To the Memory of Mr. Oldham Analysis

John Dryden

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)