‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham’ by John Dryden is a heartfelt elegy that mourns the premature death of Mr. Oldham, a fellow poet. Dryden reflects on their shared bond, admiration for Oldham’s talent, and the transitory nature of life. The poem is filled with vivid imagery, classical allusions, and a powerful exploration of human emotions.
It pays tribute to Oldham’s poetic achievements, contemplates the fragility of existence, and laments the loss of a promising talent. The poem captures the universal themes of mortality and artistic legacy through its poignant verses. Below is the full poem:
To the Memory of Mr. Oldham John DrydenFarewell, too little and too lately known, Whom I began to think and call my own;For sure our souls were near ally'd; and thineCast in the same poetic mould with mine.One common note on either lyre did strike,And knaves and fools we both abhorr'd alike:To the same goal did both our studies drive,The last set out the soonest did arrive.Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,While his young friend perform'd and won the race.O early ripe! to thy abundant storeWhat could advancing age have added more?It might (what nature never gives the young)Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.But satire needs not those, and wit will shineThrough the harsh cadence of a rugged line.A noble error, and but seldom made,When poets are by too much force betray'd.Thy generous fruits, though gather'd ere their primeStill show'd a quickness; and maturing timeBut mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.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.
Explore To the Memory of Mr. Oldham
The poem ‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham’ by John Dryden is a farewell tribute to a recently deceased poet named Mr. Oldham.
Dryden expresses his regret for not knowing Oldham better and sooner, as he considered him a kindred spirit. Both poets shared a similar poetic style and had a common disdain for deceitful individuals and foolishness.
Dryden reflects on their shared ambition and dedication to their studies, noting that Oldham’s talent allowed him to succeed early on. Dryden acknowledges that Oldham possessed a wealth of poetic skills that even advancing age could not have enhanced further. While Oldham could have benefited from formal education in his native language, Dryden believes that satire and wit can transcend linguistic shortcomings and shine through in the harshest verses.
Dryden sees Oldham’s premature death as a noble sacrifice, comparing him to Nisus, a character from mythology who fell while his young friend achieved victory. Despite his untimely departure, Oldham’s work displayed a remarkable depth and maturity, which time would have further refined and enriched.
Essentially, Dryden is bidding a final farewell to Oldham, acknowledging him as a young but influential figure in poetry. He visualizes Oldham adorned with ivy and laurels, symbolizing his talent and potential for greatness. However, Dryden also recognizes that Oldham’s life was cut short, trapped in the clutches of fate and an unknown future.
Structure and Form
The poem ‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham’ by John Dryden is structured as one stanza consisting of twenty-five lines. The poem does not follow a specific rhyming scheme, as it is written in free verse. The absence of a consistent rhyme pattern allows Dryden to focus more on the content and emotional depth of the poem.
The lack of a strict rhyme scheme contributes to the poem’s elegiac and reflective tone. It gives Dryden the freedom to express his thoughts and feelings without being constrained by a predetermined structure. The absence of rhyme also enhances the sense of mourning and sorrow conveyed throughout the poem.
The poem’s form is characterized by its concise yet powerful lines. Dryden effectively employs enjambment, where a thought or phrase continues from one line to the next without punctuation, creating a smooth flow of ideas. This technique adds a sense of momentum and urgency to the poem, reinforcing the emotional intensity and the speaker’s personal connection to Mr. Oldham.
Furthermore, the lack of traditional stanza breaks emphasizes the unity and continuity of Dryden’s tribute. By maintaining a single stanza, Dryden presents a cohesive and uninterrupted expression of his thoughts and memories of Mr. Oldham.
In this poem, John Dryden addresses several themes, reflecting on his relationship with the deceased poet and exploring broader ideas about youth, talent, and mortality.
One theme explored in the poem is the regret of not knowing Mr. Oldham better and sooner. Dryden laments, “Farewell, too little and too lately known,” expressing the missed opportunity to appreciate Oldham’s talent and companionship fully.
Another theme is the affinity between Dryden and Oldham as kindred spirits. Dryden asserts, “For sure our souls were near ally’d,” highlighting their shared poetic nature and similar perspectives on knaves and fools. Dryden and Oldham abhor deceitful individuals and foolishness, emphasizing their common ground.
The theme of talent and early success is evident in Dryden’s admiration for Oldham’s poetic prowess. Dryden describes him as “early ripe” and recognizes the abundance of Oldham’s abilities, questioning what more advancing age could have added. This theme highlights the notion of precocious talent and the potential it holds.
Additionally, the theme of mortality and the brevity of life permeates the poem. Dryden refers to Oldham’s premature death, lamenting his shortened time, as he states, “But ah too short, Marcellus of our tongue.” The imagery, such as “fate and gloomy night encompass thee around,” further emphasizes the inevitability and finality of death.
The theme of poetic legacy is also present as Dryden contemplates the enduring impact of Oldham’s work. He recognizes the maturity and quickness of Oldham’s fruits, suggesting that time would have further refined and enhanced his writing.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
John Dryden employs various poetic techniques and figurative language in his poem ‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham’ to convey his message and evoke emotions.
- Alliteration: One poetic technique used is alliteration, as seen in the line, “Whom I began to think and call my own.” The repetition of the “k” sound in “began to think and call” creates a musical quality and emphasizes the speaker’s growing connection to Mr. Oldham.
- Metaphor: Dryden also employs metaphorical language to convey his thoughts and feelings. For example, he describes their souls as “near ally’d” and their poetic abilities as being “cast in the same poetic mould.” These metaphors highlight the deep affinity between the two poets and their shared artistic sensibilities.
- Imagery: Dryden also utilizes evocative imagery to elicit a sense of loss and mourning. He visualizes Mr. Oldham as a fallen figure, comparing him to Nisus, who “fell upon the slippery place.” This imagery conveys the tragic nature of Oldham’s premature death and the sense of loss experienced by the speaker.
- Enjambment: This is another poetic technique that Dryden has employed, where thoughts or phrases continue from one line to the next without punctuation. For instance, Dryden writes, “A noble error, and but seldom made, When poets are by too much force betray’d.” This technique creates a smooth flow of ideas and enhances the rhythm of the poem.
- Personification: Dryden uses this technique to lend depth to his expressions. He personifies satire and wit, stating that they “need not those” (formal education) and that it will “shine through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.” This personification emphasizes the power and independent nature of these poetic elements.
John Dryden employs all these poetic techniques to enrich the poem’s language and contribute to its overall impact.
Farewell, too little and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own;
For sure our souls were near ally’d; and thine
Cast in the same poetic mould with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
In these opening lines of the poem ‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,’ John Dryden expresses a sense of loss and regret for not knowing Mr. Oldham better and sooner. The speaker bids farewell to Oldham, describing their acquaintance as “too little and too lately known.” This phrase conveys a feeling of missed opportunity and a sense that their connection was cut short.
Dryden further reflects on the developing relationship with Oldham, stating, “Whom I began to think and call my own.” This line suggests a growing familiarity and a sense of ownership or kinship between the two poets. It implies that the speaker started considering Oldham as a close companion or kindred spirit.
The following line, “For sure our souls were near ally’d,” emphasizes the deep affinity and spiritual connection between the speaker and Oldham. The use of the term “souls” suggests a profound emotional bond and shared understanding. It implies that their connection extends beyond mere acquaintance.
Dryden continues by stating that Oldham’s soul was “cast in the same poetic mould with mine.” This metaphorical phrase implies that both poets possessed a similar poetic sensibility and artistic inclination. It suggests that their creative spirits were aligned and that they shared a common approach to their craft.
The final line in this excerpt, “One common note on either lyre did strike,” reinforces the notion of their shared artistic vision. It signifies that both poets struck a harmonious chord or played a similar melody on their respective “lyres.” This image implies a unity of purpose and a shared disdain for hypocrisy and foolishness, as suggested by the subsequent lines.
And knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike:
To the same goal did both our studies drive,
The last set out the soonest did arrive.
Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,
While his young friend perform’d and won the race.
In lines 6-10 of the poem, the speaker explores the shared values and pursuits of the two poets, highlighting their mutual disdain for dishonest individuals and fools. These lines also depict a sense of ambition and the contrasting outcomes of their lives.
The line “And knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike” reveals that the speaker and Mr. Oldham held a similar distaste for deceitful individuals and foolishness. This shared disdain suggests a moral and intellectual alignment, emphasizing shared values and a common commitment to truth and integrity.
The following line, “To the same goal did both our studies drive,” indicates that both poets were driven by a similar purpose or objective in their studies. This line implies a shared dedication to their craft and a united pursuit of excellence and understanding. It suggests they were both motivated by a passion for their art and a desire to achieve greatness.
The subsequent lines, “The last set out the soonest did arrive,” introduce a contrasting outcome. The speaker reveals that despite their shared goals and efforts, Mr. Oldham, referred to as the “last,” achieved success early, while the speaker, the “young friend,” fell short. This contrast highlights the unexpected and untimely nature of Oldham’s success and the speaker’s own sense of loss and admiration for his friend’s achievements.
The reference to Nisus, who “fell upon the slippery place,” further emphasizes this contrast. Nisus is a mythic figure who met an unfortunate fate while his young friend achieved victory. This allusion suggests that Oldham’s success came at the expense of the speaker’s own aspirations, enhancing the theme of loss and the unequal distribution of fortune.
O early ripe! to thy abundant store
What could advancing age have added more?
It might (what nature never gives the young)
Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
In lines 11-15 of John Dryden’s poem, the speaker reflects on the remarkable talent and early success of Mr. Oldham, contemplating what additional accomplishments the advancing age might have brought. These lines touch upon talent, maturity, and the power of wit.
The exclamation “O early ripe!” acknowledges the exceptional nature of Mr. Oldham’s talent and achievements at a young age. This phrase expresses admiration and astonishment at the extent of his abilities, suggesting that Oldham’s accomplishments surpassed what is typically expected or achieved at a young age.
The rhetorical question that follows, “To thy abundant store / What could advancing age have added more?” invites contemplation about the potential growth and development that might have accompanied Oldham’s talent had he lived longer. The speaker ponders whether there could have been further contributions and achievements beyond what Oldham had already accomplished.
The subsequent line, “It might (what nature never gives the young) / Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue,” suggests that advancing age could have allowed Oldham to refine and enhance his mastery of his native language. The phrase “the numbers of thy native tongue” refers to poetic composition’s technical aspects and intricacies. The speaker speculates that Oldham could have acquired a deeper understanding of the poetic craft and refined his use of language with age.
However, the speaker quickly adds, “But satire needs not those, and wit will shine.” Here, Dryden asserts that satire does not rely solely on technical proficiency or linguistic mastery. Satire, as a form of sharp and insightful commentary, does not necessarily require refining poetic techniques or language. Instead, wit, characterized by cleverness and intelligence, can shine through regardless of the “harsh cadence of a rugged line.”
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray’d.
Thy generous fruits, though gather’d ere their prime
Still show’d a quickness; and maturing time
In the above lines 16-20 of the poem, the speaker reflects on the poetic style and accomplishments of Mr. Oldham, acknowledging the unique quality of his work and the potential it held for further development. These lines explore the concepts of poetic technique, artistic growth, and the lasting impact of creative endeavors.
The line “Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line” suggests that Oldham’s poetic brilliance shines through despite any imperfections in his verse. The words “harsh” and “rugged” imply that his lines may not adhere to conventional smoothness or elegance. However, the speaker acknowledges that Oldham’s wit and talent transcend these technical considerations, highlighting the strength of his ideas and insights.
The phrase “A noble error, and but seldom made” refers to a particular mistake in poetic technique. Though infrequent, Dryden suggests that this error is commendable in its audacity and departure from the norm. This line underscores the idea that true innovation in art often involves taking risks and deviating from established conventions.
The subsequent lines express admiration for Oldham’s poetic achievements, describing them as “generous fruits.” Although gathered prematurely, before reaching their full potential, these fruits still demonstrated a quickness, implying a sharpness and vitality in Oldham’s work. The mention of “maturing time” suggests that had Oldham lived longer, his writing would have continued to evolve and deepen in its complexity and maturity.
These lines convey a message of appreciation for Oldham’s unique poetic style and the impact it made despite any technical imperfections. They also emphasize the potential for artistic growth and development, suggesting that Oldham’s work, though cut short, already displayed remarkable promise and an ability to captivate.
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
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.
In these final lines 20-25, the speaker bids a final farewell to Mr. Oldham, expressing admiration for his poetic achievements while lamenting the brevity of his life. These lines convey a sense of loss, tribute, and the contrast between Oldham’s accomplishments and his untimely demise.
The line “But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme” suggests that Oldham’s premature death adds a bittersweet quality to the poems he left behind. The word “mellows” implies a softening or refining effect, but the phrase “dull sweets of rhyme” indicates that compared to Oldham’s talent, other poems seem less vibrant or less remarkable. This line reflects the speaker’s acknowledgment of Oldham’s exceptional abilities and the impact he had on the poetic landscape.
The subsequent lines serve as a farewell and tribute to Oldham. The speaker addresses him as the “young” Marcellus of their language, referring to the Roman military hero Marcellus, who died young and was mourned by his people. This comparison highlights the speaker’s recognition of Oldham’s remarkable potential and the tragedy of his premature death.
The image of Oldham’s brows being “bound with ivy and laurels” evokes a classical image of honor and achievement. Ivy and laurels were traditionally associated with poets and victors, symbolizing excellence and glory. This image reinforces the speaker’s admiration for Oldham’s accomplishments and the recognition of his talent.
However, the final line, “But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around,” introduces a note of melancholy and finality. The speaker acknowledges the inevitable grip of fate and death’s darkness surrounding Oldham. This line serves as a reminder of the speaker’s acceptance of the irrevocable loss and the somber reality of Oldham’s absence.
The speaker in the poem is John Dryden, as he mourns the loss of his friend and fellow poet, Mr. Oldham.
The tone of the poem is a mixture of admiration, regret, and sorrow. Dryden expresses admiration for Oldham’s talent and accomplishments, regret for not knowing him better, and sorrow for his untimely death.
The poem is titled ‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham’ to explicitly convey that it is a tribute or homage to the memory of Mr. Oldham, celebrating his life and work.
The poem triggers admiration for Mr. Oldham’s talent, a sense of loss and mourning over his premature death, and a reflection on the fleeting nature of life and artistic potential.
If you have enjoyed this poem by John Dryden, you may also like to explore the following others:
- ‘A Dead Rose’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning mourns the short-lived nature of beauty with vivid imagery and poignant emotions.
- ‘A Dirge Without Music’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a beautiful dirge. The poet uses clear and lyrical language to describe how lovers and thinkers alike go into the darkness of death with little remaining.
- ‘A Broken Appointment’ by Thomas Hardy focuses on disappointment, thwarted love, and pessimism. ‘A Broken Appointment’ provokes empathy towards the lyrical voice.