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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

§ 4. His Satyrs Upon the Jesuits

It was in 1678 that Oldham realised his powers—by accident, may be—in A Satyr upon a Woman, who by her Falshood and Scorn was the Death of my Friend. Here, he makes use of the heroic couplet, which was his really effective medium, to express the uttermost of hatred. His voice seems to rise to a hoarse scream. Railing and cursing achieve a kind of attractiveness by reaching the acme of their power, although, perhaps, a few words would have spoken more of the heart. In amplitude and magnificence, however, A Satyr upon a Woman was outdone in the next year by his chief work, the four Satyrs upon the Jesuits. The first of them was printed without Oldham’s consent, in 1679; and he published the whole series, with a few other poems, in 1681. They were without a dedication, a strong evidence of their author’s natural haughtiness in that age of fulsome flattery.

There does not seem to be any reason to doubt Oldham’s sincerity in his masterpiece. His nonconformist upbringing and popular surroundings make it quite natural that he should have shared in the frenzied panic of the Popish plot; while his usual extravagance of expression and of resentment, if they make us discount his meaning, also guarantee the reality of his sentiments. But there is also a definite artistic bias running through the poems. Oldham enjoyed satire by his own confession, and he was a schoolmaster learned in the classics. The Prologue is after Persius; the first satire, Garnet’s Ghost, owes its inception to the prologue by Sylla’s ghost in Ben Jonson’s Catiline; the third, Loyola’s Will, derives its “design” from Buchanan’s Franciscanus; the idea of the fourth, St. Ignatius his Image, is drawn from Horace. All these varied debts, however, which Oldham himself owns, are thrown into the shade by the dominating influence of Juvenal. We do not merely find imitation of isolated passages, or even of rhetorical artifices, like the abrupt opening of most of the satires or the frequent employment of the climax. What is of the highest importance is the generalising style and the habit of declamatory high-strained invective—the love of massed and unrelieved gloom for the sake of artistic effect. The lists of current misdeeds, the contemporary criticism or misrepresentation common in the satirist’s English predecessors, give place to fanciful general scenes, where he tries to represent an imaginary ecstasy of wickedness.