Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” is an occasional poem dealing with the poignancy of early death and a concomitant loss of literary promise. Little is known about Dryden’s relationship with Oldham, who died at age thirty and was twenty-two years Dryden’s junior. Since Dryden acknowledges in the poem that he and Oldham were too little and lately known, one gathers that they were not close friends. Apart from the wording of the poem, only anecdotal evidence to the effect that they first met in 1682, barely a year before Oldham’s death, serves to link them. Notably, the poem reflects little personal grief; it is rather a reflection of Dryden’s tendency, as the chief literary figure of his time, to pay tribute to younger contemporaries. Assuredly, whatever the personal relationship, Dryden would have known Oldham’s poetry; the elegy suggests that he took a keen interest in Oldham’s satires, which appeared in print only a few months before Dryden’s satiric masterpiece Absalom and Achitophel (1681).

Dryden’s intellect often combines the tendency toward polarities with a second toward hierarchical thought. The hierarchical pairings of Nisus-Euryalus, Augustus-Marcellus, and Dryden-Oldham place the younger poet’s life within a classical context and suggest succession—that Oldham might have continued the satiric tradition that the two poets shared. Yet they also complement one another in a duality that is a hallmark of Dryden’s...

(The entire section is 469 words.)