Fellow Genius

Claude Rawson

  • The Poems of John Oldham edited by Harold Brooks and Raman Selden
    Oxford, 592 pp, £60.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 19 812456 2

‘Farewel, too little and too lately known,’ Dryden wrote in a pompous, self-serving poem prefixed to John Oldham’s Remains in Verse and Prose (1684). Oldham had died of smallpox the previous December, at the age of 30, at the house of the Earl of Kingston, a young nobleman who had recently become his patron. He left behind a large body of work, now available in full for the first time in a magisterial edition by Harold Brooks, begun over fifty years ago. This includes the fierce ‘Juvenalian’ satires for which he is mainly remembered, but also much else: imitations (sometimes brilliant) of Horace, Ovid and other Latin poets, as well as of Greek poets, and Boileau and Voiture; ‘Pindarique’ odes of elaborate stanzaic architecture; and poems of Rochesterian obscenity.

Oldham is (with Dryden and Rochester) one of the three considerable satirists of the Restoration period, one of the earliest masters of ‘poetical imitation’ in its great English Augustan phase, and in this and other ways a model for Dryden, Swift, Pope and Johnson. He is remembered in the textbooks, but he has always seemed too problematic for canonical assimilation. As a satirist, he was the last great practitioner of the ‘rough’ vitriolic style deemed to derive from ‘satyrs’, and Pope thought him ‘undelicate ... too much like Billingsgate’. As a satellite rather than full member of the Rochester circle, he never commanded a full share even of scandalised attention, though some of his libertine exercises (not always easily accessible before the present edition) display great baroque inventiveness and some strongly powered jeering. But the full range of his writing remains, in Dryden’s words, ‘too little and too lately known’: an underrated poet, probably chiefly remembered, when all is said, through Dryden’s overrated poem about him.

Oldham was the son of a country clergyman of puritan sympathies, who was ejected from his Wiltshire parish in 1662 and ran a school. He studied at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and went on to earn his living as a schoolmaster and tutor while seeking for patronage and literary recognition. At the time of his death, his career looked promising enough for Dryden, who does not seem on any evidence now available to have been closely associated with him, to confer a prefatory poem on his posthumous works, mythologising him as a fellow-genius struck down in his prime.

Dryden’s elegy is unctuously self-exalting. Its Virgilian gesturings (Dryden and Oldham presented as Nisus and Euryalus; Oldham as the ‘young ... Marcellus of our Tongue’) call to mind more surely than Dryden’s strong translation of Virgil the derision Swift lavished on him as a Virgilian pretender, with his ‘Helmet ... nine times too large for the Head ... like the Lady in a Lobster, or like a Mouse under a Canopy of State’: His trumpeting of Oldham’s greatness –

For sure our Souls were near ally’d; and thine
Cast in the same Poetick mould with mine

– is self-promoting and quickly turns pontifical, as Dryden suggests that the young poet couldn’t scan:

What could advancing Age have added more?
It might (what Nature never gives the young)
Have taught the numbers of thy native Tongue.
But Satyr needs not those, and Wit will shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.

As usual, Dryden was repeating what others had said in Oldham’s lifetime, including Sir William Soame, a poetical gentleman now chiefly remembered perhaps for having translated Boileau’s Art Poétique with Dryden’s help. Oldham was sensitive on the point, answered Soame in the ‘Advertisement’ to Some New Pieces (1681) and set about refuting him with examples of what he could do in more urbane and mellifluous styles when his subject-matter didn’t call for satiric harshness. By the time Dryden wrote these lines, the larger part of Oldham’s work could not fairly be described in those terms. But the outdated stereotype clung to Oldham’s reputation, and reappears in Pope and others.

The Satyrs upon the Jesuits (1681), Oldham’s earliest major publication, were the notorious example of this harshness. These poems were important to Dryden. They appeared in complete form some months before Dryden’s own quasi-heroic treatment of Popish Plot material, Absalom and Achitophel, and it has been suggested that Oldham’s winning the race is what lies behind the allusion to Nisus and Euryalus in the elegy. If this is so, Dryden would be taking the credit in some way, since in Virgil’s story the older Nisus helped his younger protégé by tripping an opponent. Moreover, Nisus had been winning himself, until he fell accidentally, thus implying that Dryden was not only a devoted friend, responsible for Oldham’s success, but also the more talented of the two anyway.

The Satyrs do to some extent anticipate Absalom and Achitophel in representing the Popish Plot in a Miltonising idiom of infernal elevation, though Oldham’s hothouse of Satanic scheming is somewhat apart from the main stream of English mock-heroic. Loyola’s Miltonic properties are not the ones which lead to Dryden or to Pope:

Like Delphick Hag of old by Fiend possest,
He swells, wild Frenzy heaves his panting Brest,
His bristling Hairs stick up, his Eye-Balls glow,
And from his Mouth long flakes of Drivel flow.

The demonic gigantifications of English mock-heroic tradition tend characteristically towards monumentality, as though bent on preserving heroic dignity even in defilement, as in Pope’s ‘Slow rose a form, in majesty of Mud.’ Oldham’s nearest Augustan analogue is in Swift, who declined the ‘lofty Stile’ and the elevations of mock-heroic, and whose aggrandisements, like Oldham’s, tended to unruly forms: Rabelaisian enumerations, hyperbolic extermination fantasies, and images of irrepressible putrescent animation, as in his portrait of the ‘bloated M[iniste]r’ Walpole (‘Of loud un-meaning Sounds, a rapid Flood Rolls from his Mouth in plenteous Streams of Mud’).

The governing condition of such grotesqueries for Swift was that their self-defiling vitality could be relied on to neutralise all heroic suggestion. Oldham seems to have had no such inhibition, but his ideas of both the heroic and the mock-heroic were pretty crude. Soame’s verses ‘To the Author of Sardanapalus upon that, – his other Writeings’ spoke of his mistaking ‘furious Fustian for Sublime’. His poems have none of the ironic finesse of good mock-heroic. They take their grandiloquence more readily from Restoration tragedies than from Classical epic, and he fulminates against the Jesuits in the same inflated accents in which he purported to mimic their imprecations. But Soame’s main complaint, like Dryden’s later, was the metrical one, that he didn’t ‘know how to scan’. On this issue, Oldham had no difficulty in appealing to the roughness which some still deemed traditional to satire. He was less concerned to ‘mind the Cadence’ than to be ‘keen and tuant’. But Soame’s verses identified Oldham’s faults as schoolmasterly gaucheries, and he was stung, in his second collection, into demonstrating that he could practise both the Horatian ‘easie and familiar way’ and the smooth fluencies of Ovid and Tibullus.

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