To the Memory of Mr. Oldham

by John Dryden

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

“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 criticism: the distinction between nature (genius) and art. One should note that in this dichotomy, Dryden consistently gives greater weight to genius.

When he assesses the value of Oldham’s poetry, Dryden follows the lead of Ben Jonson, who praised William Shakespeare’s genius but found his art defective. Dryden well knew that Oldham’s poetry was often harsh and irregular. His acknowledgment that satire does not require polish indicates his awareness that earlier English satirists, such as John Donne, John Cleveland, and Samuel Butler, wrote rugged and sometimes crude lines. Even Dryden’s contemporaries such as John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, and Charles Sackville, earl of Dorset, took little pain to achieve smoothly flowing lines in satire. English poetic tradition had accepted the view that satire was normally rough and irregular. That this view changed was primarily because of the effort and example of Dryden, who in his own satires sought to achieve not only the wit but also the smoothness and polish of Horace. Dryden reversed the dominant trend in satiric style by making the genre a demanding form of poetic expression, replacing rough meters with keen iambics and invective with rational expression fraught with irony. In the neoclassic canons that prescribe both originality and excellence in expression, he finds Oldham excelling in genius but deficient in art. Although he states that art is no requisite for satire, his own practice demonstrates otherwise.

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