While not the most famous of his era's writers, the Royalist poet and dramatist William Cartwright was considered a phenomenon by contemporaries. A member of the group euphemistically known as the Tribe of Ben, Cartwright gained public notice through his association with Ben Jonson. Although his exact birthplace remains in dispute, Cartwright lived out his adult life in Oxford, where he had been educated at the Westminster School and Oxford University. An official court chronicler, Cartwright wrote poetry that delivered blatant flattery on appropriate occasions, as well as the expected laudatory excess of elegy. Those still easily located include "On a Virtuous Young Gentlewoman That Died Suddenly" and "On His Majesty's Recovery From the Small-Pox, 1633." He dedicated verse to those returning from journeys, to wedding couples, to contemporary poets, to various court officials, and to Lucina, his favorite subject. Jonson praised Cartwright as one who wrote "like a man," reflecting admiration for Cartwright's education, which allowed him a scholarly approach and use of a great number of classical conceits. He was capable of eroticism, as in these lines:
Seal up her eyes, O Sleep, but flow
Mild as her Manners, to and fro:
Slide soft into her, yet that she may receive due wound from thee.
He has been compared by the critic Donald Bruce to George Herbert in his talent for apothegm, as in the lines from his Poetical Works, "Whoever the girdle doth undoe / He quite undoes the owner too."
Cartwright also wrote several plays produced on stage. They included a comedy, The Ordinary (1634); two tragicomedies, The Siege and The Lady-Errant, both in 1636; and, probably his most successful, The Royal Slave (1636). The Royal Slave featured the sacrifice of kin by a powerful figure. Enacted before King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria at Christ Church, Oxford, the play was labeled the best ever performed. Its celebrated production included music composed by Henry Lawes, friend to John Milton, and design by the incomparable Inigo Jones.
Cartwright produced no creative work after 1638, having answered a call to the church. Gaining a reputation for his dramatic and spirited sermons, he often expressed his Royalist leanings, praising King Charles I in a Passion sermon at Oxford, where in 1642 the monarch would establish a temporary court as the Protestant revolution gathered force. Cartwright gained a reputation as a diligent scholar, spending up to 18 hours daily in study. In 1643 the plague, called camp-fever by Oxford's inhabitants, claimed Cartwright. The biographer and antiquary John Aubrey noted that "King Charles 1st dropt a tear at the newes of his death."
In 1651 an edition of Cartwright's work contained commendatory verses from 51 admirers. Although modern scholars find him of interest mainly as an extravagant writer of panegyrics, or honorary poems dedicated to particular individuals, he inspired work by the likes of John Dryden. What he lacked in imagination, Cartwright made up for with felicity and rhetorical prowess. Bruce judges him capable of occasional "intrigue or at least surprise," and at his best "capable of Donne's insolent aplomb."
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