1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Oldham

Anonymous, "John Oldham" European Magazine 47 (January 1805) 4-5.



The unmerited neglect which the works of this author have experienced of late, is not a little surprising; particularly when we reflect that good satirists by no mean abound in the English language. The satirical talent of Oldham seems to have been the gift of Nature. His thoughts are original, and his expressions particularly strong and appropriate. In the latter, however, he is too frequently coarse; which may, in some measure, be ascribed to the times in which he lived. Like our late satirist Churchill, he seems to have written and published in too much haste; and in some places, those who are accustomed to the correct versification of modern times will consider them rugged. This fault, however, only appears in his satires, which he did not think necessary to be so correct as the other species of poetry. Although some of the subjects on which he employed his talents have yielded to time, yet even now his satires on the Jesuits may be read with pleasure; and perhaps they are the keenest in the English language. His satire "dissuading from Poetry," and "to a young Man leaving the University," are excellent productions. His translation of the third Satire of Juvenal is very humorous, and contains a curious description of what London then was. The "Satire against Virtue" is an original; and one cannot read it without wondering at the stupidity of Anthony Wood, who did not perceive the irony, and calls its author a "mad, ranting, blasphemous, and debauched writer."

Pope, we have reason to think, perused this author with more than common attention.

Oldham, in his satire "dissuading from Poetry," says:

On Butler who can think without just rage?
"The glory and the scandal of the age."

From which couplet Pope is supposed to have taken the hint of the following:

At length Erasmus, that great injur'd name,
"The glory of the priesthood, and the shame."

Another coincidence between these two poets occurred to me lately.

Pope says, in his imitation of one of the satires of Horace, when speaking of propriety:

At best it falls to some ungracious son,
That tries, "my father's damn'd," and all's my own.

Oldham, in his satire "to a Friend leaving the University," says:

Were you the son of some rich usurer,
That starv'd, and and "damn'd himself to make his heir."

There is, however, still a prior claim to this thought, for it is to be found in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy; but at present I cannot quote the passage, for I have not the book at hand.

To conclude my remarks on this author, I shall quote some lines from a poem which Dryden inscribed to his memory, whose judgment in poetry few will dispute.

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 this, 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.

He afterwards, in the same poem, calls him "the Marcellus of our tongue."