As a notably influential although minor literary figure, John Oldham is probably less recognized for any single achievement of his own than for the way he helped to shape the development of seventeenth and eighteenth century verse satire. The two major phases of his brief literary career reflect two very different satiric styles: the harshness of Juvenalian invective and the more tempered voice of Horatian conversation. Although his Satyrs upon the Jesuits, the harshest of the Juvenalian satires, contains Oldham’s most well-known and frequently anthologized pieces, his later satires reflect a comparatively moderate tone and are now recognized as his best poems. Among these, his “imitations” of such figures as Horace, Juvenal, and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux were formative in establishing a loose form of verse translation in which the original appeared in a contemporary social and literary context.
Oldham’s severity in his early satires looks back to the extreme style of sixteenth century satirists; his somewhat more tempered voice in the later verses looks forward to the moderation of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. When Oldham died at the age of thirty, he had already won a firm position for himself in the development of English literature. He failed, however, to produce a satire to rival those of the great satirists who followed him and who were indebted to his limited though influential literary achievement.
Although no complete edition of Oldham’s poetry exists, several partial editions are available, notably the Centaur edition of 1960 and Ken Robinson’s facsimile edition of 1980. The Poems of John Oldham, edited by Raman Selden and Harold F. Brooks, corrects errors found in the previous editions.
Brooks, Harold F. “The Poetry of John Oldham.” In Restoration Literature: Critical Approaches, edited by Harold Love. London: Methuen, 1972. Brooks discusses Oldham’s poetry in terms of his life, contemporaries, sources, and genres; no Oldham poem receives extended explication. The essay is, however, valuable in terms of providing information about Abraham Cowley’s influence on Oldham and the evaluation of Oldham as a better satirist than Metaphysical poet.
Griffin, Julia. “John Oldham and the Smithfield Crickets.” Notes and Queries 45, no. 1 (March, 1998): 64-65. An etymological study of Oldham’s “Some New Pieces.”
Hammond, Paul. John Oldham and the Renewal of Classical Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. In his revaluation of Oldham, Hammond uses the Rawlinson manuscripts to show how Oldham composed his best poems. Focuses on his subject’s early indebtedness to Abraham Cowley and on the translations from Horace, Juvenal, and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux. For Hammond, Oldham prepared the way for the work of Samuel Johnson, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope. The book contains a biographical chapter, a chronology, and a bibliography.
Malekin, Peter. Liberty and Love: English Literature and Society, 1640-88. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. In a chapter on the satirical aftermath of the Popish Plot, Malekin analyzes Oldham’s religious satire, particularly his four satires directed at the Jesuits. For Malekin, Oldham’s abusive and bitter satires, written in the Juvenalian manner, created emotional prejudice, but the lack of humor and subtlety dates and thereby weakens the poems.
Selden, Raman. “Oldham, Pope, and Restoration Satire.” In English Satire and the Satiric Tradition, edited by Claude Rawson. Malden, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1984. Selden discusses Oldham’s wide range of poetry (Rochesterian, Metaphysical, Ovidian, pastoral, and irony) and demonstrates, through parallel passages, Alexander Pope’s extensive knowledge of Oldham’s poetry. It is Oldham’s rough wit that constitutes the Restoration strain in Pope’s eighteenth century poetry.
_______. “Oldham’s Versions of the Classics.” In Poetry and Drama, 1570-1700: Essays in Honour of Harold F. Brooks, edited by Antony Coleman and Antony Hammond. London: Methuen, 1981. Selden describes Oldham as the most “adventurous of Augustan classicists” in his imitations of Roman satiric verse and love poetry. There are many comparisons not only between Oldham’s poems and their sources but also between Oldham’s versions and those of his contemporaries.
Zigerell, John. John Oldham. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A standard biography of Oldham that covers his life and works.