Hudibras "Oaths Are But Words, And Words But Wind"

Samuel Butler

"Oaths Are But Words, And Words But Wind"

Context: Sir Hudibras, an enthusiastic Presbyterian follower of Cromwell, goes crusading with his squire, the ignorant Ralpho, an Independent in religion, on a campaign against sin. Always unsuccessful, he has a momentary victory over a fiddler, Crowdero, and a bear-tamer, Orsin, but his attempt to punish them inflames the crowd which they are entertaining, and eventually Hudibras is put in the stocks where he had put the peg-legged fiddler. Though a rich Widow had originally spurned him, she comes to him in the stocks and suggests that if he will endure a beating, she will arrange for his release. As an instance of the lengthy discussions and small amount of action in this poem, Hudibras and the Widow talk in detail about incentives to matrimony, and the history of whipping. Some of the aphorisms for which the poem is commended as something at least to dip into, if not to read extensively, appear in their exchange; for instance: "Great wits and valors, like great states,/ Do sometimes sink with their great weights," and "Wedlock without love, some say,/ Is but a lock without a key," and "Though love be all the world's pretence,/ Money's the mythologic sense,/ The real substance of the shadow,/ Which all address and courtship made to." By listing some of the great lovers of the past, whipped for and by their lady loves, including cryptic remarks about contemporaries, the Widow persuades Hudibras to accept a beating. He takes an oath, and so is freed. Because night is coming, the whipping will be delayed until the next day. And with that the first canto of Part Two ends. The attitude of Sir Hudibras toward promises is evidently meant by the poet to indicate the hypocrisy of the Puritans toward oaths. He says they commit perjury, readily take oaths, and as readily break them. Sir Hudibras consults with Ralpho about how to escape the whipping. He must wrestle with his conscience. The squire, always ready for an argument, examines the situation with sophistry, and with a sneer at the different ways different religions act. He assures his master that it is heathenish and impious to beat and claw at any human body. Proof is that the heathen scourge themselves. Hudibras must not imitate them.

This, therefore, may be justly reckon'd
A heinous sin. Now to the second;
That saints may claim a dispensation
To swear and foreswear on occasion,
I doubt not but it will appear
With pregnant light; the point is clear.
Oaths are but words, and words but wind;
Too feeble implements to bind; . . .