John Dryden (1684) Exactly why John Dryden wrote the ode "To the Memory of Mr. Oldham" is not known; no evidence exists of a friendship or professional collaboration between the two. John Oldham died of smallpox at age 30 in 1683 after producing a small, but well-received body of poetry in satire as well as some translations. The two poets' shared interest in satire, as well as Dryden's sympathy for the loss of a promising young writer, may have prompted his response to Oldham's death.
Dryden's poem appeared first in Remains of Mr. John Oldham (1684), as did Oldham's poem "To the Memory of Mr. Charles Morwent," ironically also focusing on death. However, Oldham's poem rationalized an early death, while Dryden's did not. The poem attempts to clarify their relationship, adopting a classical approach recognizable to informed readers. Dryden co-opts a memory related by Virgil about two friends, Nisus and Euryalus, Nisus the older man, a passage Dryden would translate later in that year. The two men competed in a footrace staged by Aeneas in honor of his dead father. While leading the race, Nisus fell, tripped the next fastest runner, allowing Aeneas to win. Critics have noted that Dryden uses the race as an extended conceit representing life.
Oldham had used the political and religious unrest in England as satirical subject matter, as had Dryden. While national instability provided focus for Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel, The Hind and the Panther, and "The Medal," his approach differed from that of Old-ham. Where Dryden's tone may have proved flippant at times, it remained informed, in contrast to Oldham's lighter approach, as seen in a stanza from his "The Careless Good Fellow," couched as a drinking song:
I mind not grave asses who idly debate
About right and succession, the trifles of state;
We've a good king already: and he deserves laughter
That will trouble his head with who should come after:
Come, here's to his health, and I wish he may be
As free from all care, and all trouble, as we.
Still the fact that both employed satire, not yet a common technique, offered a shared experience for two quite different personalities. Critics point to another of Dryden's odes, "To the Pious Memory of . . . Mrs. Anne Killegrew" in comparison to this ode. In both he expresses frank concerns regarding their talents, yet immediately qualifies those concerns. Of Killigrew he wrote, "Art she had none," but immediately eased the criticism by adding, "yet wanted none; / For nature did that want supply." Of Oldham he wrote that age and maturity, which Oldham lacked, "might (what nature never gives the young) / Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue." Once again Dryden expresses frank judgment of his subject; Oldham's skill in meter was poor. However, he follows with "But satire needs not those, and with will shine / Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line." Some critics, including Ann Messenger, posit Dryden's turns in regard to both of these young poets may indicate that he wanted to recognize the quality of their verse while making clear those same verses lacked his idea of "art." He also seems to suggest that with more maturity that art might have surfaced in both young artists.
In his tribute to Oldham Dryden's first line expresses his regret over the loss, while his second through fourth lines make clear the kinship he felt with the younger man:
Farewell, too little, and too lately known,
Whom I began to think, and call my own:
For sure our souls were near allied, and thine
Dryden helps clarify his relationship with Oldham at various points by employing allusions to the race celebrated by Virgil. The speaker prepares readers for the first allusion by stating that "our studies" shared a like goal and explains, "The last set out, the soonest did arrive" (7-8). The goal must be death, as Oldham "set out," or was born, "the last," but arrived at death sooner than Dryden. The classical reference then appears in lines 9-10: "Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place, / Whilst his young friend performed and won the race." Next readers learn that he, "too little" known, need not have grown older: "O early ripe! to thy abundant store / What could advancing age have added more?" (11-12). Dryden may have been thinking of the fact
410 "TO THE MEMORY OF MY BELOVED, THE AUTHOR, MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, that his own writing career did not even begin in earnest until he was well into his thirties, while oldham's began and ended at a much younger age.
Dryden does not shy from noting differences in the two poets' stylistic approaches, skillfully inserting a demonstration into his lines. When he writes that old-ham's "generous fruits," or talents, were "gathered ere their prime" (21), he adds they "Still showed a quickness; and maturing time / But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme" (22-23). He alludes to Old-ham's often imperfect and uneven rhyme and uses his famous alexandrine, a line with a meter of six feet, to delay his own rhyme of the specific term rhyme with time. Such a conscious display of Dryden's own skill allows him to demonstrate his respect for poetry as art. It also allows a contrast between his own approach and that of Oldham, as well as of the classic writers. As Samuel Johnson would later write of the time before Dryden, "Those happy combinations of words which distinguish poetry from prose had been rarely attempted: we had few elegances or flowers of speech; the roses had not yet been plucked from the bramble, or different colours had not been joined to enliven one another."
Dryden concludes with another classical allusion, to the Roman emperor Augustus mourning the premature death of Marcellus, who should have been his successor. He again echoes Virgil in his closing lines, whose age had hoped to see Marcellus on the throne:
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. (22-25).
Dryden found no consolation in the early death; therefore he offered his reader none.
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