John Oldham

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 23:329-31.

JOHN OLDHAM, an English poet, was born Aug. 9, 1653, at Shipton, near Tedbury in Gloucestershire, where his father was a nonconformist minister, and had a congregation. He educated his son in grammar-learning, and afterwards sent him to Tedbury school, where he spent about two years. In June 1670, he was admitted of Edmund-hall, Oxford, where he was soon distinguished for a good Latinist, and made poetry and polite literature his chief study. In May 1674, he proceeded B.A. but soon after was called home, much against his inclination. He continued some time with his father, still cultivating his muse: one of the first fruits of which was "A Pindaric Ode," the next year, upon the death of his friend and constant companion, Mr. Charles Morvent. Shortly after this, he became usher to the free-school at Croydon in Surrey, yet found leisure to compose several copies of verses; some of which, being seen in MS. by the earls of Rochester and Dorset, sir Charles Sedley, and other wits of distinction, were so much admired, that they surprised him with an unexpected visit at Croydon. Mr. Shepherd (then master of the school) attributed the honour of this visit to himself; but they soon convinced him, that he was not the object of their curiosity. The visit, however, brought Oldham acquainted with other persons of wit and distinction, and probably by their means, he was, in 1678, removed from Croydon, and appointed tutor to the two grandsons of sir Edward Thurland, a judge, near Rygate in Surrey. He continued in this family till 1681; when, being out of employment, he passed some time in London among the wits, and was afterwards engaged as tutor to a son of sir William Hickes. This gentleman, living near London was intimately acquainted with Dr. Richard Lower, an eminent physician there, and who encouraged Oldham to study physic, in which he made some progress; but he had no relish for protracted study, and preferred the occasional exercise of his pen on temporary subjects. Having discharged his trust, in qualifying young Hickes for foreign travels, he declined, though earnestly pressed, to go abroad with him, and took leave of the family. With a small sum of money which he had saved, he now hastened to London, where company seduced him into intemperance, yet in other respects he neither degraded nor disgraced his character. Before he had been long in the metropolis, he was found out by the noblemen who had visited him at Croydon, and who now brought him acquainted with Dryden, who highly esteemed him, conceived a very great opinion his talents, and honoured his memory with some very pathetic and beautiful lines.

But what turned to his greater advantage was, his being made known to the earl of Kingston, who became his patron, and entertained him with great respect at his seat at Holme-Pierpoint; apparently in the view of making him his chaplain, if he would qualify himself for it by entering into orders. But he had the utmost aversion for that office, as appears from his "Satire," addressed to a friend, who was about to leave the university, and come abroad into the world; in which he lets him know, that he was deterred from the thought of such an office by the servility too often expected from it. He remained, however, an inmate in the earl's house, till his death, which was occasioned by the small-pox, Dec. 9, 1683, in his 30th year. He was buried in the church of Holme-Pierpoint, the earl attending as chief mourner, who soon after erected a monument to his memory, with an inscription expressing his eloge in Latin, to this effect: "No poet was more inspired with the sacred furor, none more sublime in sentiments, none more happily bold in expression, than he." In his person, he was tall of stature, very thin, long-visaged, with a high nose and prominent; his aspect unpromising, but satire was in his eye. His constitution was tender, and inclined to a consumption; and not a little injured by application to learned authors, in whom he was well versed. His genius lay chiefly to satire, where, however, he did not always keep within the bounds of decency.

His works have been frequently printed in one volume, 8vo; in 1722, in 2 vols. 12mo, with the "Author's Life;" and lately, under the inspection of captain Thomson, in 3 vols. 12mo. They consist of no less than fifty pieces; the chief of which are, "The Four Satires upon the Jesuits," written in 1679. In 1681 he published "Some new pieces" by the author of the Satires upon the Jesuits, 8vo. The fame he acquired by these satires procured him the title of the English Juvenal, and although his language is frequently harsh and coarse, there are many passages of vigour and elegance, and much vivacity of description. Pope used to say, "Oldham is a very indelicate writer; he has strong rage, but too much like Billingsgate. Lord Rochester had much more delicacy, and more knowledge of mankind. Oldham is too rough and coarse. Rochester is the medium between him and the earl of Dorset, who is the best."