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An Oxford garrison of poets in 1642.

IN November, 1642, after King Charles the First's stray victory at Edgehill, the city of Oxford was fortified in expectation of his arrival. The undergraduates, except those ready to bear arms in his cause, were turned out of their colleges and lodgings. At the end of the month the King's coach rolled over Magdalen Bridge. With him were the Prince of Wales, recently recovered from the measles, and Charles's nephew, Prince Rupert. The King and his boy-heir established their headquarters at Christ Church College, although Prince Rupert was less splendidly billeted with the Town Clerk. In preparation for the King's resettlement, some zealous troopers had, on a foray into Buckingham, driven a herd of fat cattle into Oxford and impounded them in the wide quadrangle of Christ Church. Unfortunately, they were not Parliamentary cattle. Most of them belonged to the King's supporter, the Earl of Caernarvon, whose servants removed them during the following night, although some went astray in the dark of the cobbled streets. A few days later the troopers, now more discriminating, brought in a drove, this time of undoubtedly rebel cattle, and about three hundred sheep.(1) By the necessity of war, the royal ears were troubled by a brute concourse under his windows.

From the start a siege had been anticipated. Already nearly thirty cannons had been assembled, silent for the moment, in the gardens of Magdalen College. The tower of the college was loaded with boulders to be dropped upon any unwarily approaching malcontents. Loyally the university sent its plate to be melted down at the Mint in New College Hall for coinage to pay the King's soldiers. The walls of the city were strengthened, trenches were dug, and huge earthworks were raised in the north.(2)

To the King flew many of his poets not already safely in the city: some followers on his march; some glad to escape from Cambridge, which was by then in the hands of the rebels; others, such as the wry, hard-drinking attorney Alexander Brome, who held public office in threatened London. William Cartwright, already noted for his |florid and seraphical sermons', preached on his return with the King from Edgehill.(3) William Strode, another priest, was waiting, in his capacity as University Orator, to answer with a |gratulatory Replication' the King's speech to the City and the University upon his arrival. Crashaw and Cowley came briefly to Oxford after their retreat from Cambridge. Cleveland, poet, lawyer and physician, likewise cast out of Cambridge, stayed longer before being sent as Judge Advocate to the royalist outpost in Newark. Fanshawe came to Oxford to marry the delectable Ann Harrison with her monther's wedding ring. The King's windswept reign was hedged around with poets.

Sir John Denham was already in Oxford. The first edition of his Cooper's Hill was published there in 1643, on brown wrapping paper for want of better. Cooper's Hill, professedly a description of Denham's estate and nearby Windsor Castle (|where Mars with Venus dwells,/beauty with strength') contains scarcely an image not misappropriated from the classical poets. The meekly sloping hill becomes an |airy mountain' which hides its proud head |among the Clouds'.(4) At least Denham uses his poem to reprove, perhaps hintingly, the despotism of earlier monarchs. Denham was better at writing sallies in pre-Hudibrastic verse, as when he made Sir John Pooley explain how he came to be poxed:

Destitute of my wonted Gravity.

I perpetuated Acts of Depravity

In a contagious Concavity.

Making efforts with all my Puissance,

For some Venereal Rejouissance,

I got (as one might say) a nuysance (Poetical Works, 103). Rightly appalled by Davenant's epic poem, Gondibert, Denham regrets:

After so many sad mishaps

Of drinking, riming and of claps,

I pitty most thy last relaps (Poetical Works, 317).

Charles the First's disdain for the productions of his own poets is evident from his advice to Denham five years after the publication of Cooper's Hill: |Although he liked them well, he would have me write no more. Alleging, that when men are young, and have little else to do, they might vent the overflowings of their fancy that way, but when they were thought fit for more serious Employments, if they still persisted in that course, it would look as if they minded not the way to any better' (Poetical Works, 59). No doubt the King excluded the poems of George Herbert, which he read incessantly during his captivity.

Oxford had become a toy London. The members of a surrogate Parliament orated in the paved amplitude of the nearly empty Divinity Schools. Shakespeare's plays were defiantly performed in the college halls. The many green patches of the stony Gothic city echoed with the sound of lutes and viols. Waller, for the time being a royalist, listened as Lady Isabella Thynne, grand-daughter of Sidney's Stella, frequented Trinity Grove |with a lute or theorbo played before her', as John Aubrey, then an undergraduate of Trinity College, witnessed. |I have heard her play in the grove myself', Aubrey recollected, |for which Mr. Edmund Waller hath in his Poems for ever made her famous'. The Queen soon joined her husband in Oxford. The daughter of Henry of Navarre, at the head of the army of three thousand she had gathered, rode south to Edgehill, where the King struck a medal to honour the occasion.

She was lodged at Merton College, where the chapel was given up to the Catholic rite. The King at nearby Christ Church could visit her, like a homing bee, along a track of intervening gardens scented with pinks and lavender in the hot summer of 1643. Retreating from the aromatic college gardens gaudy with plays and masques, Henrietta Maria became pregnant for the ninth time. Her ladies, meanwhile, took to attending matins at Trinity College in their shifts: an angelic demi-nudity which would have pleased Crashaw. During the following April, Henrietta said goodbye to the King for the last time; departed swooning from her husband in the Vale of the White Horse, to which he gallantly accompanied her on her journey into the west.(5)

Life at Oxford was not all a fete champetre. Even during the heyday of the King's residence there in 1643, the plague which circled England almost every summer broke out in the city under the name of camp-fever, and claimed Cartwright as a victim. In the poignant words of his Valediction, Cartwright went |where neither suns nor show'rs/Do make or cherish Flow'rs'. The King wore mourning for his poet and gentle favourite. A young man of the utmost diligence, who studied eighteen hours every day, Cartwright, the son of an inn-keeper, became famous as a preacher and an author, and had a seat on the King's Council of War. |Tis not to be forgott', John Aubrey wrote, |that King Charles 1st dropt a tear at the newes of his death'. Cartwright's heroic tragedy, The Royal Slave had been produced at Hampton Court by royal command in 1636. This play about the sacrifice of a kin, was greatly applauded by Charles I, who declared it the best ever acted: a dramatic irony outside the performance. The hearts of monarch and subject momentarily beat in unison.(6)

Cartwright can, at intervals, intrigue or at least surprise the reader of his adroit and well-turned poems. Cleveland writes of |a learned sigh' and Cartwright of the sophistry of kisses. Learned sighs and sophistical kisses abound in their poetry. Cartwright was undoubtedly a scholar-poet, but sometimes flags for a want, surprising in a follower of Donne, of intricacy and enterprise. He is an unequal poet, although at his best capable of Donne's insolent aplomb:

Give me a girl (if one I must needs meet)

Or in her Nuptiall, or her winding sheet:

I know but two good Houres that women have,

One in the Bed, another in the Grave.

Thus of the whole Sex all I would desire

Is to enjoy their Ashes or their Fire (Poems, 39). The misogyny of this squib is belied by his poem, Beautie and Demiall. There, in delicate verse, Cartwright refurbishes the old images of roses and lilies to the point where they become novel:

Roses ne'er chide my boldness when I go

To crop their Blush; why should your Cheeke do so?

The Lillies ne'er deny their Silk to men;

Why should your Hands push off, and draw back then? In terms remarkable in a clergyman he proposes a wrestling match:

But if there must be reall Lists of Love,

And our Embracing a true wrestling prove,

Bare and Anoint you then: for if you'll do

As wrestlers use, you must be naked too (Poems, 38-9). Despite his occasional impudence to women, Cartwright, this bachelor Priest of Isis, is notable for erotic tenderness:

Seal up her eyes, O Sleep, but flow

Mild as her Manners, to and fro:

Slide soft into her, yet that shee

May receive DO wound from thee (Poems, 174).

In his bitter-sweetness tinged with morbidity, Cartwright is akin to the young Heine:

The bittern on a Reed I hear

Pipes my Elegy,

And warns me to die;

Whilst from yond' Graves

My young Love craves

My sad Company (Poems, 65). It is unlikely that Heine ever read Cartwright, but Cartwright's graceful poem, Falshood, anticipates the diction and even the cadence of the third song of Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo:

Still do the Stars impart their Light

To those that travell in the Night;

Still Time runs on, nor does the Hand

Or Shadow on the Diall stand;

The Streams still glide and constant are.

Only thy Mind

Untrue I find,

Which neglects to be

Like Streame, or Shadow, Hand or Star (Poems, 35-6).

Strode died a few months after Cartwright, possibly of the same pestilence. Strode is characteristically unarresting but, like Cartwright, could transfigure a platitude, as in his poem on Chloris in the snow:

I saw faire Chloris walke alone

Where feathered rayne came softly downe,

And Jove descended from his tower

To court her in a silver shower;

The wanton snowe flewe to her breast

Like little birds into their nest.(7) He can frame a Herbert-like apothegm:

Whoever the girdle doth undoe

He quite undoes the owner too (Poetical Works, 46).

Curiously, there is little of the preacher in the poetry of the two clerics, Cartwright and Strode; far less than in that of William Habington, a lethargic country gentleman of antiquarian tastes and Catholic affiliations, who paused in Oxford on his way to fortify his manor near Worcester against the Parliamentarians. Habington celebrates women's chastity; particularly, with a boastfulness not quite seemly, the chastity of his future wife, a distant kinswoman of George Herbert called Lucy Herbert, whom Habington celebrates under the name of Castara. In his Description of Castara he presents her engagingly:

She obeyes with speedy will

Her grave Parents wise commands,

And so innocent, that ill

She neither acts, nor understands.(8) Her |wise parents' were William Herbert, 1st Baron Powis, and his wife Eleanor Percy, who was directly descended from the Dukes of Brabant and, through them, from Charlemagne: a wondrous descent which enchanted the antiquary Habington. In one poem of genealogical devotion, he speaks of himself as kissing Castara's hand and wondering which vein throbbed with Charlemagne's blood (Poems, 42). His poems about Lucy Herbert are tinged with the oddly salacious taste for innocence which he shared with Crashaw and expresses in his poem to roses in her bosom. He relishes her inexperience:

Yee blushing Virgins happie are

In the chaste Nunn'ry of her Breasts (Poems, 12).

Although John Cleveland's illusions about Charles I dispersed on the King's flight to the Scots, he registers a measured but vivid dismay at the event:

Courageous Eagles, who have whet

Your eyes upon Majestic Light. . .

What are you since the King's Goodnight?(9) The most popular writer of his time, and neglected ever since, Cleveland was the most individualistic of the poets who surrounded Charles I at Oxford. His departure from Oxford in May 1645, after two years in the royal presence, brought about the slow disaster of his subsequent life. The garrison at Newark, to which the King had consigned him, surrendered to General Lesley exactly a year later. After that, Cleveland wandered for nine years, unnoticed but renowned, since during those nine years fourteen editions of his poems were published. Cromwell's spies caught up with him in 1655, when he was arrested at Norwich for associating with |papists and delinquents'. He was imprisoned in Yarmouth for three months, then released, only to die two years later at the age of forty-five from the effects of the gaol-fever he had caught at Yarmouth.

In his poetry Cleveland is knottily witty. He was endowed, as one of the most intelligent poets of his generation and cause, with vigour, fertility of invention and imagery, and aptness of comparison, but too often chose to write on ephemeral topics. He belongs to the noble but unsatisfactory company in which Petronius, Saint-Simon and Beerbohm are also enrolled: writers who trifled away transcendent gifts. He sought an adamantine brilliance from which natural feeling was often lacking, as one of his followers complained:

Crystals and gems grow here instead of flowers;

Instead of roses, beds of rubies sweat

And emeralds recompense the violet.

With supreme artfulness, in his elegy on Archbishop Laud, Cleveland praises artlessness:

He brews his tears that studies to lament.

Verse chymically weeps; that pious raine,

Distill'd with art, is but the sweat o' th' braine.

Whoever sob'd in Numbers? He likewise condemns contrivance in his poem in memory of Charles I:

I like not tears in tune, nor will I prise

His artificiall grief, that scannes his eyes (Poems, 1). Yet this is what Cleveland, one of the most contriving of poets, himself does. In his elegy on Laud he describes the liturgy as no more than a footnote on the Archbishop:

The Lyturgie, whose doome was voted next,

Died as a Comment on him. the Text.

There's nothing lives; Life is since he's gone

But a Nocturnal Lucubration (Poems, 39).

This is mental juggling, but not senselessly so. The elegy is a terse, shrewd statement about the collapse, represented by the executions of Strafford and Laud, of an order which the King was too weak to maintain: |The state in Strafford fell, the Church in Laud'. In his epitaph for Strafford, Cleveland says that Strafford's blood must not cry out, lest it should accuse his betrayer and causative murderer, the King himself:

Riddles lie liere; or in a word,

Here lies Blood; and let it lie

Speechless still, and never crie (Poems, 66).

Cleveland is the only Royalist poet wholly sceptical about the King. He venerated kingship but not Charles I. When the King, disguised as a servant, fled from Oxford to the Scottish camp in 1646, Cleveland's indignation openly broke out:

Oh for a State-distinction to arraigne

Charles of high treason |gainst my Soveraigne (Poems, 6). Remembering how the Parliamentarians had contemptuously stabled their horses in cathedrals and college chapels, Cleveland compares the King in his menial garb to |a Colledge by the changeling rabble... transform'd into a Stable'. Charles has, by renouncing his inherited responsibility as a steward, failed his people:

Oh the accursed Stenographic of Fate!

The princely Eagle shrunk into a Bat (Poems, 7).

Outside his political poems, Cleveland is deep in strange lore. He ponders the life of an hermaphrodite:

How many melting kisses skip

Between thy Male and Female lip'? He comments on the self-sufficiency of the hermaphrodite, although Sir Thomas Browne held it a vulgar error to believe that hermaphrodites can impregnate themselves:

For man and wife make but one right

Canonical Hermaphrodite (Poems, 10-11). The hermaphrodite's independence is akin to that of the poet, seen as intrinsic to his poem. Cleveland compares the poet's achievement to that of the spider:

As Spiders travel by their bowels spun

Into a thread, and when their race is run,

Wind up their journey in a living clue (Poems, 50).

Like Lovelace, Cleveland is fascinated by the small life of Nature, such as may be observed in a garden rather than a landscape. Lovelace celebrates the grasshopper, the ant and the snail; Cleveland the marigold and the bee:

The Mary-gold whose courtiers face

Echo's the sunne, and doth unlace

Her at his rise, at his full stop

Packs and shuts up her gaudy shop (Poems, 14). In Fuvcara he praises an errant bee:

Natures confectioner, the Bee

Whose suckers are moyst Alchimie,

The Still of his refining mould

Minting the Garden into Gold. The bee settled on Fuscara's wrist, |till her coy Pulse had beat him off'; then on her hand:

The ayrie Free-booter distrains

First on the Violets of her Veins ...

He tipples Palmestry and dines

On all her fortune telling lines (Poems, 58). In spite of his affectionate observation of insects, the only other living creatures Cleveland interests himself much in are women susceptible to his advances, whom he regards as equally light and mobile. Around him he view |whole Orchards in Virginitie' (Poems, 18). To harvest them he has followed the |curriculum of love':

Mysticall Grammer of amorous glances,

Feeling of pulses, the Phisicke of Love. The tresses of his rustic mistress are:

Gawdier than Juno wears, when she blesses

Jove with embraces more stately than warm (Poems, 41). He is utterly in favour of women. They are not only adorable, but benevolent too:

Pious Julia (Angel-wise)

Moves the Bethesda of her trickling eves

To cure the spital-world of maladies Poems, 62). His mistress, whose |quick pants' are his |trembling sphere', is such a feast to the sight that |You may break Lent with looking on her' (Poems, 47). Since she is Cleveland's little world, he clasps her with an ardour which is at once amorous and astrological:

I hoop the Firmament, and make

This my Embrace the Zodiac (Poems, 48).

The other poets who had gathered in Oxford were less scornful than Cleveland of their monarch, although in their verses they did what they could to dissuade Charles I from his stubborn quest for disaster. It is unlikely that he read them. Denham, who had already written an epitaph in commendation of a judge who had declared the Ship Money Tax illegal, declared, towards the end of Cooper's Hill:

Tyrant and slave, those names of hate and fear,

The happier style of King and Subject bear:

Happy, when both to the same Center move,

When Kings give Liberty and Subjects Poetical Works, 85). The toping balladeer, Alexander Brome, was more specific in his Serious Ballad of 1645:

I love the King and the Parliament

But I love them both together;

And when they are asunder rent

I know 'tis good for neither.(10)

In his Phaedrus, Plato suggests that poets often intuitively and instantaneously grasp the essentials of a situation. Three and a half centuries ago King Charles I received excellent advice from his poets, little skilled though they were in statecraft. He did not heed it.


(1.) Anthony Wood. Life and Times, ed. Clark and Powys, Oxford, 1961, pp.36-7. (2.) Carola Oman. Henrietta Maria, London, 1936, p.152. (3.) M. B. Pickel. Charles I as Patron of Poetry and Drama, London, 1936, p.76. (4.) John Denham. Poetical Works, ed. Banks, New Haven, 1928, p.79; Ann, Lady Fanshawe. Memoirs, London, 1907, pp.13-14. (5.) Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars, Oxford, 1849, III p.106: Edmund Waller. Poems, ed. Thorn Drury, London, 1893, I p.90; Oman. op. cit., pp.150, 157 and 191. (6.) William Cartwright. Poems, ed. Goffin, Cambridge, 1918, p.65; Anthony Wood. Athenae Oxoniensis, ed. Bliss, London, 1813-20, III p.69; John Aubrey. Brief Lives, ed. Clark, Oxford, 1898, I p. 148; John Evelyn. Diary and Correspondence, ed. Bray, London, 1854, I p.421. (7.) William Strode. Poetical Works, ed. Dobell, London, 1907, p.41. (8.) William Habington. Poems, ed. Allott, London, 1948, p.51 (9.) John Cleveland. Poems, ed. Morris and Wittington, Oxford, 1967, p.69. (10.) Aubrey. op. cit., I p.174: George Saintsbury (ed.). Caroline Poets, Oxford, 1905-21, III p.92; Alexander Brome. Songs and Other Poems, Chambers' English Poets, London, 1810, VI p.675
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Title Annotation:poets of King Charles I; Oxford, England
Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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