This poet was born at Northway, near Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, September, 1611. His father, after spending a good estate, was reduced to keep an inn at Cirencester, at the free school of which town his son was educated under Mr. William Topp. Being chosen a king's scholar, he was removed to Westminster school, under Dr. Osbaldiston, and thence elected a student of Christ-church, Oxford, in 1628. After pursuing his studies, with the reputation of an extraordinary scholar and genius, he took his master's degree in 1635; and in 1639 went into holy orders, becoming "a most florid and seraphical preacher in the university." One sermon only of his is in print, from which we are not able to form a very high notion of his eloquence: but when Mr. Abraham Wright, of St. John's, Oxford, compiled that scarce little book, entitled Five Sermons in Five several Styles, or Ways of Preaching, it appears that Dr. Maine and Mr. Cartwright were of consequence enough to be admitted as specimens of university preaching. The others are bishop Andrews', bishop Hall's, and the presbyterian and independent "ways of preaching."
In 1642, bishop Duppa, with whom he lived in the strictest intimacy, bestowed on him the place of succentor of the church of Salisbury. In the same year he was one of the council of war, or delegacy, appointed by the university of Oxford, for providing for the troops sent by the king to protect the colleges. His zeal in this office occasioned his being imprisoned by the parliamentary forces when they arrived at Oxford; but he was bailed soon after. In 1643, he was chosen junior proctor of the university, and was also reader in metaphysics. "The exposition of them," says Wood, "was never better performed than by him and his predecessor Thomas Barlow, of Queen's College." Lloyd asserts, that he studied at the rate of sixteen hours a day. From such diligence and talents much might have been expected; but he survived the last mentioned appointment a very short time, dying December 23, 1643, in the thirty-second year of his age, of a malignant fever, called the camp disease, which then prevailed at Oxford. He was honourably interred towards the upper end of the south isle of the cathedral of Christ-church.
Few men have ever been so praised and regretted by their contemporaries, who have left so little to perpetuate their fame. During his sickness, the king and queen, who were then at Oxford, made anxious inquiries about the progress of his disorder. His majesty we black on the day of his funeral, and being asked the reason, answered that since the Muses had so much mourned for the loss of such a son, it had been a shame that he should not appear in mourning for the loss of such a subject. His poems and plays which were published in 1651, are preceded by fifty copies of verses by all the wits of the time, and all in a most laboured style of panegyric. His other encomiasts inform us that his person was as handsome as his mind, and that he not only understood Greek and Latin, but French and Italian as perfectly as his mother tongue. Dr. Fell, bishop of Oxford, said of him, "Cartwright is the utmost man can come to," and Ben Jonson used to say, "My son Cartwright writes all like a man."
Although it must be confessed that his works, particularly his dramas, afford little justification of this high character, his poems may perhaps deserve a place among those of is contemporaries. Many of them exhibit tenderness and harmony, a copious, but sometimes, fanciful imagery, and a familiar easy humour which, connected with his amiable disposition as a man, probably led to those encomiums which, without this consideration, we should find it difficult to allow. "That," says Wood, "which is most remarkable is, that these his high parts and abilities were accompanied with so much sweetness and candour, that they made him equally beloved and admired by all persons, especially those of the gown and court; who esteemed also his life a fair copy of practic piety, a rare example of heroic worth, and in whom arts, learning and language, made up the true complement of perfection." The same biographer informs us that he wrote Poemata Graeca & Latina.