Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Adolphus William Ward
John Oldham (16531683)
[Born August 9, 1653, at Shipton, near Tedbury, in Gloucestershire; after taking his degree at Oxford, spent three years as usher at the Croydon Free School, and not long afterwards settled among the wits in London. He died December 9, 1683, on a visit to the Earl of Kingston at Holmes-Pierpont in Nottinghamshire.]
CERTAIN features in the brief life of Oldham, as well as in the verse to which his name owes its celebrity, have very naturally engaged the attention of historical enquirers, while others have attracted the sympathy of literary students. He seems really to have valued that independence of which authors too often only prate; he left it to the leaders of fashionable society and of fashionable literature to seek him out in his obscurity; and when he ventured to publish his poems, he published them without a patron. But if he had a high spirit, he lacked the equally noble possession of an unfettered mind. Even a domestic chaplain in the Restoration dayssuch a one as Oldham has painted in one of the following extracts, and such as Macaulay, largely following Oldham, has repainted in a well-known passage of his Historymay have in him more of human dignity and freedom than the flatterer of popular fury and the pander to mob-prejudice. Oldham was the laureate of the Popish Plot frenzy; and his laurels are accordingly stained with much mire and with much blood.
To what lengths the fanaticism of excited popular feeling, together with an inborn love of strong language, can carry a bold and facile pen, the second of the following extracts will suffice to show. It illustrates the indignation which inspired Oldhams most sustained series of efforts, and the unreasoning violence and malignant exuberance of his invective, together with its frequent bad rhymes and occasional bad grammar. He has been repeatedly compared with Dryden, whose earlier and worse manner he imitated in his own earlier efforts, but whom he preceded as a satirist. It is in the latter capacity only that Oldham is memorable among our poets; for his panegyrical and other odes are laboured without being effective; his paraphrases have the flatness too common to their kind; and the rest of his verse, though occasionally pleasing, has no peculiar value. But on the roll of our later poetic satirists, which begins with Donne and ends with Gifford, Oldham occupies a far from insignificant place. Both Johnson and Pope may have owed something to him; but by Dryden he was valued and acknowledged as to him the most congenial of his fellow-authors. At the time of Oldhams death Dryden, though a supporter of the Court, was not yet a Roman Catholic; and there was accordingly no stint in the praise which, with his usual magnanimity, he offered on the early death of his younger predecessor. He had but one exception to take, and even this he was ready himself to overrule. Had Oldham lived longer, Dryden wrote, advancing age
To us there is much besides defects of form to overlook or forgive in Oldham. His most famous satires have the reek of an essentially grosser flame than that in which the greatest masters of poetic satire, ancient or modern, forged their darts. But he was capable of productions tempered with nicer art if with less expenditure of vigour than those by which he is best known. His Imitations of Horace, Juvenal, and Boileau are all more or less felicitous; and in a few shorter original pieces of the same cast he shows occasional lightness as well as his habitual strength of touch. It should certainly not be forgotten that he died at thirty-one, and that the species of poetry in which he was chiefly gifted for excelling was one more especially suited to matured powers. And to have been the foremost English writer of satire at a time when Dryden was already famous, though not in this branch of poetry, was to have secured a fair title to remembrance.