Analysis of To the Memory of Mr. Oldham by John Dryden


John Dryden (1631-1700) is an English poet of the seventeenth century and was a dominating literary figure in the period of Restoration. He was reputed for his political satires like Mac Flecknoe (1682), The Medall (1682) and Absalom and Achitophel (1681). He also contributed greatly to the literary field through his odes, elegies, prologues, and epilogues. Dryden was made England’s first Poet Laureate in 1668.

To the Memory of Mr Oldham is written in 1684 with direct references to the demise of John Oldham (1653- 1684) – an English poet who experienced a premature death in his 30s, and who explored, to a great extent in his satirical poems, the religious and political discontent and turmoil in the contemporary England.



Title: Title is suggestive to a lament over Mr. Oldham, a contemporary poet in restoration period.

Form: Elegy (Usually an elegy is consisted of three sections: grief, admiration and consolation. However, in this poem, only the first two sections are found: measured grief on the departure of Mr. Oldham and the admiration of his qualities)     

Rhyme scheme: ABAB (couplet)

Tone: Measured grief (sees death in a positive viewpoint)

Theme: Death as a universal truth experienced by human beings irrespective of their cast or creed, The lasting value of an artist and his work.

Narration: second person, Dryden himself addresses Mr. Oldham

Main techniques: metaphor and allusion


Deep-end analysis

(the poem consists of one stanza and is divided into sections for analyzing)


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 mould with mine.


Metaphor: poetic mould (same poetic interests)

Contrast: first two lines (though Dryden knows little about him as they have acquainted only for a smaller period of time, he has created a very close relationship with Oldham.)

Dryden opens the poem in a dramatic way bidding farewell to his ‘lately known’ poetic partner with whom he started a close bond due to their same poetic interest. He compares their alikeness showing that they were casted ‘in the same poetic mould.’ Their closeness of the relationship is visible as Dryden calls Oldham ‘my own.’


One common note on either lyre did strike,

And knaves and fools we both abhorred alike,

To the same goal did both our studies drive:

The last set out the soonest did arrive.


Metaphor: common note on lyre (act in the same way)

Irony: The last set out the soonest did arrive (This line is followed with the allusion to Virgil's Aeneid, where the older Nisus falls in the race while his younger friend wins it. The message is that age and experience isn't always the preceding factor and that youth shouldn't be underestimated)


He further extends the similarities between their poetic inclinations. Both of them were satirists who explored the social, political and religious turmoil in contemporary England and both abhorred the dishonest people and fools. Dryden introduces death as a fulfillment of a mission by mentioning that the last person to set out finished the journey first.


Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,

Whilst his young friend performed and won the race,

O early ripe! To thy abundant store

What could advancing age have added more?


Allusion: Nisus (Refers to a Greek Mythology of Nisus and Euryalus who served under a Trojan hero called Aeneas. During a foot race, Nisus fell on purpose so that Euryalus could win the race.) Here Dryden implies himself as Nisus and Mr. Oldham as Euryalus.

Metaphor: abundant store (tree full of fruit, a well versed poet) early ripe (reached the peak of poetic mastery at early age)


Rhetorical question: last line (his death is seen in a positive way)

Dryden claims that the death of Mr. Oldham is like a victory as he completed his mission sooner than him. He indirectly implies that he supported the young poet to master his art of poetry. However, Dryden praises Oldham’s achievements calling him an ‘abundant store.’ His rhetoric question suggests that Oldham has nothing more to achieve in his life as he has mastered the art completely at his young age. 


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

Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line


Foreshadowing: But satire needs not those, and wit will shine Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line. (The poet is hopeful that Mr. Oldham's work will be able to "shine" even after his early death.)

Personification: satire needs not those, and wit will shine


Dryden keeps on admiring the young poet’s mastery as a satirist. As he says, had Mr. Oldham lived, he would have learned only the technical aspects of poetry but as Dryden says, satirist needs more wit than technical aspects. According to Dryden, Oldham has been gifted wit by nature.


A noble error, and but seldom made,

When poets are by too much force betrayed.

Thy generous fruits, though gather’d ere their prime,

Still showed a quickness; and maturing time

But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme


Oxymoron: a noble error (forgetting to comply with poetic conventions)

Metaphor: generous fruits (poetry of Oldham)


As Dryden reveals, although death stopped Oldham before his skills could reach their optimum, he has been able to achieve great poetic mastery quickly. Dryden attributes Oldham’s poems to be ‘mellow’ as they came out of young and matured poet. He claims that his own poems have lost their vigor and become dull as a negative aspect of his maturity as a poet.


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.


Juxtaposition: hail and farewell! (shows the brevity of Oldham’s life)

Allusion: Marcellus (Marcellus was the successor of Augustus in Roman Empire and a character from Virgil's Aeneid. Despite dying at young age his character was celebrated by Virgil)

Metaphor: Marcellus of our tongue (Here Oldham is introduced as the successor of British literary empire probably after John Dryden.)

Metonymy and Synecdoche: Marcellus of our tongue

Symbols: Ivy and laurels (to refer eternity and victory) gloomy night (It represents the end of a one cycle, one day, just like the death represents the end of the cycle of life.)


Poem ends with the message of brevity of life. Death is a common reality for everyone that comes to anyone uninvited despite of their cast or creed. However, Dryden shows the everlasting glory of an artist who engraved their service and works for fellow human beings.

Hope you got the meaning of the poem. If you have any points to be added, please be kind enough to add them in the comment section. Share the post if you find it useful.

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  1. thankyou so much for the simple and clear notes .. soo grateful to find a Sri Lankan website for English.

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  2. Thanks for this clear notes.. this is really interesting