What Butler never saw

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, though it was written much earlier. I shall make no further reference to this work. The writer, however, almost succeeds where many greater ones have failed. He has produced the book which is nearly ideal for reading on the bus.

This is another and very different posthumous volume, the ‘Note Books’ edited by his friend Henry Festing Jones. Butler, now as then sometimes confused with the seventeenth-century author of Hudibras, was the son of the Reverend Thomas Butler and the grandson of another Samuel Butler, briefly Bishop of Lichfield. With tongue not wholly in cheek, he believed that ‘Man is but a perambulating toolbox and workshop, or office, fashioned for itself by a piece of very clever slime.’

But the Note Book selections are usually witty enough for bus-passengers to digest without distraction, and brief enough to allow them to ring the bell in time to alight at their stop. Poetry is too demanding and thrillers too absorbing for such specialized reading habits.

His hints for other authors are specially apt for those who write what others sing. If possible, always read your work aloud to someone else: ‘I feel weak places at once where I thought, as long as I read to myself only, that the passage was all right.’ Ask yourself how it will sound a hundred years from now. And (though written about painting) ‘Look at your work as though it were done by an enemy. If you look at it to admire it, you are lost.’ What is a hymn? ‘Definitions are a kind of scratching and generally leave a sore place more sore than it was before.’

Butler visited Peterborough; he does not say which church, but ‘the hymns were very silly and of the usual Gounod-Bamby character. Their numbers were posted up in a frame (as on platform three, a railway-like novelty?) and I saw there were to be five, so I called the first Farringdon Street, the second King’s Cross, the third Gower Street, the fourth Portland Road, and the fifth Baker Street, those being stations on my way to Rickmansworth, where I frequently go for a walk in the country.’

Being more specific, he dislikes Thomas Ken’s lines so much that he calls them immoral: ‘Teach me to live that I may dread / the grave as little as my bed.’ Agreed, death must be faced realistically; ‘Bishop Ken, however, goes too far. Undesirable, of course, death must always be to those who are fairly well off; but it is undesirable that any living being should live in habitual indifference to death … Though death be gladly faced, it is not healthy that it should be faced as though it were a mere undressing and going to bed.’ The evening hymn has long been a favourite of mine. But perhaps this cynical grandson of a bishop has an arguable point here.

Anyone immersed in these Note Books will not be easily distracted by someone else’s mobile phone or discarded tabloid, by noisy schoolchildren or argumentative fellow-travellers. But soon there will be something sufficiently annoying to make us close the book, check where we are, and be glad that the journey, like the book and this world, has an ending. Almost ideal? There remains the lingering doubt that we might have done better to read something else.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark (whose current Bishop Thomas Butler is apparently no relation).