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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

§ 5. His Powers and Influence as a Satirist

The four satires have little intricacy of design. In the first, the ghost of Garnet, the Jesuit instigator of the Gunpowder plot, addresses a kind of diabolic homily to the Jesuits in conclave after Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey’s murder. The second merely inveighs against the Society in the author’s own person. In the third, the dying Loyola gives his disciples a rule of concentrated villainy. In the fourth, his image relates the frauds supposed to be worked in Roman Catholic worship. When we come to examine the poetic qualities of these satires in detail, we are at once struck by the harshness of the verse. This shows itself not so much in the monotonous energy of the rhythm, although it would seem that it was this which moved contemporary criticism most, as in the extreme uncouthness of the rimes. Oldham could rime “enroll’d,” “rul’d” and “spoil’d,” together; and this is not an exception, but an instance of his regular practice. In fact, he was unaware of the cacophony, and, when his verse was criticised, took occasion to show that he could write smoothly by the translation of two Greek pastorals, Bion and The Lamentation for Adonis. But, in these pieces, his bad rimes recur with little less frequency, and the lack of range in his melody is brought out the more by the comparison of the refrain in Bion, apparently due to Rochester

  • Come, all ye Muses, come, adorn the Shepherd’s hearse,
  • With never-fading garlands, never-dying verse—
  • with Oldham’s own refrain in Adonis:
  • I mourn Adonis, the sad Loves bemoan,
  • The comely fair Adonis dead and gone.
  • To proceed from questions of technique to matter, a serious defect of these satires is their continual exaggeration. The hyperbole of Pindarics is transferred to them, and, their purpose being comminatory, the result is an atmosphere of overcharged gloom. He accumulates horror on horror with a sole view to melodrama. The sense of irony or ordinary humour and any faculty for dexterous mockery seem banished from his writings. Even the satire on his peccant printer is in the grandiose style, and his stage cannon are fired off for the event. By consequence, dramatic fitness is entirely absent from his original satires. He places his objurgations in Jesuit mouths, making an extraordinary mixture of triumphant, conscious wickedness and bigotry. The dying Loyola laments that “mighty Julian mist his aims,” and that thus the Bible remained undestroyed, and declares Iscariot “Th’ example of our great Society.” Garnet’s ghost gloats over the Gunpowder plot as a rival to “Hell’s most proud exploit,” and exhorts his successors to
  • have only will
  • Like Fiends and me to covet and act ill.
  • Yet these professed villains are somehow occupied in fighting “heretics” and in saving the church. The muddle is inextricable, and the sentiments are worthy of Hieronimo.

    To Oldham’s lack of dramatic instinct must be attributed his want of variety. His only ways of creating an effect were to lead up to a climax, to pile up the agony. In their use, indeed, he was a master. Incredible blood and thunder fill the scene; but they, at least, make a real clamour and smell raw. There is an expansive energy and exaltation in such a passage as that on Charles IX and Bartholomew’s day:

  • He scorn’d like common murderers to deal
  • By parcels and piecemeal; he scorn’d retail
  • I’ th’ trade of Death: whole myriads dy’d by th’ great,
  • Soon as one single life; so quick their fate,
  • Their very pray’rs and wishes came too late.
  • These lines testify to Oldham’s power of finding repeatedly a vivid, impressive phrase, not merely by a verbal ingenuity, but largely through a keen realisation of the ideas which entered his narrow range of thought. He loves to obtain his effects by the jarring juxtaposition of incompatibles, in true rhetorical Latin taste. There is a fierce contempt in his “purple rag of Majesty,” and a curious sinister dread in the reference to virtue “with her grim, holy face.” But we should search in vain for the epigrammatic wisdom of Juvenal in his short-lived disciple. Oldham did not care enough for truth, for one thing, nor, perhaps, was his fiery temperament sufficiently philosophic. It was not through sage reflection, not through fancy or delicacy, that he gained his reputation, but by means of a savage vigour and intensity of passion which could make even his melodramatic creations live. Further, a real artistic feeling, not borrowed from his master Juvenal, is shown in the internal coherence of each satire and in the omission of trivialities, for which his tendency to generalisation was, in part, responsible. Besides, although, no doubt, he looked on the plot panic as a splendid opportunity for his peculiar talent, there is a real sincerity and magnanimity in his attitude, which disdains petty scandal and personal abuse. In this way, in his satires, he avoids both the mouthing scurrility of Marston, who had earlier attempted a satiric indignation, and, also, to an unusual degree, the characteristic obscenity of the restoration era.

    The remaining works of Oldham consist of some original poems, some translations and two prose pieces. The last have little interest. One, The Character of an Ugly Old Priest, consists of dreary abuse of some unknown parson; it belongs to a species of writing which had some vogue at the time, and, perhaps, aped, in prose, Butler’s and Cleiveland’s fanciful railing; but it must be pronounced a failure. The other, A Sunday-Thought in Sickness, is an unimpressive religious composition, of which the most striking passage seems influenced by the final speech in Marlowe’s Faustus. Nevertheless, it would not be difficult to believe that the soliloquy does, in fact, represent a personal experience; it is sufficiently natural and matter-of-fact. We known from one of his private letters that, at one time, he had led a rakish life, but that “experience and thinking” had made him “quit that humour.” As to his verse, only one lyric possesses any attractiveness, The Careless Good Fellow, a really jovial toper’s song, which raises the suspicion that some other ballads ought to be ascribed to its author among the mass of contemporary anonymous work. A Satyr concerning Poetry, to which Spenser’s ghost furnishes a clumsy mise-en-scène, gives a melancholy description of the lot of professional poets under Charles II; but it lacks the spirit of the attacks on the Jesuits and owes its interest to its account of Butler’s latter days. Far more important is A Satyr address’d to a Friend that is about to leave the University, for it is the most mature of Oldham’s poems and that which most reflects the man himself. He passes the possible professions of a scholar in review. There is schoolmastering—“there beat Greek and Latin for your life”—but, in brief, it is an underpaid drudgery. Then, a chaplaincy is a slavery of the most humiliating kind: “Sir Crape” is an upper-servant who has been educated, and who must buy the benefice given him for “seven years’ thrall” by marrying the superannuated waiting-maid. Freedom at any price is to be preferred; but Oldham’s aspiration, as a poet, at least, is a “small estate,” where, in retirement, he could “enjoy a few choice books and fewer friends.”

    The translations have considerable merit. They are by no means servile, and bear obvious traces of the author’s own life. The Passion of Byblis from Ovid has the coarse vigour of his early work. The Thirteenth Satyr of Juvenal is noteworthy from the characteristic way in which the note is forced. The lighter portions of the original are abbreviated, the gloomy are expanded. The guilty horrors of the sinner, impressive in the Latin, are tricked out with details of vulgar fancy and become incredible. Into Boileau’s Satire touching Nobility are interpolated the significant and creditable lines:

  • Do you apply your interest aright
  • Not to oppress the poor with wrongful might?
  • Neither these versions nor others resembling them can be called inadequate; but their chief importance lies in the fact that, in part, they are adaptations only. The scene is transferred to London wherever possible. Pordage takes the place of Codrus in Juvenal’s Third Satire; the Popish plot and its political sequels are inserted into Horace’s famous description of the bore. As in so much else, so in this fashion, deliberately adopted by Oldham, he was the forerunner of greater men. Pope was to bring the adaptation of classic satires to contemporary circumstances to its perfection in England. And the whole department of generalising satire, in which the persons attacked, if they are real at all, are of secondary interest, and where the actual course of events and historic fact are thrust aside for the purpose of artistic unity and unadulterated gloom, finds its first worthy exponent in Oldham. Dryden, indeed, who nobly celebrated his young rival’s genius, maintained his own independence, and, by transforming the narrative satire of Marvell, created a separate stream of poetry. But, if we tell over the small forgotten satires of the later seventeenth century, we find the lesser poet’s influence extending over a considerable number of them. It is true that they were a ragged train.

    Yet, poor stuff as these compositions might be, they exercised an undoubted influence on the events they illustrate. They were written chiefly, it would seem, for the coffee-house haunter. One Julian, a man of infamous reputation and himself a libeller, would make a stealthy round of those establishments and distribute the surreptitious sheets; the more dangerous libels could only be dropped in the streets by porters, to be taken up by chance passers-by. Not merely was the public made intensely eager for pamphlets and squibs of all kinds in the electric political atmosphere of the last twenty years of the seventeenth century; but, in 1679, the Licensing act, under which anti-governmental publications were restrained expired, for a time. Although a decision of the judges soon gave the crown as complete powers of suppressing unwelcome books and pamphlets as before, the previous licensing fell into disuse, and the limitation of the number of master-printers lapsed. The consequences of even a partial unmuzzling of the press were almost immediately seen in a swarm of libels, of which a vigorous complaint was made by Mr. Justice Jones in 1679: “There was never any Age, I think, more licentious than this, in aspersing Governors, scattering of Libels, and scandalous Speeches against those that are in authority.” And the judge is confirmed by a ballad, The Licentiousness of the Times, in the same year:

  • Now each man writes what seems good in his eyes,
  • And tells in bald rhymes his inventions and lies.
  • The Licensing act was renewed in 1685, but, apparently, without much effect. The messenger of the press could have his eyes “dazzled,” i.e., could be bribed not to inform the higher authorities of a seditious publication, and it was easy to disperse copies. Thus, when the act expired for good and all, in 1695, little real change was made in the divulgation of the scandalous tracts with which we are concerned.

    The output of popular satire was more vitally affected by changes in public feeling. After a prelude of compositions on the Popish plot, poems and ballads come thick and fast during the agitation for and against the Exclusion bill, which was to deprive James, duke of York, of the succession and bring in “king Monmouth.” A series of triumphant tory productions exult over Shaftesbury and the other whig leaders in the time of the Rye-house plot and of the government’s campaign against corporations. There succeeds a lull, although Monmouth’s rebellion, in 1685, was the occasion of a renewed outburst; but the second period of satiric pamphlets dates from the beginning of James II’s unpopularity about the year 1687, and reaches its fever-heat in the years of revolution, after which a subsidence of satiric activity begins, until a less perfervid time draws near with the peace of Ryswick.