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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

III. Political and Ecclesiastical Satire

§ 3. The Popish Plot Panic: Oldham

A new turn was given to Charles II’s reign and to English history by the panic of the Popish plot in 1678–9. The clumsy inventions spun from the prolific imagination of Oates succeeded in giving the final impulse to the completion of the inchoate parties. A definite political creed, anti-Romanism, and a definite political aim, the exclusion of the duke of York, were furnished to the country party, while passive obedience and the supremacy of the anglican church were the tenets of their opponents; and from this contest emerge the historic whig and tory. Under these conditions of popular passion and national division, political satire could come fully into its own.

The first poet who entered the lists was John Oldham, and his special genius, the circumstances of his life and the tendencies of the day, all conspired to make him a true pioneer. In place of the journalistic writings of Marvell and his like, half platform-oratory, half “leading-articles,” he produced a satire, the merit and scope of which were of a purely literary kind. He wrote satire for satire’s sake:

  • Satyr’s my only province and delight
  • For whose dear sake alone I’ve vow’d to write:
  • For this I seek occasions, court abuse,
  • To show my parts and signalize my muse.
  • This was an innovation, but one which it was easier for Oldham to introduce than for his contemporaries. The son of a nonconformist minister, John Oldham, he was born at Shipton-Moyne, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, on 9 August, 1653. His father subsequently removed to Newton in Wiltshire, from which he was ejected in 1662; thenceforward, he remained as a dissenting minister at Wotton-under-edge in the Cotswolds, outliving his poetic son for many years. The latter received his education at Tetbury grammar school, and was next sent to Oxford, to St. Edmund’s hall, in 1670. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in May, 1674, and then left the university to reside for about a year with his father. Neither his religious opinions at this time, we may presume, nor the independence of character which often flashes out in his verse, would incline him to take orders, with a view to a chaplaincy in some noble household and a country living as a sequel. He was evidently without means. So we find him undertaking the post of usher in Whitgift’s school at Croydon until 1678, and following this by the more tolerable occupation of a private tutor, first to the grandsons of a judge, Sir Edward Thurland, and, in 1681, to the son of Sir William Hickes. This last employment brought him to the neighbourhood of London and made him acquainted with the literary men of the day, to whom his poems were already known. Rochester and one or two others had, indeed, apparently visited the young pedagogue at Croydon on the strength of his compositions then circulating in manuscript, but nothing had come of the interview. Now, however, the new earl of Kingston rescued Oldham from his scholastic thraldom, became his patron and, on occasion, his host, and offered him, we are told, the unwelcome position of his chaplain. Be this as it may, we can well imagine that the pert, satiric face which looks out of Oldham’s portrait belonged to an amusing companion. The profession of a man of letters, nevertheless, in the life of the seventeenth century, could not easily be carried on except under conditions of dependence if not of servility, and Oldham’s eagerness to escape from compliance to them is shown by his resolve to take up medicine for a livelihood, and by the year’s study which he devoted to it. But his health was breaking down; he is said to have been consumptive; on 9 December, 1683, he fell a victim to the smallpox at Kingston’s seat, Holme-Pierrepoint near Nottingham.

    This schoolmaster’s life must have inclined a naturally haughty, sardonic temperament in the direction of satire. He may, also, have accustomed himself to make the most of a natural proneness to indignation, in order the more to impress his pupils. And the aloofness of his life from the capital, combined with the classical studies necessary for his occupation, was a fit environment for the first author of generalising satires, where incidental railing gives place to artistic composition without too constant a reference to immediate facts.

    He does not seem, however, to have discovered his métier at once, for his earliest dated poem, The Dream, written in March, 1677, was amatory, in a luscious, adolescent strain. This was composed in the heroic couplet, but he was already under the spell of Cowley and, with his usual vis animi, was putting all his energy into Cowleyan Pindaric odes. He was not without qualifications for the task, being both fecund in ideas and forcible in their expression. He also brought out the defects of the metre: his stanzas do not run easily; the difficulty of preserving a measure of grace in a poetical form which aspired to continual hyperbole becomes painfully obvious; and, comparing him with Cowley, we may say that his trumpet has a brassier sound. His vice of turgidity and his often successful, but invariable, method of heaping effect on effect to reach one great towering climax, were bred under Cowley’s influence. Among these exercises in a tuneless metre, some three or four stand out. The early Dithyrambic, a Drunkard’s speech in a Masque, can claim dramatic fitness for its monotonous extravagance and has a fine rhetorical close with its reference to

  • the Tomb,
  • Nature’s convenient dark Retiring-Room.
  • The ode Upon the Works of Ben Jonson contains just criticism, if it falls far short of the sublime, which is needlessly attempted. The Satyr against Vertue, however, provides a link with its author’s more enduring work. Here, the Pindarique hyperbole is first used for a tirade against virtue and then to express a grandiose, if rather external, conception of vice.

  • ’T is I the bold Columbus, only I,
  • Who must new Worlds in vice descry,
  • And fix the pillars of unpassable iniquity.
  • This heavy-handed irony was taken for earnest by some of its readers, and Oldham thought it best to write later a similar high-flown recantation. But the finest of his works in this style is the ode To the Memory of Mr. Charles Morwent, an intimate friend whose death, in 1675, probably long preceded the finished poem. In this panegyric, there is less bombast than appears in the others, and its great length makes a single movement to a climax impossible. There are happy phrases, like “the pale Cheeks do penance in their white,” and the numerous images employed become the subject well. On the other hand, Morwent’s virtues are so universal and unlimited as to lack verisimilitude; but this is a fault of the Pindaric style, and not personal to Oldham.