Upon the Anniversary of My Son’s Death

John Oldham

John Oldham

Today is the 13th anniversary of my son Justin’s drowning death, and as always on this day I treasure the sadness I continue to feel. It no longer cuts like a knife—it’s more like an old wound that throbs when the weather changes—but without the sadness it would be as though Justin had never existed. The aching within keeps me somehow connected.

Here’s one of the loveliest memorial odes that I know, written by John Dryden to the poet John Oldham. Although Oldham died at 30, Dryden’s situation doesn’t entirely capture my own since Dryden has just gotten to know Oldham (“Farewell, too little and too lately known”). But I resonate with Dryden’s description of their special bond: “For sure our souls were near allied; and thine/Cast in the same poetic mould with mine.”

In their case, they are both satirists, not father-son, but Dryden has a fatherly feeling toward the young poet. He sees within him immense potential, pointing that he arrived at satire before Dryden did (“The last set out the soonest did arrive.”). Not entirely complimentary, Dryden does note that Oldham’s meter needs work (“numbers of thy native tongue,” “harsh cadence of a rugged line”):

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.

Justin too wasn’t very smooth. He was very passionate and would impulsively throw himself into things, including into the St. Mary’s River, with its freak current. But that passion was also a real strength—he was “Mr. Enthusiasm”—and it made us all love him.

Likewise, Dryden praises the forcefulness of young Oldham and thinks how, had he grown old, he might have dulled. Oldham’s wit shone through his unpolished surface because of his energy. More polish, Dryden speculates, wouldn’t necessarily have made him a better poet since his force made him the poet that he was. More controlled poets don’t make such noble errors:

… wit will shine
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
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.

I don’t think Justin would have dulled, even as he learned to control and channel his energies. But because he never had a future, I find consolation, as Dryden does with Oldham, in Justin’s 21-year-old quickness and freshness. That vision of him will never dull. The Marcellus mentioned in the poem, by the way, is Augustus Caesar’s nephew, who was designed to be his successor but died at 20.

To the Memory of Mr. Oldham

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 ally’d; and thine
Cast 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 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
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
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.

I used to have difficulties with the final line, which seemed an unnecessary downer after an uplifting elegy. Now I see Dryden as simply describing what I know the feeling to be.

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  • http://www.evolvingenglishteacher.blogspot.com Glenda Funk

    I remember reading “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” as an undergrad and really liking it. The first two lines describe how I feel about many of my graduating students, some of whom I have just gotten to know. One of these students I identify with in numerous ways, including similarities in our teen years.

    The poem resonates in so many ways, and I’m touched by your tribute to your son, whom you describe in ways that remind me of my youngest son.

  • melissa georgiou

    Robin,
    This is a wonderful remembrance for Justin. I was thinking about you when I read the following from “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” with Rex speaking about his dead wife: ” I miss her all the time. I know in my head she’s gone ,but I still keep looking. The only difference is that I’m getting used to the pain. It’s like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with, you forget it’s there and you keep on falling in. After a while, it’s still there, but you learn to walk around it.

    Hope your father is doing better and that you can be at the next book discussion.

  • Robin Bates

    What a lovely passage, Melissa.Thank you for your kind words. With regard to my father, I am holding on to the hope that you gave me that certain dementias are reversible.


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