John Oldham - Encyclopedia

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JOHN OLDHAM (1653-1683), English satirist, son of a Presbyterian minister, was born at Shipton Moyne, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, on the 9th of August 1653. He graduated from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, in 1674, and was for three years an usher in a school at Croydon. Some of his verses attracted the attention of the town, and the earl of Rochester, with Sir Charles Sedley and other wits, came down to see him. The visit did not affect his career apparently, for he stayed at Croydon until 1681, when he became tutor to the grandsons of Sir Edward Thurland, near Reigate. Meanwhile he had tried, he says, to conquer his inclination for the unprofitable trade of poetry, but in the panic caused by the revelations of Titus Oates, he found an opportunity for the exercise of his gift for rough satire. Garnet's Ghost was published as a broadside in 1679, but the other Satires on the Jesuits, although written at the same time, were not printed until 1681. The success of these dramatic and unsparing invectives apparently gave Oldham hope that he might become independent of teaching. But his undoubted services to the Country Party brought no reward from its leaders. He became tutor to the son of Sir William Hickes, and was eventually glad to accept the patronage of William Pierrepont, earl of Kingston, whose kindly offer of a chaplaincy he had refused earlier. He died at Holme-Pierrepoint, near Nottingham, on the 9th of December 1683, of smallpox.

Oldham took Juvenal for his model, and in breadth of treatment and power of invective surpassed his English predecessors. He was original in the dramatic setting provided for his satires. Thomas Garnet, who suffered for supposed implication in the Gunpowder Plot, rose from the dead to encourage the Jesuits in the first satire, and in the third Ignatius Loyola is represented as dictating his wishes to his disciples from his death-bed. Oldham wrote other satires, notably one "addressed to a friend about to leave the university," which contains a well-known description of the state of slavery of the private chaplain, and another "dissuading from poetry," describing the ingratitude shown to Edmund Spenser, whose ghost is the speaker, to Samuel Butler and to Abraham Cowley. Oldham's verse is rugged, and his rhymes often defective, but he met with a generous appreciation from Dryden, whose own satiric bent was perhaps influenced by his efforts. He says ("To the Memory of Mr Oldham," Works, ed. Scott, vol. xi. p. 99) "For sure our souls were near allied, and thine Cast in the same poetic mould with mine." The real wit and rigour of Oldham's satirical poetry are undeniable, while its faults - its frenzied extravagance and lack of metrical polish - might, as Dryden suggests, have been cured with time, for Oldham was only thirty when he died.

The best edition of his works is The Compositions in Prose and Verse of Mr John Oldham.. . (1770), with memoir and explanatory notes by Edward Thompson.

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