Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Adolphus William Ward
William Cartwright (16111643)
[Born, according to one authority, at Burford in Oxfordshire, August 16th, 1615; according to another, at Northway in Gloucestershire, in September 1611. From 1628 he chiefly resided at Oxford, where he died of the camp disease November 29th, 1643. His plays and poems were collected and published in 1651.]
CARTWRIGHT, whom his academical and literary contemporaries regarded as a phenomenon, is to us chiefly interesting as a type. If it be allowable to regard as extravagant the tendencies represented by him in both his life and his poetry, he may justly be remembered by a sufficiently prominent title among English poetsthat of the typically extravagant Oxford resident of his period. He was a most enthusiastic royalist in the most royalist city and community of the kingdom; and, in a sense, he died a martyr to his political sentiment. In an age of florid and seraphical preachers, this designation was attached distinctively to the youthful succentor of Salisbury Cathedral and junior proctor of the University. It is therefore but natural that among the panegyrical poets of an age given to panegyric, Cartwrights efforts in this direction should have remained unsurpassed. His muse devoted herself with that unshrinking courtliness which has often characterised our old Universities to singing the praises of the King, the Queen, their fourth child, their sixth child, and all the royal family, as occasion might demand, invite or suggest. When our happy Charles recovered from the terrible epidemic of his times, Cartwright, in the first of the poems given here, was at hand with an exercise of flattery, which in its central conceit was afterwards imitated, but hardly equalled, by the youthful Dryden. Other events belonging to the sphere of the Court chronicler prompted longer and loftier strains: returns from journeys across the border or abroad, marriages, and above all occasions sacred to Lucina, the favourite deity, and indeed the safest inspiration, of panegyrical poets. In default of these, there were the deaths of noblemen and gentlewomen, and the advents of promising Vice-Chancellors to be sung, or the merits of brother dramatists past or present, a Fletcher or a Killigrew, to be extolled, and there was the living Father of Poets, Ben Jonson, to be venerated coram publico by his pious son.
And yet Ben Jonson himself, among whose foibles it was not to overpraise even friends and followers, was not in error when he proclaimed of his son Cartwright that he wrote all like a man. Cartwright, though his study of Horace and Martial had failed to teach him the grace of simplicity, was a sure and a ripe scholar; and he moves among classical illustrations and allusions with an almost alarming ease. His conceits, fetched from far and near, and jostling one another in their superabundance, mark him out as a genuine member of the Fantastic School of poets. In his lines To the Memory of Ben Jonson, he blames his fellow-playwrights,
who into one piece do
Throw all that they can say, and their friends too,
Pumping themselves for one terms noise so dry
As if they made their wills in poetry.
Among non-dramatic poets at all events, Cartwright is as amenable to this very charge of too visible effort as any other member of the school to which he belongs.
Of the higher imaginative power and tenderer grace to be found in some of the members of that school Cartwright has but few traces. But he possessed a real rhetorical inventiveness, and an extraordinary felicity of expression. These gifts he was able to display on occasions of the most opposite and diverse character, great and small, public and private,from the occurrence of an unexampled frost to the publication of a treatise on the art of vaulting. Yet even with a panegyrical poet of the Fantastic School the relations between his theme and his own tastes and sentiments are of the highest importance. In ingenuity Cartwright can hardly be said to have elsewhere surpassed the longest of the three following pieces, congenial to himself in its subject, though elaborately singular in treatment. For it may safely be asserted that this Ordination poem achieves its object of being altogether unique, without being altogether inappropriate. On the other hand, there could be no more common theme for elegiac verse than a premature death; but the lines on an occasion of the kind here reprinted are out of the common, though by no means unpleasing. Whether, had Cartwright lived beyond early manhood, he would have fulfilled or exceeded the promise of his youth, it is useless to enquire. He was more genuinely successful as a writer of occasional lyrics and elegies than as a dramatist. Perhaps the seriousness of the epoch at the opening of which he died might have turned his efforts to religious poetry, in which the Fantastic School of English poetry achieved its noblest results, and to which this academical preachers and poets mind must have had a natural bias. What he actually accomplished in this direction was but little, though not altogether unworthy of being associated with the music of Miltons friend and favourite composer.