To the Memory of Mr Oldham (1684)

by John Dryden

Farewell, too little, and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own:
For sure our souls were near allied, and thine
Cast in the same poetic mold 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 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
Thro’ 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, tho’ gather’d ere their prime,
Still shew’d a quickness; and maturing time
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.

Michael Johnduff writes:

Can we separate Dryden’s elegy for John Oldham (raging satirist and translator, dead at just thirty) from Dryden’s criticism of John Oldham? Perhaps it’s unfair to call what Dryden does here literary criticism, but then again everything of Dryden’s we call criticism looks pretty much the same. Only the stately tone is different, since the criticism’s stylistics (not unlike “harsh cadence,“ “thy generous fruits […] still showed a quickness”) always unfolds into a nuanced, yet thoroughly practical poetics (not unlike “satire needs not those,” “a noble error, but seldom made,” “time / mellows what we write to […] rhyme”) in an almost irreverently offhand prose. But don’t we think these cool, composed lines are indeed a bit irreverent when they say Oldham lacked (can the parenthesis soften this at all?) “the numbers of thy native tongue”? Whatever we want to call such acts, they introduce another subject of the poem–Oldham’s “poetic mold,”–we can’t but feel is slightly different than the elegized “soul,” and so should be separate.

What is crucial to understand, though, is that for Dryden, the “poetic mold” really is something in which “souls” are “cast”: he is too skeptical of the formalist tradition to criticize “what we write” without also letting it express a more essential tendency, without also making us uncertain whether work or author have “rugged” qualities (or whether “Oldham” is work or author). So the strange comfort Dryden seems to find in this ambiguity may not be entirely out of place: the inseparability of the critical and elegiac subject comes from staying true to the amorphous nature of the difference between writer and reader. And this is an ambiguity central to the relationship between two working poets, or what we might call practicing (rather than practical) critics, who read and comment upon each others’ work. Indeed, the noble austerity of the last line is only possible because, for Dryden, this ambiguity is the same as the ambiguousness of the tie that bound him together with Oldham in life and still binds them together: it is the “same poetic mold” Dryden finds himself cast in.

What then is a soul cast in a poetic mold, but something like an oxymoron which this poem continually finds faith in, rather than confusion? I can’t help but think this is what made T.S. Eliot say the poem “deserves not to be mutilated” in his essay on Dryden (Selected Essays (1932), 315): the innocent little notion starts to give the whole poem its honesty, to make it true to the facts of the loss of a fellow poet, and as it does so we feel it is more and more innovative, almost useful as an elegaic strategy. For rather than commune with the dead by invoking what is not “cast” in a “mold,” Dryden undoes the insubstantiality the soul should have, in order to commune better. The “ands” in the opening lines–“too little, and too lately,” “to think and call,” “and thine,” “and knaves and fools”–make this clear, and, gathering the force of polysyndeton, they start to imply a near, an alike, a with, a same. At a certain point we feel the soul is kindred to Dryden only because it is in the mold. I can’t but hear “alloyed” behind “allied,” and the fluidity involved in being cast “with” other souls, seems to me molten, something that only cools and hardens. We start to remember that speaking of the fluidity of the soul in general is wrong to begin with: souls are supposed to fly or flee, while it’s blood that is supposed to flow. But Dryden, we see, was wont to exploit the connection between these two, and we’d rather have it that way. “Ast illi soluuntur frigore membra / vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras,” says Virgil, and though Dryden insists Turnus’ “vita” is a “soul,” he keeps it in same place as the blood: “The streaming blood distain’d his arms around, / And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound” (Aeneis, 12.1376-7).

Of course, we can attribute Dryden’s taste for the seeming substantiality of the soul to his Catholicism, towards which he was moving just as he wrote this elegy (he converted in 1685). Certainly he lacked the anguished relationship to carnality that allowed Milton to go to such amazing extremes in verse and prose in explaining the morning of Christ’s nativity, or even the (only seemingly) milder frustration that forced Marvell to write his “Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body,” or the Mower poems. But we shouldn’t think that because the sublimity of lines like “the pink grew then as double as his mind,” were impossible for Dryden, this was because he was complacent about the issue:

Can I believe eternal God could lye
Disguis’d in mortal mold and infancy?
That the great maker of the world could die?
The Hind and the Panther, Part I, 80-82

Leave it to Dryden to explain how he feels in a parody of a doubt, which this is: in the context of The Hind and the Panther (1687), the passage echoes anti-Catholic slander, even as it dramatizes his anxieties before his conversion. But the dense poignancy of such a triplet (which we also find expertly used above), the plainness of what should be grotesque if this were full-on mock-mockery (“infancy,” and “die,” and especially “mold,” should be more like “lie” and “disguised”), is a sign that this is doubt that cannot be flatly dismissed. So if Dryden here does not overcome disbelief, he certainly negotiates an anxiety; if he does not justify the ways of God to man, he makes the principles of faith shine through the harshness and roughness of ambiguity:

For what my senses can themselves perceive
I need no revelation to believe.
[…]
Let them declare by what mysterious arts
He shot that body through the opposing might
Of bolts and bars impervious to the light,
And stood before His train confessed in open sight.
The Hind and the Panther, Part I, 96-99

So too in his poem to Oldham above. It seems fitting, then, to end by adding that, if we are tempted to place the the “mold” in which the soul is cast almost on the side of the concrete and bodily, we see this too is checked in favor of something again more oblique:

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.

When souls study, drive and arrive, the mold they are cast in does not make them material. Or at least that’s what Oldham’s death proves. Blood here, in fact, is something slipped on, like a mistake:

Now, spent, the goal they almost reach at last,
When eager Nisus, hapless in his haste,
Slipp’d first, and, slipping, fell upon the plain,
Soak’d with the blood of oxen newly slain.
The careless victor had not mark’d his way;
But, treading where the treach’rous puddle lay,
His heels flew up; and on the grassy floor
He fell, besmear’d with filth and holy gore.
Aeneis, V.426-433.

1 Thought.

  1. Mike, I’m really intrigued by your conclusion that the poem finds faith in the problematic (oxymoronic) idea of a soul “cast” in a poetic mold. It seems right to me that, for Dryden, the relationship established between poet-critics on the page relies on this faith (Christian in nature) in the ability of the immaterial to appear disguised as the material, and vice versa. So, the poem enacts this faith—but isn’t it odd that the form the action takes is that of competition or battle?

    When I think “Restoration poetry” I think first of the acerbic wit of Rochester—a wit that is the primary characteristic of his sometimes playful, sometimes damning criticism of fellow poets. In fact, to the extent that we can think of a conversation between (or within) poems as analogous to (or in some cases, a substitute for) a conversation and subsequent relationship between men, poetic wit was the “mold” in which such conversations and relations were cast. Aggressive wit was the currency of poetic fellowship. For the sake of example: in his Second Prologue to Secret Love: or, The Maiden Queen (1668), Dryden’s speaker addresses the wit-critics of the audience and ultimately concedes their right to criticize the play, seeing that the play’s own author (Dryden himself, of course) “at no friend’s play can sit / But he must needs find fault to shew his wit.”

    I wonder where “wit” fits within the taxonomy established by Dryden’s critical elegy. In that “wit” signified in the period both a mental faculty and a poetic device like rhyme, it would seem to occupy a spot between the “soul” and the “poetic mold”—neither one nor the other, or alternatively, both one and the other. “Wit” might come clothed or disguised in a “rugged line,” but it could nonetheless shine though it. “Wit” could help propel the poet past his fellow competitors, yet it could also be the mistake that brought him down—the “noble error” that “betrays” his true character.

    To a large extent I’m simply restating your insightful analysis in different terms. But if Dryden’s faith—both religious and interpersonal—relies somehow on ambiguity, I think one could also argue that its poetic enactment is antagonistic—that it appears in the form of abuse.

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