(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

John Oldham’s calling was not to the polite muse. Instead, he saw himself as inheriting the role of the poet who rails against the faults and vices of the age. His harsh Juvenalian satires and lively verse imitations were quick to attack what was wrong with society. Oldham’s tone was rugged yet sharp; his poetic attitude was one of indignation. He mastered the art of the cankered muse, and left behind him some of the finest examples of vituperative verse satire.

The subjects, themes, and satirical approaches that Oldham adopted account for much of the bite in his work. Early in his career, when he wrote his most severe satires, Oldham typically addressed himself to issues that were either personally or socially repulsive to him. In A Satyr Against Vertue, for example, he rails against affected notions of virtue that “plague our happy state;” in the “Satire Addressed to a Friend,” he complains about his own personal circumstances; and in his Satyrs upon the Jesuits, he vents his indignation about a subject that aroused some of the most heated political and religious controversy of the age. Unlike many of his more witty contemporaries who were content to treat their subjects with humor and objectivity, Oldham focused directly on the victims of his satire—cursing them for their actions, condemning the society in which they thrived, and depicting them in the most offensive ways. While John Dryden or even the earl of Rochester might dexterously mix censure with praise, there is no mistaking the focus of Oldham’s direct accusations.

Both personal and social circumstances might account for the severity of Oldham’s satiric tone. His strong sense of individualism made him an unsuitable candidate for the system of patronage, and what he perceived as the declining position of literature in Restoration England only served to confirm his individualism. It is not surprising that Oldham wrote some of his best verses after he had left London and retired to the English countryside, detached from the environment of “hack” writers and commercial values. Yet it was that very society that gave him the subjects for his satires. Political disputes between Tories and Whigs, religious controversy between Catholics and Protestants, and what many perceived as the general decadent atmosphere of London society supplied him with his best materials.

Satyrs upon the Jesuits

Oldham’s Satyrs upon the Jesuits, probably written shortly before his move to London, typifies the kind of invective and raillery for which he has become so famous. In the prologue, Oldham describes satire as his weapon and indignation as his muse; in each of the four satires, he adopts the perspective of a different speaker who functions as the vehicle of his satiric lashes. This satiric approach made it possible for him to focus directly on his victims and at the same time vary his tone so that the satire might remain consistent in its attack and yet flexible in its point of view. The ghost of Henry Garnet, a provincial of the Jesuits who was executed in 1606 for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, speaks in the first satire, urging the Jesuits to kill and plunder, to create another “inquisition.” When Oldham speaks in his own voice in the second satire, he then vents his own rage against the Jesuits with the same vigor that “Garnet’s Ghost” used to plot against king and nation. Perspective shifts again in the third satire, “Loyola’s Will,” where Oldham speaks through the voice of Saint Ignatius of Loyola himself, founder of the Jesuit order. Here Saint Ignatius, pictured on his deathbed, passes on to his followers the “hidden rules” and “secrets” of villainy. In the final satire, the perspective is even more removed as the wooden image of Saint Ignatius assumes the satiric voice, exposing its own worthlessness and the emptiness of Catholic ritual.

The Juvenalian rant of the Satyrs upon the Jesuits has its source not only in the different perspectives that Oldham adopted in each satire, constantly allowing him to shift the focus of his invective, but also in the details of each speaker’s remarks. One of the most savage passages of “Garnet’s Ghost,” for example, is filled with specific instructions on how to murder priests, mothers, unborn children, infants, young virgins, the aged, and the crippled. In “Loyola’s Will,” readers are given a gruesome picture of the...

(The entire section is 1821 words.)