Nox Oculis


Samuel Butler (1612-1680)

Poète satirique anglais, auteur d'Hudibras, chef-d'œuvre satirique dirigé contre le puritanisme.

Né à Strensham, dans le Worcestershire, Samuel Butler était le fils d'un fermier aisé et presbytérien. Il servit un colonel puritain et fanatique, épisode de sa vie qui lui inspira son œuvre majeure, Hudibras, imité du roman espagnol Don Quichotte. Publié en trois parties, en 1663, 1664 et 1678, ce poème héroïco-comique, en distiques octosyllabiques, est une satire du puritanisme. Il rencontra un grand succès, même auprès du roi Charles II, qui octroya une pension à son auteur. C'est pourtant dans le dénuement que Butler finit ses jours, à Londres, le 25 septembre 1680.

Butler est également l'auteur de l'Éléphant dans la lune (1676), une critique de la Société royale. Presque un siècle après sa mort, deux volumes de ses œuvres satiriques furent publiés sous le titre les Reliques authentiques (1759).

Son chef-d'œuvre, Hudibras, relate les aventures de sir Hudibras, presbytérien, et de son écuyer Ralph, membre de l'Église indépendante. Leurs péripéties sont toutefois moins importantes que la critique du puritanisme, exprimée au travers des conversations théologiques des deux héros. Si l'intrigue rappelle celle de Don Quichotte, le ton y est souvent plus proche de celui de Rabelais ou de Scarron, par sa bouffonnerie et son ironie toujours efficace.


The Elephant in the Moon (extraits)

    A learned society of late,
    The glory of a foreign state,
    Agreed, upon a summer's night,
    To search the Moon by her own light ;
    To make an inventory of all
    Her real estate, and personal ;
    And make an accurate survey
    Of all her lands, and how they lay,
    As true as that of Ireland, where
    The sly surveyors stole a shire :
    T' observe her country, how 'twas planted,
    With what sh' abounded most, or wanted;
    And make the proper'st observations
    For settling of new plantations,
    If the society should incline
    T' attempt so glorious a design.

    This was the purpose of their meeting,
    For which they chose a time as fitting ;
    When at the full her radiant light
    And influence too were at their height.
    And now the lofty tube, the scale
    With which they heaven itself assail,
    Was mounted full against the Moon ;
    And all stood ready to fall on,
    Impatient who should have the honour
    To plant an ensign first upon her.
    When one, who for his deep belief
    Was virtuoso then in chief,
    Approved the most profound, and wise,
    To solve impossibilities,
    Advancing gravely, to apply
    To th' optic glass his judging eye,
    Cried, 'Strange!' - then reinforced his sight
    Against the Moon with all his might,
    And bent his penetrating brow,
    As if he meant to gaze her through ;
    When all the rest began t'admire,
    And, like a train, from him took fire,
    Surprised with wonder, beforehand,
    At what they did not understand,
    Cried out, impatient to know what
    The matter was they wondered at.

    Quoth he, 'Th'inhabitants o'th Moon,
    Who, when the sun shines hot at noon,
    Do live in cellars underground,
    Of eight miles deep, and eighty round,
    In which at once they fortify
    Against the sun and th' enemy,
    Which they count towns and cities there,
    Because their people' civiller
    Than those rude peasants, that are found
    To live upon the upper ground,
    Called Privolans, with whom they are
    Perpetually in open war ;
    And now both armies, highly enraged,
    Are in a bloody fight engaged,
    And many fall on both sides slain,
    As by the glass 'tis clear, and plain.
    Look quickly then, that every one
    May see the fight before 'tis done.'
    With that a great philosopher,
    Admired, and famous far and near,
    As one of singular invention,
    But universal comprehension,
    Applied one eye, and half a nose
    Unto the optic engine close.

    Quoth he, 'A stranger sight appears
    Than e'er was seen in all the spheres,
    A wonder more unparalled,
    Than ever mortal tube beheld ;
    An elephant from one of those
    Two mighty armies is broke loose,
    And with the horror of the fight
    Appears amazed, and in a fright ;
    Look quickly, lest the sight of us
    Should cause the startled beast t'imboss.
    It is a large one, far more great
    Than e'er was bred in Africa yet ;
    From which we boldly may infer,
    The Moon is much the fruitfuller.
    And since the mighty Pyrrhus brought
    Those living castles first, 'tis thought,
    Against the Romans, in the field,
    It may an argument be held,
    (Arcadia being but a piece,
    As his dominions were, of Greece,)
    To prove what this illustrious person
    Has made so noble a discourse on,
    And amply satisfy'd us all
    Of th' Privolvans' original.
    That Elephants are in the Moon,
    Though we had now discover'd none,
    Is easily made manifest,
    Since, from the greatest to the least,
    All other stars and constellations
    Have cattle of all sorts of nations,
    And heaven, like a Tartar's horde,
    With great and numerous droves is stor'd :
    And if the Moon produce by Nature
    A people of so vast a stature,
    'Tis consequent she should bring forth
    Far greater beasts, too, than the earth,
    (As by the best accounts appears
    Of all our great'st discoverers),
    And that those monstrous creatures there
    Are not such rarities as here.

    Meanwhile the rest had had a sight
    Of all particulars o' th' fight,
    And ev'ry man, with equal care,
    Perus'd of th' Elephant his share,
    Proud of his int'rest in the glory
    Of so miraculous a story ;
    When one, who for his excellence
    In height'ning words, and shad'wing sense,
    And magnifying all he writ
    With curious microscopic wit,
    Was magnify'd himself no lessv In home and foreign colleges,
    Began, transported with the twang
    Of his own trill, thus t' harangue.

    Most excellent and virtuous Friends,
    This great discov'ry makes amends
    For all our unsuccessful pains,
    And lost expense of time and brains :
    For by this sole phenomenon
    We've gotten ground upon the Moon,
    And gain'd a pass to hold dispute
    With all the planets that stand out ;
    To carry this most virtuous war
    Home to the door of every star,
    And plant th' artillery of our tubes
    Against their proudest magnitudes ;
    To stretch our victories beyond
    Th' extent of planetary ground,
    And fix our engines, and our ensigns,
    Upon the fixt stars' vast dimensions,
    (Which Archimede, so long ago,
    Durst not presume to wish to do),
    And prove if they are other suns,
    As some have held opinions,
    Or windows in the empyreum,
    From whence those bright effluvias come
    Like flames of fire (as others guess)
    That shine i' the mouths of furnaces.
    Nor is this all we have achiev'd,
    But more, henceforth to be believ'd,
    And have no more our best designs,
    Because they're ours, believ'd ill signs.
    T' out-throw, and stretch, and to enlarge,
    Shall now no more be laid t' our charge ;
    Nor shall our ablest virtuosos
    Prove arguments for coffee-houses ;
    Nor those devices that are laid
    Too truly on us, nor those made
    Hereafter, gain belief among
    Our strictest judges, right or wrong ;
    Nor shall our past misfortunes more
    Be charged upon the ancient score ;
    No more our making old dogs young
    Make men suspect us still i' th' wrong ;
    Nor new-invented chariots draw
    The boys to course us without law ;
    Nor putting pigs t' a bitch to nurse,
    To turn them into mongrel-curs,
    Make them suspect our skulls are brittle,
    And hold too much wit or too little ;
    tenor shall our speculations, whether
    An elder-stick will save the leather
    Of school-boys' breeches from the rod,
    Make all we do appear as odd,
    This one discovery's enough
    To take all former scandals off --
    But since the world's incredulous
    Of all our scrutinies, and us,
    And with a prejudice prevents
    Our best and worst experiments, : so
    (As if th' were destin'd to miscarry,
    In consort try'd, or solitary),
    And since it is uncertain when
    Such wonders will occur agen,
    Let us as cautiously contrive
    To draw an exact Narrative
    Of what we every one can swear
    Our eyes themselves have seen appear,
    That, when we publish the Account,
    We all may take our oaths upon 't.

    This said, they all with one consent
    Agreed to draw up th' Instrument,
    And, for the general satisfaction,
    To print it in the next 'Transaction.'

    But whilst the chiefs were drawing up
    This strange Memoir o th' telescope,
    One, peeping in the tube by chance,
    Beheld the Elephant advance,
    And from the west side of the Moon
    To th' east was in a moment gone.
    This being related, gave a stop
    To what the rest were drawing up ;
    And every man, amazed anew
    How it could possibly be true,
    That any beast should run a race
    So monstrous, in so short a space,
    Resolv'd, howe'er, to make it good,
    At least as possible as he could,
    And rather his own eyes condemn,
    Than question what he had seen with them.

    While all were thus resolv'd, a man
    Of great renown there thus began --
    'Tis strange, I grant ! but who can say
    What cannot be, what can, and may ?
    Especially at so hugely vast
    A distance as this wonder's plac'd,
    Where the least error of the sight
    May shew things false, but never right ;
    Nor can we try them, so far off,
    By any sublunary proof :
    For who can say that Nature there
    Has the same laws she goes by here ?
    Nor is it like she has infus'd,
    In every species there produc'd,
    The same efforts she does confer
    Upon the same productions here ;
    Since those with us, of several nations,
    Have such prodigious variations,
    And she affects so much to use
    Variety in all she does.
    Hence may b' inferr'd that, though I grant
    We'ave seen i' th' Moon an Elephant,
    That Elephant may differ so
    From those upon the earth below,
    Both in his bulk, and force, and speed,
    As being of a different breed,
    That though our own are but slow-pac'd,
    Theirs there may fly, or run as fast,
    And yet be Elephants, no less
    Than those of Indian pedigrees.

    This said, another of great worth,
    Fam'd for his learned works put forth,
    Look'd wise, then said—All this is true,
    And learnedly observ'd by you ;
    But there 's another reason for 't,
    That falls but very little short
    Of mathematic demonstration,
    Upon an accurate calculation,
    And that is -- As the earth and moon
    Do both move contrary upon
    Their axes, the rapidity
    Of both their motions cannot be
    But so prodigiously fast,
    That vaster spaces may be past
    In less time than the beast has gone,
    Though h' had no motion of his own,
    Which we can take no measure of,
    As you have clear'd by learned proof.
    This granted, we may boldly thence
    Lay claim t'a nobler inference,
    And make this great phenomenon,
    (Were there no other), serve alone
    To clear the grand hypothesis
    Of th' motion of the earth from this.

    With this they all were satisfy'd,
    As men are wont o' th' bias'd side,
    Applauded the profound dispute,
    And grew more gay and resolute,
    By having overcome all doubt,
    Than if it never had fallen out ;
    And, to complete their Narrative,
    Agreed t' insert this strange retrieve.

    But while they were diverted all
    With wording the Memorial,
    The foot-boys, for diversion too,
    As having nothing else to do,
    Seeing the telescope at leisure,
    Turn'd virtuosos for their pleasure ;
    Began to gaze upon the Moon,
    As those they waited on had done,
    With monkeys' ingenuity,
    That love to practice what they see ;
    When one, whose turn it was to peep,
    Saw something in the engine creep,
    And, viewing well, discover'd more
    Than all the learn'd had done before.
    Quoth he, A little thing is slunk
    Into the long star-gazing trunk,
    And now is gotten down so nigh,
    I have him just against mine eye.

    This being overheard by one
    Who was not so far overgrown
    In any virtuous speculation,
    To judge with mere imagination,
    Immediately he made a guess
    At solving all appearances,
    A way far more significant
    Than all their hints of th' Elephant,
    And found, upon a second view,
    His own hypothesis most true ;
    For he had scarce apply'd his eye
    To th' engine, but immediately
    He found a mouse was gotten in
    The hollow tube, and, shut between
    The two glass windows in restraint,
    Was swell'd into an Elephant,
    And prov'd the virtuous occasion
    Of all this learned dissertation :
    And, as a mountain heretofore
    Was great with child, they say, and bore
    A silly mouse; this mouse, as strange,
    Brought forth a mountain in exchange.

    Meanwhile the rest in consultation
    Had penn'd the wonderful Narration,
    And set their hands, and seals, and wit,
    T' attest the truth of what they'd writ,
    When this accurs'd phenomenon
    Confounded all they'd said or done :
    For 'twas no sooner hinted at,
    But th' all were in a tumult strait,
    More furiously enrag'd by far,
    Than those that in the Moon made war,
    To find so admirable a hint,
    When they had all agreed t' have seen 't,
    And were engag'd to make it out,
    Obstructed with a paltry doubt :
    When one, whose task was to determine,
    And solve th' appearances of vermin,
    Who'd made profound discoveries
    In frogs, and toads, and rats, and mice,
    (Though not so curious, 'tis true,
    As many a wise rat-catcher knew),
    After he had with signs made way
    For something great he had to say ;

    This disquisition
    Is, half of it, in my discission ;
    For though the Elephant, as beast,
    Belongs of right to all the rest,
    The mouse, being but a vermin, none
    Has title to but I alone ;
    And therefore hope I may be heard,
    In my own province, with regard.

    It is no wonder we're cry'd down,
    And made the talk of all the Town,
    That rants and swears, for all our great
    Attempts, we have done nothing yet,
    If every one have leave to doubt,
    When some great secret's half made out ;
    And, 'cause perhaps it is not true,
    Obstruct, and ruin all we do.
    As no great act was ever done,
    Nor ever can, with truth alone,
    If nothing else but truth w' allow,
    'Tis no great matter what we do :
    For truth is too reserv'd, and nice,
    T' appear in mix'd societies ;
    Delights in solit'ry abodes,
    And never shows herself in crowds ;
    A sullen little thing, below
    All matters of presence and show ;
    That deal in novelty and change,
    Not of things true, but rare and strange,
    To treat the world with what is fit
    And proper to its natural wit :
    The world, that never sets esteem
    On what things are, but what they seem,
    And, if they be not strange and new,
    They're ne'er the better for being true ;
    For what has mankind gain'd by knowing
    His little truth, but his undoing,
    Which wisely was by nature hidden,
    And only for his good forbidden ?
    And therefore with great prudence does
    The world still strive to keep it close ;
    For if all secret truths were known,
    Who would not be once more undone ?
    For truth has always danger in 't,
    And here, perhaps, may cross some hint
    We have already agreed upon,
    And vainly frustrate all we've done,
    Only to make new work for Stubs,
    And all the academic clubs.
    How much, then, ought we have a care
    That no man know above his share,
    Nor dare to understand, henceforth,
    More than his contribution's worth ;
    That those who've purchas'd of the college
    A share, or half a share, of knowledge,
    And brought in none, but spent repute,
    Should not b' admitted to dispute,
    Nor any man pretend to know
    More than his dividend comes to ?
    For partners have been always known
    To cheat their public interest prone ;
    And if we do not look to ours,
    'Tis sure to run the self-same course.

    This said, the whole assembly allow'd
    The doctrine to be right and good,
    And, from the truth of what they'd heard,
    Resolv'd to give Truth no regard,
    But what was for their turn to vouch,
    And either find or make it such :
    That 'twas more noble to create
    Things like Truth, out of strong conceit,
    Than with vexatious pains and doubt,
    To find, or think t' have found, her out.

    This being resolv'd, they, one by one,
    Review'd the tube, the Mouse, and Moon ;
    But still the narrower they pry'd,
    The more they were unsatisfy'd,
    In no one thing they saw agreeing,
    As if they'd several faiths of seeing.
    Some swore, upon a second view,
    That all they'd seen before was true ;
    And that they never would recant
    One syllable of th' Elephant ;
    Avow'd his snout could be no Mouse's,
    But a true Elephant's proboscis.
    Others began to doubt and waver,
    Uncertain which o' th' two to favour,
    And knew not whether to espouse
    The cause of th' Elephant or Mouse.
    Some held no way so orthodox
    To try it, as the ballot-box,
    And, like the nation's patriots,
    To find, or make, the truth by votes :
    Others conceiv'd it much more fit
    T' unmount the tube, and open it,
    And, for their private satisfaction,
    To re-examine the ' Transaction,'
    And after explicate the rest,
    As they should find cause for the best.

    To this, as th' only expedient,
    The whole assembly gave consent,
    But, ere the tube was half let down,
    It clear'd the first phenomenon :
    For, at the end, prodigious swarms
    Of flies and gnats, like men in arms,
    Had all past muster, by mischance,
    Both for the Sub- and Pri-volvans.
    This being discover'd, put them all
    Into a fresh and fiercer brawl,
    Asham'd that men so grave and wise
    Should be chaldes'd by gnats and flies,
    And take the feeble insects' swarms
    For mighty troops of men at arms ;
    As vain as those who, when the Moon
    Bright in a crystal river shone,
    Threw casting-nets as subtly at her,
    To catch and pull her out o' th' water.

    But when they had unscrew'd the glass,
    To find out where th' impostor was,
    And saw the Mouse, that, by mishap,
    Had made the telescope a trap,
    Amaz'd, confounded, and afflicted,
    To be so openly convicted,
    Immediately they get them gone,
    With this discovery alone : --

    That those who greedily pursue
    Things wonderful, instead of true ;
    That in their speculations choose
    To make discoveries strange news ;
    And natural history a Gazette
    Of tales stupendous and far-fet ;
    Hold no truth worthy to be known,
    That is not huge and overgrown,
    And explicate appearances,
    Not as they are, but as they please ;
    In vain strive Nature to suborn,
    And, for their pains, are paid with scorn.

    Samuel Butler


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