1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Cunningham

Isaac Reed, in Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse (1782) 1:107-08.



JOHN CUNNINGHAM. An elegant and ingenious poet, and a very worthy man. He was born in the year 1729 in Dublin, where his father, an eminent wine merchant, and his mother, both of whom were Scotch parents, then resided. He was the youngest son of his father, and early began to exhibit specimens of his poetical powers. By the time he was twelve years old he produced several pieces which are still admired, and at the age of seventeen years wrote the only dramatic performance that he left. The free access which this little drama gave him to the play-house was of very pernicious consequence to him. It created a disgust at the plodding life of a tradesman, and excited a desire to appear on the stage as a performer, though he scarce possessed a single requisite for such a profession. His figure was totally against him either for Tragedy or genteel Comedy: in the petit maitre cast, however, he was tolerable, and if he in any thing rose to excellence, it was in his favourite walk, the mock French character.

His passion for the stage had obtained so strong a power over him, that against the wishes of his friends, and without any communication of his intentions to them, he secretly left his family and embarked for England, where he commenced itinerant player with a success that by no means answered his expectations. He soon became sensible of his imprudence, but pride prevented his return to his parents; and ere he had time to work himself into a resolution of obeying the calls of duty, he received intelligence that his father had become insolvent. This news was followed by that of his death. Still, however, an asylum was open to our author in the house of an affectionate brother Mr. P. Cunningham, one of the best statuaries in Ireland, who repeatedly urged him to return; but the idea of a state of dependence was of all others the most repugnant to him. What he had originally adopted from choice, he now found himself obliged to persist in from necessity. After having experienced various vicissitudes in the North of England, we find him in the year 1761 a performer at Edinburgh, under the direction of Mr. Love. Here he wrote some of his best pieces. It is at this period that, as a poet, he also began to emerge from obscurity.

Willing to snatch at every opportunity that might extricate him from a profession in which nature had denied him the qualities to shine, and for which he had long lost all relish, he chearfully adopted the advice of his friends, and, in hopes of obtaining a more respectable subsistence in the world of letters, he repaired from Edinburgh to London. These hopes however were vain. Hardly had he set foot in the capital, when he found the bookseller, by whom he was to be employed, had stopped payment. He soon also discovered that scandal and political altercation had entirely taken up the attention of the public, and that, unless he prostituted his abilities to these objects, he was not likely to meet with much success. He therefore left the town with precipitation after a short and disagreeable stay in it, and once more returned to Scotland.

At this juncture, Mr. Digges was manager of the Edinburgh play-house, and he treated our author with uncommon respect and kindness. Mr. Cunningham continued under that gentleman's management until he quitted Scotland. He then returned to Newcastle upon Tyne; a spot which, as it had been his residence for many years, he had originally left with regret, and which to his last breath he used emphatically to call his home.

At this place and in the neighbouring towns he earned a scanty but to him a sufficient subsistence. Though his mode of life was precarious and rather disreputable, it became much less so from the estimation he was held in by some of the most respectable characters in the country, who afforded him their support and protection. Being passionately fond of retirement, and happy in the society of a little circle of rural friends, he rejected every solicitation to try once more his fortune in the capital, declaring it to be his wish, that as he had lived, so he might die among his friends in Northumberland; nor was that wish denied him. From a long rooted disorder in his nerves, a lingering illness ensued, which, on the 18th day of September, 1775, terminated his life. He was buried in St. John's Church-yard, Newcastle.

He is intitled to a place in this work on account of one piece already mentioned, called,

Love in a Mist. F. 12mo. 1747.