John Dryden’s elegy “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” presents a tribute in verse to the poetic achievement of John Oldham (1653-1683), whom Dryden knew as a younger contemporary. Although he produced a variety of poems and translations, Oldham gained fame through his highly topical Satyrs upon the Jesuits (1681). In twenty-five lines of heroic couplets, an unusual verse form for an elegy, Dryden laments Oldham’s premature death and assesses his literary merit.
In the first of the poem’s three sections (lines 1-10), Dryden follows established elegiac convention by announcing the loss and, speaking in the first person, identifying himself with the younger poet. Their souls were allied through their mutual devotion to study and art as well as their mutual dislike of knaves and fools. Yet Oldham, as Dryden admits, achieved poetic fame earlier in life than Dryden had, a condition comparable to the race narrated by Vergil in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), book 5, involving Nisus and Euryalus. The older Nisus, leading in a foot race, falls down but manages to trip the nearest competitor. As a result, he has the pleasure of seeing his young friend, Euryalus, become the victor. This classical allusion foreshadows another less optimistic Vergilian reference and concludes the poem’s introductory section.
In the second section (lines 11-21), Dryden assesses Oldham’s literary achievement, remarking on the poet’s youthful display of genius. Yet he points out that Oldham’s verses lack smoothness and polish, an indication that his art is defective. To place the defect in a more generous context, Dryden suggests that satire really does not need as much polish as other poetic forms and that, after all, Oldham’s creative ability is evident from the verses he wrote. Dryden thus recognizes that Oldham’s satires brought him recognition and fame despite their rough meter and somewhat unskillful poetic tone. The elegy suggests that Oldham’s genius overpowered his art while affirming that genius lasts despite the aesthetic limitations of its forms of expression.
The concluding section (lines 22-25) returns to the balanced and subdued tone of the beginning, with the classical formula, “hail and farewell.” An allusion to Marcellus—whom the Romans had viewed enthusiastically as the successor to Augustus Caesar, but who died before his emperor—serves to enforce the theme of premature loss. The poem concludes by emphasizing the incongruity of early achievement combined with early death through the symbolism of traditional classical crowns made of leaves. Crowned with ivy for youth and freshness and laurel for achievement, Oldham was overpowered by “fate and gloomy night.”
Normally the heroic couplet, Dryden’s most commonly employed verse form, is viewed as more suitable for epigrammatic wit and reasoned argument than for elegy. Yet in “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,” Dryden admirably demonstrates that the couplet possesses a range of tones adequate for its use in an elegy. By relying throughout on schemes of repetition, carefully chosen sound effects, and classical allusions, Dryden creates a tone of moderate and measured grief.
Among the schemes, balance and antithesis in the poem’s first section establish a tone of restraint at the outset. The initial line includes the balanced construction, “too little and too lately,” balance being reinforced by double alliteration on the “i” and “t” consonants. An abundance of open vowels and sonorants serves to lengthen the lines, adding weight and somberness to the tone. Balance continues through “think and call” and “knaves and fools,” reaching an emphatic and artful balance and double antithesis in line 8, “the last set out the soonest did arrive.” Like many of...
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Dryden’s verses, this one creates the pressure of poetic expression simply through the schemes without reliance on metaphor or other figures of speech.
In the poem’s second section, balance and antithesis give way to carefully constructed sound effects, as Dryden evaluates Oldham’s poetic achievement through the traditional neoclassical polarity, nature (genius) and art. At this point in his career, Dryden had assimilated the neoclassical principle that sounds, even when not onomatopoeic, should echo or complement a poem’s meaning. Lines 15-16 are made to echo the harsh metrics of Oldham’s verses, while asserting strongly that harshness does not obscure his genius: “wit will shine/ Thro’ the harsh cadence of a rugged line.” Later Dryden introduces a triplet, with its slow conclusion in a hexameter, to suggest that artistic perfection in itself may suggest dullness, a concession that blunts his criticism of Oldham’s art. Although maturing time brings mastery in art, it “but mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.” Arguably, few verses in English poetry match Dryden’s sound effects in this hexameter in creating a dull, mellow tone.
The final section returns to the subdued tone established through balance, employing the classical elegiac formula “hail and farewell” in its initial line and sustaining it till the end with balanced phrases and nouns: “with ivy and with laurels” and “fate and gloomy night.”
The two classical allusions to Vergilian characters further enhance and sharpen the polarities inherent in the poem, for both imply a contrast between youth and age and both express the theme of early distinction. They may also reflect Dryden’s inclination to use the monarchical metaphor, using the concept of rulers and successors, not only in the state but also in the kingdom of letters. The Nisus-Euryalus allusion serves to call attention to Oldham’s early achievement, though, ironically, unlike the early victor Euryalus, Oldham died shortly after his success. The Augustus-Marcellus reference focuses on failed succession and early death. Both allusions place Oldham’s achievements against the honored background of Latin classical literature.