widow was still reigning, Modena, Bologna, Florence, and so to Rome. They had to drive where there was no railway, and there was then none in all Italy except between Naples and Castellamare. They seemed to pass a fresh custom-house every day, but, by tipping the searchers, generally got through without inconvenience. The bread was sour and the Italian butter rank and cheesy--often uneatable. Beggars ran after the carriage all day long, and when they got nothing jeered at the travellers and called them heretics. They spent half the winter in Rome, and the children were taken up to the top of St. Peter's as a treat to celebrate their father's birthday. In the Sistine Chapel they saw the cardinals kiss the toe of Pope Gregory XVI., and in the Corso, in broad daylight, they saw a monk come rolling down a staircase like a sack of potatoes, bundled into the street by a man and his wife. The second half of the winter was spent in Naples. This early introduction to the land which he always thought of and often referred to as his second country made an ineffaceable impression upon him.

In January, 1846, he went to school at Allesley, near Coventry, under the Rev. E. Gibson. He seldom referred to his life there, though sometimes he would say something that showed he had not forgotten all about it. For instance, in 1900, Mr. Sydney C. Cockerell, now the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, showed him a medieval missal, laboriously illuminated. He found that it fatigued him to look at it, and said that such books ought never to be made. Cockerell replied that such books relieved the tedium of divine service, on which Butler made a note ending thus:

Give me rather a robin or a peripatetic cat like the one whose loss the parishioners of St. Clement Danes are still deploring. When I was at school at Allesley the boy who knelt opposite me at morning prayers, with his face not more than a yard away from mine, used to blow pretty little bubbles with his saliva which he would send sailing off the tip of his tongue like miniature soap bubbles; they very soon broke, but they had a career of a foot or two. I never saw anyone else able to get saliva bubbles right away from him and, though I have endeavoured for some fifty years and more to acquire the art, I never yet could start the bubble off my tongue without its bursting. Now things like this really do relieve the tedium of church, but no missal that I have ever seen will do anything except increase it.

In 1848 he left Allesley and went to Shrewsbury under the Rev. B. H. Kennedy. Many of the recollections of his school life at Shrewsbury are reproduced for the school life of Ernest Pontifex at Roughborough in 'The Way of All Flesh', Dr. Skinner being Dr. Kennedy.

During these years he first heard the music of Handel; it went straight to his heart and satisfied a longing which the music of other composers had only awakened and intensified. He became as one of the listening brethren who stood around "when Jubal struck the chorded shell" in the 'Song for Saint Cecilia's Day':

Less than a god, they thought, there could not dwell Within the hollow of that shell That spoke so sweetly and so well.

This was the second great event in his life, and henceforward Italy and Handel were always present at the bottom of his mind as a kind of double pedal to every thought, word, and deed. Almost the last thing he ever asked me to do for him, within a few days of his death, was to bring 'Solomon' that he might refresh his memory as to the harmonies of "With thee th' unsheltered moor I'd trace." He often tried to like the music of Bach and Beethoven, but found himself compelled to give them up--they bored him too much. Nor was he more successful with the other great composers; Haydn, for instance, was a sort of Horace, an agreeable, facile man of the world, while Mozart, who must have loved Handel, for he wrote additional accompaniments to the 'Messiah', failed to move him. It was not that he disputed the greatness of these composers, but he was out of sympathy with them, and never could forgive the last two for having led music astray from the Handel tradition, and paved the road from Bach to Beethoven. Everything connected with Handel interested him. He remembered old Mr. Brooke, Rector of Gamston, North Notts, who had been present at the Handel Commemoration in 1784, and his great-aunt, Miss Susannah Apthorp, of Cambridge, had known a lady who had sat upon Handel's knee. He often regretted that these were his only links with "the greatest of all composers.

Besides his love for Handel he had a strong liking for drawing, and, during the winter of 1853-4, his family again took him to Italy, where, being now eighteen, he looked on the works of the old masters with intelligence.

In October, 1854, he went into residence at St. John's College, Cambridge. He showed no aptitude for any particular branch of academic study, nevertheless he impressed his friends as being likely to make his mark. Just as he used reminiscences of his own schooldays at Shrewsbury for Ernest's life at Roughborough, so he used reminiscences of his own Cambridge days for those of Ernest. When the Simeonites, in 'The Way of All Flesh', "distributed tracts, dropping them at night in good men's letter boxes while they slept, their tracts got burnt or met with even worse contumely." Ernest Pontifex went so far as to parody one of these tracts and to get a copy of the parody "dropped into each of the Simeonites' boxes." Ernest did this in the novel because Butler had done it in real life. Mr. A. T. Bartholomew, of the University Library, has found, among the Cambridge papers of the late J. Willis Clark's collection, three printed pieces belonging to the year 1855 bearing on the subject. He speaks of them in an article headed "Samuel Butler and the Simeonites," and signed A. T. B. in the 'Cambridge Magazine', 1st March, 1913; the first is "a genuine Simeonite tract; the other two are parodies. All three are anonymous. At the top of the second parody is written 'By S. Butler, March 31.'" The article gives extracts from the genuine tract and the whole of Butler's parody.

Besides parodying Simeonite tracts, Butler wrote various other papers during his undergraduate days, some of which, preserved by one of his contemporaries, who remained a lifelong friend, the Rev. Canon Joseph M'Cormick, now Rector of St. James's, Piccadilly, are reproduced in 'The Note-Books of Samuel Butler' (1912).

He also steered the Lady Margaret first boat, and Canon M'Cormick told me of a mishap that occurred on the last night of the races in 1857. Lady Margaret had been head of the river since 1854, Canon M'Cormick was rowing 5, Philip Pennant Pearson (afterwards P. Pennant) was 7, Canon Kynaston, of Durham (whose name formerly was Snow), was stroke, and Butler was cox. When the cox let go of the bung at starting, the rope caught in his rudder lines, and Lady Margaret was nearly bumped by Second Trinity. They escaped, however, and their pursuers were so much exhausted by their efforts to catch them that they were themselves bumped by First Trinity at the next corner. Butler wrote home about it:

11 March, 1857. Dear Mamma: My foreboding about steering was on the last day nearly verified by an accident which was more deplorable than culpable the effects of which would have been ruinous had not the presence of mind of No. 7 in the boat rescued us from the very jaws of defeat. The scene is one which never can fade from my remembrance and will be connected always with the gentlemanly conduct of the crew in neither using opprobrious language nor gesture towards your unfortunate son but treating him with the most graceful forbearance; for in most cases when an accident happens which in itself is but slight, but is visited with serious consequences, most people get carried away with the impression created by the last so as to entirely forget the accidental nature of the cause and if we had been quite bumped I should have been ruined, as it is I get praise for coolness and good steering as much as and more than blame for my accident and the crew are so delighted at having rowed a race such as never was seen before that they are satisfied completely. All the spectators saw the race and were delighted; another inch and I should never have held up my head again. One thing is safe, it will never happen again.

The 'Eagle', "a magazine supported by members of St. John's College," issued its first number in the Lent term of 1858; it contains an article by Butler "On English Composition and Other Matters," signed "Cellarius":

Most readers will have anticipated me in admitting that a man should be clear of his meaning before he endeavours to give it any kind of utterance, and that, having made up his mind what to say, the less thought he takes how to say it, more than briefly, pointedly and plainly, the better.

Samuel Butler: A Sketch - 1/7

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