1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Oldham

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 2:337-43.



This eminent satyrical poet, was the son of the reverend Mr. John Oldham, a non-conformist minister, and grandson to Mr. John Oldham, rector of Nun-Eaton, near Tedbury in Gloucestershire. He was born at Shipton (where his father had a congregation, near Tedbury, and in the same county, on the 9th of August 1653. He was educated in grammar learning, under the care of his father, till he was almost fitted for the university; and to be compleatly qualified for that purpose, he was sent to Tedbridge school, where he spent about two years under the tuition of Mr. Henry Heaven, occasioned by the earnest request of alderman Yeats of Bristol, who having a son at the same school, was desirous that Mr. Oldham should be his companion, which he imagined would much conduce to the advancement of his learning. This for some time retarded Oldham in the prosecution of his own studies, but for the time he lost in forwarding Mr. Yeat's son, his father afterwards made him an ample amends. Mr. Oldham being sent to Edmund Hall in Oxford, was committed to the care of Mr. William Stephens: of which hall he became a bachelor in the beginning of June 1670. He was soon observed to be a good latin scholar, and chiefly addicted himself to the study of poetry, and other polite acquirements. In the year 1674, he took the degree of bachelor of arts, but left the university before he compleated that degree by determination, being much against his inclination compelled to go home and live for some time with his father. The next year he was very much afflicted for the death of his dear friend, and constant companion, Mr. Charles Mervent, as appears by his ode upon that occasion. In a short time after he became usher to the free-school at Croyden in Surry. Here it was, he had the honour of receiving a visit from the earl of Rochester, the earl of Dorset, Sir Charles Sedley, and other persons of distinction, meerly upon the reputation of some verses which they had seen in manuscript. The master of the school was not a little surprized, at such a visit; and would fain have taken the honour of it to himself, but was soon convinced that he had neither wit nor learning enough to make a party in such company. This adventure was no doubt very happy for Mr. Oldham, as it encreased his reputation and gained him the countenance of the Great, for after about three years continuance at Croyden school, he was recommended by his good friend Harman Atwood, Esq; to Sir Edward Thurland, a judge, near Rygate in the same county, who appointed him tutor to his two grandsons. He continued in this family till 1680. After this he was sometime tutor to a son of Sir William Hicks, a gentleman living within three or four miles of London, who was intimately acquainted with a celebrated Physician, Dr. Richard Lower, by whose peculiar friendship and encouragement, Mr. Oldham at his leisure hours studied physic for about a year, and made some progress in it, but the bent of his poetical genius was too strong to become a proficient in any school but that of the muses. He freely acknowledges this in a letter to a friend, written in July 1678,

While silly I, all thriving arts refuse,
And all my hopes, and all my vigour lose,
In service of the worst of jilts a muse.

* * * * *

Oft I remember, did wise friends dissuade
And bid me quit the trifling barren trade.
Oft have I tryed (heaven knows) to mortify
This vile and wicked bent of poetry
But still unconquered it remains within,
Fixed as a habit or some darling sin.
In vain I better studies there would sow;
Oft have I tried, but none will thrive or grow
All my best thoughts, when I'd most serious be
Are never from its foul infection free:
Nay God forgive me when I say my prayers,
I scarce can help polluting them with verse.
The fab'lous wretch of old revers'd I seem,
Who turn whate'er I touch to dross of rhime.

Our author had not been long in London, before he was found out by the noblemen who visited him at Croyden, and who now introduced him to the acquaintance of Mr. Dryden. But amongst the men of quality he was most affectionately caressed by William Earl of Kingston, who made him an offer of becoming his chaplain; but he declined an employment, to which servility and dependence are so necessarily connected. The writer of his life observes, that our author in his satire addressed to a friend, who was about to quit the university, and came abroad into the world, lets his friend know, that he was frighted from the thought of such an employment, by the scandalous sort of treatment which often accompanies it. This usage deters men of generous minds from placing themselves in such a station of life; and hence persons of quality are frequently excluded from the improving, agreeable conversation of a learned and obsequious friend. In this satire Mr. Oldham writes thus.

Some think themselves exalted to the sky,
If they light on some noble family.
Diet and horse, and thirty-pounds a year,
Besides the advantage of his lordship's ear.
The credit of the business and the state,
Are things that in a youngster's sense sound great.
Little the unexperienced wretch does know,
What slavery he oft must undergo;
Who tho' in silken stuff, and cassoc drest,
Wears but a gayer livery at best.
When diner calls, the implement must wait,
With holy words to consecrate the meat;
But hold it for a favour seldom known,
If he be deign'd the honour to sit down.
Soon as the tarts appear, Sir Crape withdraw,
Those dainties are not for a spiritual maw.
Observe your distance, and be sure to stand
Hard by the cistern, with your cap in hand:
There for diversion you may pick your teeth,
Till the kind voider comes for your relief,
For meer board wages, such their freedom sell,
Slaves to an hour, and vassals to a bell:
And if th' employments of one day be stole,
They are but prisoners out upon parole:
Always the marks of slavery remain,
And they tho' loose, still drag about their chain.
And where's the mighty prospect after all,
A chaplainship serv'd up, and seven years thrall?
The menial thing, perhaps for a reward,
Is to some slender benefice prefer'd,
With this proviso bound that he must wed,
My lady's antiquated waiting maid,
In dressing only skill'd, and marmalade.
Let others who such meannesses can brook,
Strike countenance to ev'ry great man's look:
Let those, that have a mind, turn slave to eat,
And live contented by another's plate:
I rate my freedom higher, nor will I,
For food and rayment truck my liberty.
But if I must to my last shift be put,
To fill a bladder, and twelve yards of gut,
Richer with counterfeited wooden leg,
And my right arm tyed up, I'll choose to beg.
I'll rather choose to starve at large, than be,
The gaudiest vassal to dependancy.

The above is a lively and animated description of the miseries of a slavish dependence on the great, particularly that kind of mortification which a chaplain must undergo. It is to be lamented, that gentlemen of an academical education should be subjected to observe so great a distance from those, over whom in all points of learning and genius they may have a superiority. Tho' in the very nature of things this must necessarily happen, yet a high spirit cannot bear it, and it is with pleasure we can produce Oldham, as one of those poets who have spurned dependence, and acted consistent with the dignity of his genius, and the lustre of his profession.

When the earl of Kingston found that Mr. Oldham's spirit was too high to accept his offer of chaplainship, he then caressed him as a companion, and gave him an invitation to his house at Holmes-Pierpont, in Nottinghamshire. This invitation Mr. Oldham accepted, and went into the country with him, not as a dependent but friend; he considered himself as a poet, and a clergyman, and in consequence of that, he did not imagine the earl was in the least degraded by making him his bosom companion. Virgil was the friend of Maecenas, and shone in the court of Augustus, and if it should be observed that Virgil was a greater poet than Oldham it may be answered, Maecenas was a greater man than the Earl of Kingston, and the court of Augustus more brilliant than that of Charles II.

Our author had not been long at the seat of this Earl, before, being seized with the small pox, he died December 9, 1683, in the 30th year of his age and was interred with the utmost decency, his lordship attending as chief mourner, in the church there, where the earl soon after erected a monument to his memory. Mr. Oldham's works were printed at London 1722, in two volumes 12mo. They chiefly consist of Satires, Odes, Translations, Paraphrases of Horace, and other authors; Elegiac Verses, Imitations, Parodies, Familiar Epistles, &c. — Mr. Oldham was tall of stature, the make of his body very thin, his face long, his nose prominent, his aspect unpromising, and satire was in his eye. His constitution was very tender, inclined to a consumption, and it was not a little injured by his study and application to learned authors, with whom he was very conversant, as appears from his satires against the Jesuits in which there is discovered as much learning as wit. In the second volume of the great historical, geographical, and poetical Dictionary, he is stiled the Darling of the Muses, a pithy, sententious, elegant, and smooth writer: "His translations exceed the original, and his invention seems matchless. His satire against the Jesuits is of special note; he may be justly said to have excelled all the Satirists of the age." Tho' this compliment in favour of Oldham is certainly too hyperbolical, yet he was undoubtedly a very great genius; he had treasured in his mind an infinite deal of knowledge, which, had his life been prolonged, he might have produced with advantage, for his natural endowments seem to have been very great: But he is not more to be reverenced as a Poet, than for that gallant spirit of Independence he discovered, and that magnanimity which scorned to stoop to any servile submissions for patronage: He had many admirers among his cotemporaries, of whom Mr. Dryden professed himself one, and has done justice to his memory by some excellent verses, with which we shall close this account.

Farewel too little and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own;
For sure our souls were near allied, and thine
Cast in the same poetic mould with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
And knaves and fools were both abhorred 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,
Whilst his young friend performed, 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 smoothness of thy native tongue.
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Thro' the harsh cadence of a rugged line:
A nobler error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray'd.
Thy gen'rous fruits, tho' gather'd ere their prime,
Still shew'd a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write, to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Once more, hail, and farewel: Farewel 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.