Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Oldham, John (1653-1683)

OLDHAM, JOHN (1653–1683), poet, was born at Shipton-Moyne, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, 9 Aug. 1653. John Oldham, his grandfather, was rector of Nuneaton. John Oldham, his father, after residing as a nonconformist minister at Shipton, and at Newton in Wiltshire, where he was ‘silenced’ in 1662, served a small congregation at Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, and survived in honourable repute till about 1725 (Calamy and Palmer, Nonconformist's Memorial, 1803, iii. 368). These data both help to account for the straitened circumstances under which Oldham entered life, and refute the incredible tradition that his scurrilous ‘Character of a certain Ugly Old Priest’ was ‘written upon’ his father (see Works, ed. Thompson, iii. 162 n.)

After receiving his earlier education from his father, and at Tetbury grammar school, where he is stated to have begun his career as a private tutor by assisting in his studies the son of a Bristol alderman, Oldham entered at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, in 1670. Although his ability and attainments are said to have found recognition here, he quitted the university after graduating B.A. in May 1674, and afterwards resided for some months in his father's house. In the following year he suffered the loss of his school and college friend, Charles Morwent, the son of a lawyer at Tetbury, to whose memory he dedicated the most elaborate of his poems. Soon after this he began life in the humble position of usher in Archbishop Whitgift's free school (since the parish school) at Croydon, where he remained about three years. In one of his satires, ‘To a Friend about to leave the University,’ he gave vent to his hatred of the position occupied by him at this ‘Grammar-Bridewell’ (Works, iii. 22):

A Dancing-Master shall be better paid,
Tho' he instructs the Heels, and you the Head.

During Oldham's residence at Croydon he is said to have received a visit from Rochester, Dorset, Sir Charles Sedley, and some other fine gentlemen and wits, who, in the first instance, mistook for him the aged headmaster of the school. But though Oldham had enough wit and enough inclination to the obscene to please his polite visitors, there is nothing to show that his meeting with them had any direct effect upon his career. He left Croydon in 1678, and seems in the same year, on the recommendation of a barrister, Harman Atwood, whose death shortly afterwards he celebrated in a panegyrical ode, to have accepted the post of tutor to the grandsons of Sir Edward Thurland (not Theveland), a retired judge, residing near Reigate (Pepys, Diary, ed. Bright, ii. 85–6). Here he remained till 1681.

In 1679 had been printed, according to Wood without the author's consent, the first of Oldham's ‘Satires upon the Jesuits’ (an expression of the popular panic at the time of the ‘Popish plot’) and the so-called ‘Satire against Virtue,’ a production likewise in its way open to the charge of sensationalism, and reprinted accordingly in 1680 in an edition of Rochester's ‘Poems.’ The whole of the ‘Satires upon the Jesuits,’ together with the ‘Satire against Virtue’ and other pieces, were published, no doubt with Oldham's authority, in 1681; and in the same year appeared a volume containing a number of paraphrases and original pieces which seemed to him likely to catch the ear of the town. But Oldham was convinced of the folly of depending upon poetry (i.e. literary work) as the staff of life. Before this year (1681) was out, Oldham became tutor to the son of Sir William Hickes, at his residence near London. Through him he became acquainted with the celebrated physician Dr. Richard Lower [q. v.], by whose advice he is said to have betaken himself to the study of medicine. This he is asserted to have carried on for a year; but he makes no specific mention of medicine among the ‘thriving arts’ for which he subsequently declined to abandon his muse. He is further said to have refused an offer of Sir William Hickes to accompany his son on an Italian tour. He was much befriended by the Earl of Kingston (William Pierrepont, who succeeded to the title in 1682), and is even said to have been invited by him to become his domestic chaplain. But he was unwilling either to take orders or to essay an experience which he has graphically satirised in some of his best known lines (‘Some think themselves exalted to the Sky,’ &c., in ‘A Satire to a Friend about to leave the University’ in Works, iii. 23–4). In his last days he became personally known to Dryden and other wits of the town. It was at Lord Kingston's seat, Holme-Pierrepointy near Nottingham, that Oldham died of the small-pox, 9 Dec. 1683. One of the monuments in the fine church of the village commemorates the admiration cherished for him hy ' his patron ' (see the epitaph in Wood). The graceful tribute paid to his memory by Waller (which mentions Burnet among his admirers), and still more the noble lines of Dryden, show that his loss was felt in the contemporary world of letters. The imputation of malignity to Dryden, on the ground of a perfectly just criticism frankly offered in his lines, is properly rejected by Sir Walter Scott (Dryden's Works, 1808, XI. 99 seq.) Tom Brown addressed a eulogistic poem 'to the memory of John Oldham' (Works, iv. 244, ed. 1744).

According to Oldham's biographer, Thompson, 'his person was tall and thin, which was much owing to a consumptive complaint, but was greatly increased by study ; his face was long, his nose prominent, his aspect unpromising, but satire was in his eye.' Bliss mentions a portrait of him, in flowing locks and a long loose handkerchief round his head, engraved by Vandergucht, which was prefixed to the 1704 edition of his ' Works ' (Bromley). Another portrait, painted by W. Dobson and engraved by Scheneker, is in Harding's 'Biographical Mirrour,' 1792.

Oldham's productions deserve more notice than they have received. Their own original power is notable. Pope, and perhaps other of our chief eighteentn-century poets, were under important literary obligations to their author. The chief of them are here grouped according to form and species.

Whether or no the Pindaric dedicated by Oldham 'to the memory of my dear friend, Mr. Charles Morwent,' in date of composition preceded his most celebrated 'Satires,' it must be described as the most finished product of his genius, and as entitled to no mean place in English 'In Memoriam' poetry. Cowley is evidently the master followed in this ode. Oldham's other Pindaric, in remembrance of 'Mr. Harman Atwood,' is a less ambitious and less successful effort of the same kind. Among his other lyrical pieces may be mentioned his ode 'The Praise of Homer,' uninteresting except that one passage in it conveys a suggestion of Gray ; that 'Upon the Works of Ben Jonson,' an early piece, but neither inadequate nor hackneyed in its appreciation of Jonson's cardinal qualities ; and, by way of a comparison not favourable to Oldham, the ode for an 'Anniversary of Music on St. Cecilia's Day,' set to music by Dr. John Blow [q. v.] Some of his paraphrases of classical and Biblical poetry were likewise composed, without particular effectiveness, in the same metre, for which the ode ' Upon the Marriage of the Prince of Orange with the Lady Mary ' likewise shows him to have been lacking in natural impulse. The notoriety of the lyric first known as 'A Satire against Virtue' was chiefly due to the density of a public not accustomed to think for itself. Its irony, of which the vein is not peculiarly fine, was so imperfectly understood that he found himself obliged first to explain his 'diff'rent taste of wit' in an 'Apology' (in heroic couplets), and then to indite a 'Counterpart' ode to the 'Satire against Virtue,' commonplace in itself but for the daring άπαζ λεγόμενον in its contemptuous reference to 'all the Under-sheriff-alities of Life.' Less mistakable is the lyric irony of the 'Dithyrambic' (written in August 1677) in praise of drink, purporting to be 'A Drunkard's Speech in a Masque.'

From Oldham's avowal in the 'Apology' for the so-called 'Satire against Virtue' that,

Had he a Genius, and Poetic Rage
Great as the Vices of this guilty Age,

he would turn to 'noble Satire,' it may be concluded that up to this time (1679 or 1680) his only attempt in this direction had been 'Garnet's Ghost,' surreptitiously published as a broadsheet in 1679. The 'Satires upon the Jesuits,' of which this was in 1681 reprinted as the first, together with the prologue, stated to have been written in 1679, 'upon Occasion of the Plot,' are the best known among his works. The unrestrained violence of these diatribes may find some sort of palliation in the frenzv which they flattered. But Pope was well within the mark when he spoke of Oldliam as ' a very indelicate writer ; he has strong rage, but it is too much like Billingsgate ' (Spence, Anecdotes, Singer's edit. 1820, p. 19 ; cf. ib. p. 136). 'Satire IV,' which Pope singled out from the rest as one of its author's most notable productions, is a clover adaptation of Horace's 'Satires,' i. viii. ('Olim truncus eram,' &c.)

In his biting 'Satire upon a Woman, who by her Falsehood and Scorn was the Death of my Friend,' where full play is given both to his feverish energy and to his prurient fancy, the abruptness of the opening — a favourite device of the author's — should be noticed. But his gift of simulating wrath is perhaps best exemplified in his 'Satire upon a Printer.' Horace, rather than Juvenal, was his model in the 'Letter from the Country to a Friend in Town, giving an Account of the Author's Inclination to Poetry,' one of the pleasantest as well as wittiest of his pieces, ending with a spirited rush. Pope's 'Epistle to Arbuthnot' may have owed something to this 'Letter.' There is more bitterness, but equal vivacity, in his 'Satire addressed to a Friend about to leave the University and come abroad in the World,' which closes with a fable, excellently told. More ambitious, but really inadequate and low in tone, is the 'Satire' in which Spenser is introduced, 'dissuading the Author from the Study of Poetry.' The passage referring to the calamities of authors has been often quoted.

While in 'original' satire Oldham cannot be said to have reached the height to which he was desirous of climbing, he is memorable in our poetic literature as one of the predecessors of Pope in the 'imitative' or adapting species of satirical and didactic verse. Boileau (certain of whose imitations were in their turn imitated by Oldham) had revived the popularity of the device of paraphrasing Latin satirical poetry while applying to modern instances its references and allusions. Oldham's first attempt in this direction seems to have been his 'Horace's Art of Poetry, imitated in English, addressed by way of Letter to a Friend,' 1681 (see the ' Preface '). But the same 'libertine' way, as he calls it, was more lightly and yet more completely pursued by him in his imitation of Horace's 'Satires,' i. ix. ('Ibam forte via sacra' — 'As I was walking in the Mall of late'), and in the other Horatian paraphrases and similar pieces published by him in the same year. Most of these, which include reproductions of Horace, Juvenal, Virgil, Ovid, Catullus, Martial, as well as of Bion and Moschus, the Psalms, and Boileau, are in the heroic couplet; but some of the lyrics are translated in Pindaric, i.e. irregular, metre.

Oldham's verse lacks finish, a defect specially noticeable in a looseness of rhyme and in what Dryden censured as

The harsh Cadence of a rugged Line.

Of prose Oldham left behind him nothing beyond the 'Character of a certain Ugly Old Priest,' an unpleasing effort in the grotesque, and a sketch entitled 'A Sunday Thought in Sickness,' which contains certain resemblances, probably unintentional, to the closing scene of Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus.'

An edition of 'Poems and Translations' by Oldham was published in 1683, and one of his 'Remains in Verse and Prose,' with a series of commendatory verses (including Dryden's), in the following year. Subsequent editions of his works are dated 1685, 1686, 1688, 1703, and 1722; but some of these may be merely made up by booksellers. Those of 1685 and 1686 are identical, except as to the date. The most complete edition is that cited in the text, by the eccentric 'half-pay poet' Edward Thompson, in 3 vols. 12mo, 1770. It is prefaced by a brief memoir, and a statement of the editors 'point of view.' The notes are meagre and inaccurate.

[The Compositions in Prose and Verse of Mr. John Oldham, to which are added Memoirs of his Life … by Edward Thompson, 3 vols. 1770; Granger's Biog. Hist. 1779, iv. 48; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iv. 119; Biog. Brit.; Seward's Anecdotes, ii. 167; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, passim; Wood's Life and Times (Oxf. Hist. Soc.), iii. 82–3; Dunton's Life and Errors; Chalmers's Biog. Dict.]

A. W. W.