‘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.
Soame advised the ‘School-master’ to study Horace and Boileau, and Oldham’s rendering of the Ars Poetica, which opens his new volume, seems to be a response to Soame’s taunt. Oldham said that in attempting the Horatian style he had been ‘careful to avoid stiffness’, an index of how ready writers were to bow to the demands of ‘urbanity’ and to regard Horace as a short cut to this. Horace became godfather to styles that not only didn’t much resemble his own, but that forfeited ‘ease’ by straining to display it. Oldham’s ‘Art of Poetry’ is a mildly self-conscious case of this, and of a related and equally counter-productive predisposition to heavy-handed hauteurs. His lines about scribblers of quality who behave like shopkeepers belong to a tradition of lordly put-downs of lords which became a nervous tic among English Augustan writers, resurfacing in powerfully fervid forms in Pope and in Fielding. Pope’s famous line, ‘Scriblers or Peers, alike are Mob to me,’ occurs in a direct imitation of a famous Horatian satire, but it’s not in the original, and its absence is conspicuous in the parallel text on the facing page.
The shift from Juvenalian to Horatian models nevertheless opened up an important new manner for Oldham, which shows strongly in the opening of his imitation of Horace’s satire about the impertinent bore (I. ix):
As I was walking in the Mall of late,
Alone, and musing on I know not what;
Comes a familiar Fop, whom hardly I
Knew by his name, and rudely seizes me.
It’s a powerfully assured and innovative voice within what Ronald Bottrall once described as the ‘colloquial tradition’ in English poetry. It has a thrusting flatness, equally free of gnarled Skeltonic overkill and of Rochesterian overheating (that charged conversational incandescence which Oldham sometimes imitated with or without flair in his rakish poems). Nor does it resemble the supple and disciplined sweep of Pope’s or Byron’s conversational verse. It’s both animated and plain, a putting down in the sense of efficient notation as well as of satirical flattening, deceptively simple but uncommon. It is found again perhaps in the opening of Swift’s ‘Legion Club’ and in Auden. Its studied half-rhymes are also unusual in the period, in that they are neither merely slapdash nor a gesture of prescribed satiric ‘roughness’, and they don’t belong to that style of prosodic horseplay and cheeky rhyming which we associate with Butler, Swift and Byron. They look forward to the sophisticated exploitation of half-rhymes by some 20th-century poets. They subvert the firm definitional closures of the high Augustan couplet, evoking incomplete finalities, closure or containment continuously and unspectacularly undermined by pressures of fact or perception, a sense of satirical certainties straining against order and themselves undercut by a disorderly reality. There’s a fluidity of movement in its way unrivalled in Swift or in Pope, and when the poem moves into dialogue it achieves some of the most natural and vital reporting of speech in English poetry.
Oldham’s Pindaric odes are by contrast inflated and metrically inert, despite the plasticity notionally encouraged by the form’s metrical variety. This is true both of his own original compositions, and of the Horatian odes which Oldham laboriously refashioned into Pindaric stanzas, and which incongruously follow the brilliant satire on the bore.
There are some odd exceptions, mainly pornographic. In the starchy ambience of the ‘Satyr Against Vertue’, with its Pindaricised pedantries of libertine doctrine, a humour of baroque-Disneyan visualisation is sometimes allowed to take off, as when Ixion’s failure to win Juno turns into a ballooning fantasy of desire vainly expended on a cloud:
When he a Goddes thought he had in chase,
He found a gawdy Vapor in the place,
And with thin Air beguil’d his starv’d Embrace,
Idly he spent his Vigor, spent his Bloud,
And tir’d himself t’oblige an unperforming Cloud.
Perhaps he discovered in the ponderous elaborations of the ‘Pindarique’ a natural medium for the comic ungainliness of erotic discomfiture and for heavy displays of sexuality in general.
‘Sardanapalus’, the poem which triggered Soame’s monitory verses, is an interesting example:
Far as wide Nature spreads her Thighs,
Thy Tarse’s vast Dominion lyes:
All Womankind acknowledge its great Sway,
And all to its large Treasury their Tribute pay.
The poem is a fantasy of unlimited potency, like Rochester’s ‘Signior Dildo’, more laboured than Rochester’s thrusting street-ballad couplets (‘That pattern of virtue, Her Grace of Cleveland. Has swallowed more pricks than the ocean has sand’) even where the Pindaric stanza itself moves into couplets:
Ten Thousand Maids lye prostrate at thy Feet,
Ready thy Pintle’s high Commands to meet.
These come over with a power of their own: not Rochester’s supple force, but a strutting starchiness amusingly incongruous in the prevailing atmosphere of phallic enormity. ‘Pintle’ adds to the incongruity, since the form of the word suggests a diminutive (which according to the OED it may etymologically have been). The comedy of bigness and littleness explodes into the baroque extravaganza of the final tableau, with the monarch’s immolation on a blazing pyre of compulsive and polymorphous copulation:
Here, glowing C– –t, with flaming Beard,
Like blazing Meteor appear’d;
There, Pintle, squirting fiery Streams,
Like lighted Flambeau, spending Flames.
The Disneyan fantasia of priapic rocketry is played out against a decor of heavy baroque ornamentation, for which the wedding-cake stanzas of the Pindaric are a perfect prosodic as well as visual expression. Like Signior Dildo, also Disneyan in his way and similarly unlimited in his powers, Pintle acquires a humanoid autonomy, but by a reverse process: the live phallus becoming a mechanical firework where Rochester’s mechanical instrument takes on personhood. The whole joke is gathered up into a massive concluding spectacle, surreal in a John Martin way:
Thus Lechery’s great Martyr, Revelling in Fire,
At every Pore dripping out Scalding Lust,
With all thy Strength collected in one Thrust,
At gaping C– –t, thou didst give up thy mighty Ghost,
And ’midst a Glorious heap of burning C– –ts expire.
The transitions seem unfocused or uncoordinated, but in what adds up to an oddly ambitious orchestration. ‘Orchestration’ in such a context may in itself suggest a kind of overkill. As a highly-crafted way of labouring a joke, it may be part of what Soame perceived as a schoolmasterly stiffness, but it is also a calculated and comic excess. The Pindaric ode is an awkward medium for jokes, and resistant to modulated transitions: an unwieldy and accumulative form, it readily gives an impression of discrete composition blocks, each enriched (again like a wedding-cake) to maximum capacity. In a class-structure of poetic forms, it is perhaps aptly described as nouveau-riche. Oldham seems at home with that, and the fact may reflect (stylistically rather than biographically speaking) his own odd relations with the court wits.
Sardanapalus, traditionally a figure of luxurious effeminacy, is transformed by Oldham into a paragon of baroque machismo, a mixture which replicates some contradictory features of Rochester, as viewed by contemporaries and perhaps by himself. In two elegies from the Greek bucolic poets, ‘Bion’ and ‘The Lamentation for Adonis’, Rochester is viewed successively in the image of several mythological youths celebrated both for prettiness and erotic immolation: Hyacinth, Orpheus, Narcissus, Acis, and the fair Adonis from whose ‘wide wound fast flows the streaming gore, And stains that skin which was all snow before’. ‘There lies he, like a pale and wither’d Flower’: the elegiac evocation of the dead youth recalls (in an instinctive intertextuality that is characteristic of Oldham’s poetic obsession with Rochester) Rochester’s own account of his spent phallus in ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’, ‘Shrunk up and sapless like a withered flower’.
It should not surprise us to see Rochester portrayed as a Hyacinth or Adonis, whose delicate and mutilated beauty assimilate them to cults of ambiguous, passive or enfeebled sexuality, in spite of the traditional image of his aggressive maleness. It was one of his gestures to blur the distinction between the two stereotypes, or rather to transform the one into a species of the other, so that his poems of sexual failure, for example, express a kind of machismo of impotence, and his bisexuality is paraded as a polymorphous vigour. This bravura redefinition is one of the things which distinguishes him from later poètes maudits, with whom he nevertheless has some features in common. Hyacinth is named in the opening lines of Oldham’s ‘Bion’, which he says were ‘begun by another Hand’, adding: ‘I have been told that they were done by the Earl of Rochester.’ Oldham claimed, truthfully or otherwise, that he didn’t believe the attribution. But the suggestion, right or wrong, is securely planted in Oldham’s prefatory statement, and enters willy nilly into our reading, as it was inevitably part of Oldham’s. The mythologised identification of Rochester with the entire roll-call of beautiful dead youths is teasingly enhanced by the possibility that Rochester himself may have been a party to it.
Oldham said he resisted the attribution on the grounds that Rochester ‘seldom meddled with such Subjects, and more especially by reason of an uncorrect line or two to be found amongst them, at their first coming to my hands, which never us’d to flow from his excellent Pen’. Nevertheless, it was this fragment that gave him the idea of dedicating an imitation of the entire elegy ‘to the memory of that incomparable Person’. By a queer, coded fortuity, a passage about Hyacinth triggered a poem about Rochester. But Oldham’s words about metrical incorrectness also seem coded in another more deliberate sense. They occur in the same ‘Advertisement’ in which he protested against the imputation that his own writing was ‘rough’, pleading that harsh Juvenalian satires should not be expected to ‘flow so smoothly as Ovid, or Tibullus, when they are describing Amours and Gallantries, and have nothing to disturb and ruffle the evenness of their Stile’.
One would not think of Rochester in such terms. He was indeed a consummate metrist, as Oldham suggests, but hardly a ‘smooth’ one, whether in the manner ascribed to Ovid and Tibullus or (more pertinently) in the impeccably mellifluous style in which Oldham went on to complete the poem about him, or which he ascribed to him in that poem:
Not harsh like the rude Cyclops were thy lays,
Whose grating sounds did her soft ears displease:
Such was the force of thy enchanting tongue,
That she for ever could have heard thy Song.
Some of Rochester’s finest effects come precisely from a mastery of metres which were indeed ‘uncorrect’ by the conventional standards of the heroic couplet, and Oldham’s defence of him shows how much he internalised Rochester into the image he wished to project of himself.
The rankling accusation that he couldn’t write smoothly thus led Oldham to mythologise his dead friend against all the evidence into a soft poet of love: ‘And his soft lays did Venus ever please.’ This revisionist reading, which never once suggests that Rochester’s erotic poetry contained the slightest hint of obscenity, is almost as unfounded as (and not unconnected with) Oldham’s apparent intimation that his own work resembles Rochester’s:
If I am reckon’d not unblest in Song,
’Tis what I ow to thy all-teaching tongue.
Brooks comments reasonably: ‘I have never found the lessons easy to trace ... no poem of Oldham’s is like a poem of Rochester’s.’ ‘Owing’ is not the same as being like, but few readers would deny the pervasiveness of Rochester as a presence in Oldham’s poems, as a perpetual focus of self-definition and as a model in the choice of subject-matter or the affectation of certain stylistic routines. But the point of interest about the description of Rochester in the elegies is that it bears little real resemblance to the work of either poet.
Oldham, as Brooks says, was always ‘ambivalent’ about ‘Rochester and his circle’. This shows not only in the gestures of retraction, in the ‘Apology’ for the ‘Satyr Against Vertue’ or in the ‘Counterpart’ to the ‘Satyr’, where, ‘In Person of the Author’, he denounces the principles enunciated by the original poem, ‘Suppos’d to be spoken by a Court-Hector at Breaking of the Dial in Privy-Garden’. The subtitle, which refers to an exploit of Rochester’s in the royal gardens, indicates an element of derision even before the later disavowals, and the fact that the original poem, including the derision, seems to have pleased Rochester and to have led him to seek Oldham out, confirms that ‘ambivalence’ existed in Rochester himself. Mockery or self-mockery on the subject of libertine exploits is often a form of celebration. But disclaimers and denunciations, fits of moralistic self-righteousness and even of repentant self-abasement, are themselves part of the natural idiom of libertine sub-cultures (especially perhaps among aristocrats of the more self-publicising sort, like Sade or even Byron): as gestures of inverse boastfulness, as more or less contemptuous sops to opinion, as expressions of a connoisseurship in sensations purportedly large enough to include the pleasures of antithetical or oppositional states of mind, as enhancements of transgression, or whatever. Periodic or even terminal accesses of self-castigation (like Rochester’s own deathbed repentance) may be a natural part, or counterpart, of the pathology of states of excess, where extreme sensualism borders on an exacerbated spirituality.
It’s apparent in Oldham’s case that even as he mimicked the postures of the Rochesterian rakes, he displayed a class-conscious awareness of not being to the manner born. This is not surprising, considering how quick Rochester and his circle were to spot clumsiness in unlordly pretenders to the ‘mannerly obscene’: Dryden’s dry bawdy bobs are the best-known casualty of their put-downs. Oldham’s references to the libertine poets keep harping on their lordly rank (‘damn’d Placket-Rhimes, Such as our Nobles write’, ‘our witty bawdy Peer’), sometimes with a note of hoity-toity tu quoque conveying that the peers are no better than an ‘Illiterate Cit’ or ‘Prentices and Carmen’. The ‘Scriblers of Quality’ would see this as a case of underlings aping their betters. But lordly accents, directed against lordly victims, were part of the rhetorical armoury of unlordly poets: as I suggested, this assumed arrogance didn’t sit easily on Oldham, though he tried, nor even on Dryden, whereas Swift, Pope and Fielding played it freely and with blistering point.
As to the ‘mannerly obscene’, Dryden at least could do it quite as well as the noble rakes, though Rochester wanted it known that Dryden was loud and gauche in such things, and would ‘cry, “Cunt!” ’ to seem a ‘tearing blade’. Dryden may for a time have tried to be something of a sexual Hector in his social behaviour. But in ‘obscene’ poems both he and occasionally Oldham could claim to be more ‘mannerly’ than their betters, if ‘mannerly’ implies a less emphatic touch than crying cunt: ‘cunt’ at all events doesn’t appear in the Dryden concordance, whereas Dryden’s song, ‘Whilst Alexis lay prest’ (from a play dedicated to Rochester), perhaps the wittiest erotic poem of the time, uses no bad words. Oldham cries cunt a good deal in ‘Sardanapalus’, but he’s guying Rochester in that poem.
What Rochester himself conceived as well-bred obscenity was not the delicate touch he affected to praise in his friends but a more thrustingly outrageous thing, a sprezzatura paradoxically sustained in the teeth of a foulmouthed strenuousness. What he ascribed to Dryden, on no great surviving evidence, was presumably an oafish version of the same thing, which failed the patrician litmus test. The imputation that Dryden’s efforts were poetic and sexual non-events, ‘dry bawdy bobs’, derives piquancy from Rochester’s poetic interest in impotence or sexual burnout, whether flaunted confessionally or in mythologised self-projection.
It was to this particular vanity, indulged by Rochester with boastful brio, that Oldham addressed himself, in real or pretended condemnation or both, in the imprecations of ‘Upon the Author of the Play call’d Sodom’:
Thou covet’st to be lewd, but want’st the Might
And are all over Devil, but in Wit.
Weak feeble strainer at meer Ribaldry,
Whose Muse is impotent to that degree,
’T had need, like Age, be whipt to Lechery ...
Thy Muse has got the Flowers, and they ascend
As in some greensick Girl, at upper End.
Sure Nature made, or meant at least’t have done ’t,
Thy Tongue a Clitoris, thy Mouth a Cunt.
How well a Dildoe would that place become,
To gag it up, and make ’t for ever dumb!
Whether or not Rochester wrote Sodom, these driving sexual curses are a good imitation of several of his canonical poems, not only in the general idiom, at once overheated and oddly disengaged, but in the specific vocabulary of flowers (menstruation), dildos, frigging and the rest. The poem concludes with Rochester’s book being sent, in the common satirical formula, to the public jakes for bum-paper. There, however, it will ‘bugger wiping Porters when they shite, And so thy Book itself turn Sodomite’, exceeding the formula and becoming, instead of the inert cloacal matter sanctioned by tradition, a sexually active humanoid, like Signior Dildo himself.
It’s a very Rochesterian effect. The customary metaphors, venereal or scatological, for literary shortcomings are realised anthropomorphically, beyond traditional analogies between muse and mistress or conceits about the ‘lust of Poetry’, which Oldham uses freely. This is of a piece with Rochester’s rendering of sexual functions, even in failure, as self-powered humanoids: as when phalluses, intermittently and unpredictably impotent, become paradoxically like the omnipotent Dildo, autonomous beings independent of their owner. This is part of what gives impotence in Rochester’s poems the boastful vitality of an active function rather than a passive or merely helpless state.
Oldham was quite willing to apply to himself and his own art images of aged incapacity (‘More tedious than old Doaters, when they woo’) and outright impotence that ‘Upon the Author of Sodom’ applied to Rochester and ultimately borrowed from him. The analogies between bad writing and sexual failure have in both poets a forcefulness and immediacy quite different from their better-known counterparts in Pope’s Essay on Criticism. Oldham’s ‘Letter from the Country’ is not only an extended orchestration of such analogies, but acquires a quickened energy of formulation at precisely the point where impotence is contemplated:
As a dry Lecher pump’d of all my store,
I loath the thing, ’cause I can do ’t no more.
It’s evident that Rochester’s set-pieces on impotence made an enduring impression on Oldham’s verse, haunting his rhythms even when the subject-matter did not especially connect. The passage from the third Satyr upon the Jesuits, for example, where the dying Loyola addresses his followers –
Yet, as a wounded General, e’re he dies,
To his sad Troops, sighs out his last Advice ...
So I to you my last Instructions give ...
– undoubtedly derives from ‘The Disabled Debauchee’ (‘As some brave admiral, in former war Deprived of force, but pressed with courage still ... ’), though Brooks’s commentary doesn’t record it.
‘Upon the Author of Sodom’ may read like devastating invective, but the poem was designed for circulation within the group, and Rochester would be likely to have relished its virtuosities as a kind of compliment. They belong to the type of aggressive hyperbole that disarms itself in the sport. The badnesses it purports to decry are ones which the group would normally boast, and the taunts of impotence were no more than Rochester directed at himself in defiant self-jeering. Brooks is surely right to relate Oldham’s ‘comic exaggeration’ to the ‘joshing’ freely practised within Rochester’s circle, but he also sees the speaker as ill-bred in a way that separates him from ‘the élite fellowship’. His harangue mimics Rochester more than Dryden’s poems ever did, and his way of crying ‘cunt’ is not the show-off way imputed to Dryden, whose poems don’t do it anyway, but very close to the ranting derision with which Rochester ‘cried’ the word himself.
Oldham’s aspiration to membership of the group seems to have differed from Dryden’s, though both felt themselves, and were doubtless made to feel, outsiders by virtue of inferior rank. At least it expressed itself differently. Oldham had the instinctive street-wisdom not to be self-abasing, as Dryden was self-abasing when cultivating the rakish Earl. The forms of obscene mimicry and the mock-imprecations he practised instead were not only a less solemn idiom and closer to that of the group, but were also a protection, as overt compliment was not, from any obvious appearance of sycophancy. Oldham more than once declared his dislike of flattering dedications: when he did praise Rochester fulsomely, it was in the posthumous context of ‘Bion’, when the flattery would no longer seem self-serving. He was less pompous or self-important than Dryden, and as an unestablished figure doubtless had less to lose. He could more easily adopt coterie postures of outrageous scurrility or frivolous insolence, thus avoiding Drydenian unctuousness.
Even so, there’s no evidence that Oldham was admitted to intimate membership. He does not appear in the index of Rochester’s correspondence, and the degree of friendship or even of active patronage on Rochester’s part is unclear. Tradition has it that it was the ‘Satyr Against Vertue’ which led Rochester and his friends to seek Oldham out at the school in Croydon where he taught. If true it confirms that they were happy enough to be the objects of a parody of libertine hectoring. But the poem must have appeared especially clumsy in its impersonation of lordly speech: mimicry of the order of ‘haughty scornful I’, ‘dull unbred Fools ... Who act their Wickednes with an ill Grace’, convicts itself of the ‘ill Grace’. It’s arguable that the satirical point is precisely to indicate that the ‘breeding’ the speaker pretends to is itself oafish, which might or might not indicate that the wits were even more tolerant of derision, and on a broader front, than one might have assumed. But it’s unlikely that the poem would have suggested to them that the author had an easy familiarity with their normal modes of speech. I find it hard to imagine that they would overtly declare themselves to be the ‘grandees’ of sin any more than Rochester would refer to himself as ‘haughty scornful I’, or that they would expound their libertine code with the laboured explicitness (not to mention the arthritic cadences) of the speaker:
In Us [Sin’s] a Perfection, who profess
A studied and elab’rate Wickednes:
We’re the great Roya’l Society of Vice.
Whose Talents are to make Discoveries,
And advance Sin like other Arts and Sciences:
’Tis I, the bold Columbus, only I,
Who must new Worlds in Vice descry,
And fix the Pillars of unpassable Iniquity.
Oldham picks up some traditional items of ideology: the notion of libertines as self-styled explorers, analogous to scientists or discoverers of new worlds, living at the frontiers of known experience, dedicated to the pursuit of all possibilities of transgression or pleasure, learned to a perfectionism or exhaustiveness of pedantry, and ‘studied’, too, in the sense of the fastidious and the recherché. Hero-worshipping gestures to Satan, Cain and Nero, are also guyed, with the same humourless spelling-out. Pretensions of daring and of refinement, éxalté pompousness parading a dandy cool, are captured with real insight. Oldham can diagnose the codes of aristocratic immoralism, and the blend of romance and doggedness, or glamour and pedantry, that perennially attaches to such sub-cultures. But his laboured mimicry resembles nothing in Rochester’s manner, and reads as much like the soliloquies of a stage Machiavel as any speech from the Satyrs upon the Jesuits. Lurid principles are projected into that indeterminate fictional zone between private unspoken reflection and the need to spell things out to an audience, in which both matter and manner tend to lose all conviction. This is another example of the legacy in Oldham’s work of the manner and rhetoric of Restoration heroic plays. A fascinating appendix to Brooks’s edition shows that the working drafts for Satyrs upon the Jesuits are full of passages from plays by Lee, Dryden, Settle and Otway. Rochester may have liked the poem but could never have spoken in the way it represented him. Oldham’s borrowings from theatrical speeches, however ironic their subtext, show a nervous sense of the needs of an audience, of explanations due to the uninitiated, which is exceptionally incongruous in what is supposed to be a coterie document. What is most actively in evidence is that essential feature of Oldham’s character and formation, his schoolmasterliness, as Soame perceived.
This important edition has its share of typos and minor slips. Its rich commentary can occasionally be faulted: Rochester’s ‘Disabled Debauchee’ might have been cited against p. 28, ll. 72ff; Ovid’s Ars Amatoria at p. 37, ll. 407ff.; Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’ at p. 58, ll. 26ff.; Homer, Pliny and Boileau (and Addison and Johnson) on pygmies and cranes at p. 181, ll. 266ff. (also p. 328, ll. 159ff.); Boileau’s ‘De Paris au Pérou, du Japon jusqu’à Rome’ (also a source of Johnson’s ‘China to Peru’) at p. 340; the menstrual sense of ‘the Flowers’ is unglossed at p. 343, l. 28. The cross-referencing is sometimes unhelpful and the index often inadequate. Nevertheless, Oldham can now be properly read, and better understood than at any time since Dryden pronounced him too little and too lately known.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.