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To the Memory of Mr. Oldham

By dgcullum May 03, 2010 1044 Words
“To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” is a touching elegy written by John Dryden. John Oldham died at the age of thirty and John Dryden, being fifty-two at the time of Oldham’s death, writes an elegy in tribute to the young poet’s achievements. However, what made John Dryden care enough to write twenty-five lines of heroic couplets, which is an unusual form for an elegy, in order to lament John Oldham’s untimely death?

In researching this, one learns that Oldham achieved fame as a verse satirist, his satire being vigorous and witty. Oldham’s verse, rough and unrefined, in comparison to Dryden’s style begs the question, why did Dryden want to pay tribute to a much younger and less accomplished poet? In the first ten lines of the elegy we can see that Dryden attempts to establish the history between the two. “Too little and too lately known…,” shows us that the two authors had just recently met and “Whom I began to think to call my own,” tells us that John Dryden had started to take a liking to John Oldham. This fact is elaborated on by the sentence “For sure our souls were near ally’d; and thine cast in the same poetic mould with mine.” Dryden says here that their souls were really close to each other and they were cast from the same poetic mould. It is interesting on Dryden’s part to say this when their styles were not so similar, Dryden being artistic and flowing and Oldham’s style seemingly coarse and less thought through. However, we are told that they did know each other in the first ten lines so we must take another route in determining why Dryden wanted to lament Oldham’s passing. In lines nine and ten we see that Dryden may be stating that Oldham was a stepping stone in Dryden’s studies. “Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place, while his young friend perform’d and won the race.” This couplet illuminates Dryden’s way of thinking. It seems that Dryden learned a little from John Oldham despite his young age, which probably attributes to Dryden liking Oldham, and this spurred Dryden on to new heights, so he relates Oldham’s death to Nisus’s fall and Dryden himself is the young friend who wins the race. However, this is not to say that Dryden used Oldham in a negative way. In the legend, Nisus was winning the race when he slipped in a pool of blood and fell; he then rolled into the path of a rival opponent so that his friend could win the race. So, in essence, he is saying that Oldham helped him to achieve greater heights in writing and fame even though Oldham died, or fell. All this probably attributes to the reason for John Dryden to write the tribute to Oldham, however, the elegy does not stop there. In lines ten through fourteen, Dryden ponders on what older age could have given Oldham in terms of higher thinking and achievement. This part is sort of a wishful thinking attempt at contemplating what John Oldham would do in older age. Dryden states that age might have given Oldham a refined tongue for his harsh and rugged line.

Another answer to the reason Dryden felt like he owed a tribute to Oldham is that he may have felt that John Oldham was a man before his time. In lines nineteen and twenty Dryden writes “Thy generous fruits, though gather’d ere their prime still show’d a quickness; and maturing time.” This meaning that the fruits of Oldham’s labor, his poetry and satires, were mature for Oldham.

Also, in answer to the to the question Dryden he uses the words allied and mould, he is basically comparing himself to Oldham. This is not strange because they have the same birthday, and they both write in satire, just different styles in satire. When he writes “One common note on either lyre did strike and knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike,” Dryden is comparing both he and Oldham to how musicians are similar when they play the lyre in reference to their poetry. Although, he does criticize Oldham’s verses in that he says “thro the harsh cadence of a rugged line, a noble error, and but seldom made, when poets are by too much force betrayed.” He is criticizing Oldham’s work here saying that his errors are noble and that he himself writes satire in better verses. The piece where he mentions the rugged line probably indicates that Oldham is more preoccupied with the matter that is given rather than the manner in which it is given. This view is expressed more clearly when Dryden writes “But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.”

Overall, we see that John Dryden and John Oldham had many things in common. They were both poets, or satirists to be more exact, and they both had the same birthday. Yet Oldham was substantially less famous than Dryden and had accomplished considerably less than him, so this begs the question why did Dryden feel the necessity to write a tribute to him? As we have seen, Dryden feels that he was connected to Oldham, maybe it is that they were both satirists, maybe it is that Oldham castigated wickedness instead of preaching virtue and Dryden found this appealing. Or maybe, Dryden saw Oldham as an equal, not on a literal level, but on a metaphoric, by this I mean that Oldham wrote satires in a way that was before his time seeing that he was only 30 at the time of his death. It is for this reason, I believe, that Dryden feels he must at least recognize the young writer so that people may not forget what could have been had not smallpox prematurely ended Oldham’s life. He equates him with Marcellus, the son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus. Marcellus died at an early age and he was mourned very heavily by the Roman population, and Dryden uses this to pay tribute to Oldham who will more than likely not be mourned widely by the masses.

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