John Dryden’s “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham”: An Analysis

Kneller, Godfrey, 1646-1723; John Dryden (1631-1700), Playwright, Poet Laureate and CriticI’ve talked about John Dryden on this blog before, way back in 2016, in a look at his poem “Astræa Redux.” But for today, I’m not interested in 17th-century English politics or lovely descriptions of Dover’s cliffs. Nor am I interested in tackling any of Dryden’s extended satires and allegories—no point trying to condense “Absalom and Achitophel” into a blog post. Instead, I’d like to highlight a short delight of his, one which I envy for its tight control of tone and language: “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham.”

The “Mr. Oldham” of the title refers to John Oldham, a 17th-century satirist whom Dryden greatly admired and who died in 1683 at the age of thirty. Published the following year, “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” is both a tribute to a talent gone too soon and a showcase for Dryden’s own skills as a poet. Like a great number of Dryden’s poems, it’s written in heroic couplets: rhyming, self-contained and balanced pairs of iambic pentameter lines.

Let’s have a look at the text, shall we?

“To the Memory of Mr. Oldham”

Farewell, too little and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own;
For sure our souls were near ally’d; and thine
Cast in the same poetic mould with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
And knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike:
To the same goal did both our studies drive,
The last set out the soonest did arrive.
Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place
While his young friend perform’d and won the race.
O early ripe! to thy abundant store
What could advancing age have added more?
It might (what nature never gives the young)
Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray’d.
Thy generous fruits, though gather’d ere their prime
Still showed a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Once more, hail and farewell; farewell thou young,
But ah too short, Marcellus of our tongue.
Thy brows with ivy, and with laurels bound;
But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around.

The great challenge Dryden faces in writing “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” lies in its very concept: it is an elegy written to honor a satirist. The poem cannot be entirely mournful, as that would not fit the person of John Oldham. But it cannot be entirely playful, either; neither the dictates of the genre nor basic respect for the dead would allow for it. No, Dryden must balance these two disparate moods, which requires some finely-tuned craft.

One way Dryden successfully negotiates these mixed moods is through his choice of allusions. In lines 9-10, he invokes the friendship between Nisus and Euryalus, two figures who appear in Virgil’s Aeneid. Specifically, Dryden refers to an episode in Book V, a footrace that Nisus and Euryalus partake in during the funeral games for Anchises. The text of Dryden’s poem lays out a solemn treatment of the event: Nisus loses his footing (“fell upon the slippery place”), which allow Euryalus, who had been trailing, to come from behind and win. This is of course a parallel for the relationship between Oldham and Dryden: Oldham’s great satires predated Dryden’s, but Dryden lived longer and would achieve much greater fame (“The last set out the soonest did arrive”).

However, looking into the full context of the allusion reveals a comic, almost absurd dimension to it. Nisus doesn’t merely trip; he sets off a chain of events befitting a gross-out slapstick comedy, complete with animal viscera. I’ll quote the full sequence from Dryden’s own translation of the Aeneid, which he’d publish a full fourteen years after Oldham’s death:

Now, spent, the goal they almost reach at last,
When eager Nisus, hapless in his haste,
Slipp’d first, and, slipping, fell upon the plain,
Soak’d with the blood of oxen newly slain.
The careless victor had not mark’d his way;
But, treading where the treach’rous puddle lay,
His heels flew up; and on the grassy floor
He fell, besmear’d with blood and holy gore.
Not mindless, then, Euryalus, of thee,
Nor of the sacred bond of amity,
He strove th’ immediate rival’s hope to cross,
And caught the foot of Salius as he rose.
So Salius lay extended on the plain;
Euryalus springs out, the prize to gain,
And leaves the crowd: applauding peals attend
The victor to the goal, who vanquish’d by his friend. (5.426-441)

In other words: Nisus slips in a pool of sacrificial blood, getting absolutely soaked in it; then, he grabs the second-place runner, Salius, by the foot, so that his good friend Euryalus can cross the finish line first. Not the most dignified conclusion to a sporting event. One can see why Dryden would leave out certain parts of that anecdote in his elegiac poem, at least explicitly. But the context for the allusion is still there, and the informed reader could get a little chuckle from that knowledge.

Beyond the content of the poem, Dryden also uses its form to balance its serious and comic aspects. After spending the first ten lines establishing the close connection he felt with Oldham, Dryden wonders what “could advancing have added more” to his friend (line 12). It’s at this point that Dryden brings up a common criticism of Oldham’s verse: it’s rough and lacking in polish. Dryden, though himself a paragon of Restoration sophistication, doesn’t hold Oldham’s rugged poetry against him—at least, not beyond some lighthearted ribbing.

That Oldham apparently required schooling in “the numbers of [his] native tongue” (i.e., the meter of English poetry) certainly sounds like a diss (14). And Dryden is more than capable of taking inferior poets to task; just read “Mac Flecknoe” for proof. But that one line is as pointed a Dryden’s pen gets. If anything, he is apologetic for Oldham’s technical deficiencies.

First off, the “native tongue” quip is preceded by the parenthetical qualifier, “(what nature never gives the young)” (13). Meter takes time to master, and Oldham alas was robbed of so much time. Second, Dryden insists that Oldham’s chosen field, satire, “needs not those” strictly metrical lines, and that “wit will shine / Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line” (15-16). Indeed, that line is self-demonstrating: leading with a two deviant metrical feet, full of sibilants, stops, and weak central vowels. It’s not quite Pope’s Essay on Criticism, but it’s still pretty clever. Finally, Dryden elevates Oldham’s esteem by tacking a swipe at their poetic rivals: rough meter is “a noble error” in a time “When poets are by too much force betray’d” (17-18).

Now, at this juncture, Dryden is at risk of drifting too far into satire. In a 25-line poem, there isn’t that much room for digressions on poetic fashions. This is why I find lines 18-21 so crucial in the poem’s overall construction. On a formal level, these lines bear all the marks of a turning point in a poem of heroic couplets: a triplet rhyme ending with an alexandrine (i.e., a line of iambic hexameter). On a content level, these lines return our attention to Oldham himself, to his “generous fruits…gathered ere their prime”. Those poems Oldham wrote, Dryden says, “showed a quickness,” one which “maturing time” may not have aided, for it “mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.”

Yet this is the exact moment the poem itself “mellows,” use the “dull sweets” of the triplet and the extra foot of the alexandrine to slow the pace, to wind the reader down into an appropriately reflective mood. From this point on, the satirical aspects of the poem recede, giving ground entirely to elegy. Dryden goes on to call Oldham the “Marcellus of our tongue” (referring to the great but short-lived Roman general), bestowing his spirit “with ivy, and with laurels,” while the reality of death, “fate and gloomy night,” “encompass” his friend (24-25). If the poem has lost some of the tonal complexity seen in the Nisus and Euryalus allusion or the riffs on numbers, it’s only because the world has lost, in Dryden’s eyes, an unappreciated source of humor.

What do you think of Dryden’s poem? If you have thoughts you’d like to share, or suggestions more classic poems to give the old close reading, let me know in the comments.

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