1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Cumberland

David Rivers, in Literary Memoirs of Living Authors (1798) 1:132-37.



A character of long and very distinguished celebrity in the republic of letters. He is son of Dr. Denison Cumberland, late bishop of Clonfert and Killaloe in Ireland: and great grandson of the learned English divine Dr. Richard Cumberland, bishop of Peterborough, the author of an excellent treatise on the laws of nature. Mr. Cumberland is also grandson by the mother's side of the celebrated Dr. Richard Bentley, and the beautiful ballad in the 8th volume of the Spectator, beginning My time, O ye Muses! was happily spent, was addressed by a former lover (Dr. Byrom) to his mother when a girl. He was the intimate friend of the late Lord Viscount Sackville, during the period of which nobleman's cabinet Mr. Cumberland was secretary to the board of trade. That Mr. Cumberland's numerous writings discover him to be a man of first rate genius, we believe no reader that has perused them with attention will maintain: that they discover him to be a man of taste and extensive as well as profound information no such reader can controvert. Mr. Cumberland's first publication was the Banishment of Cicero, a tragedy, printed in the year 1761, and never represented on the stage. This piece might perhaps have been stiled a dramatic poem with greater propriety than a tragedy. The Summer's Tale and The Brothers, comedies, are the next productions attributed to him: the latter is certainly his: neither of them however experienced a very favourable reception on the stage or in the closet. In 1771 he produced The West Indian, a comedy, which is certainly one of the most sterling pieces of the English stage, and which acquired its author a great and lasting reputation. The plot is complicated without confusion: the characters are strongly marked yet natural: the dialogue sprightly without laboured wit: and the sentiment at once elevated and tender. Mr. Cumberland now became esteemed one of the best dramatic writers of the day, and produced in the succeeding winter The Fashionable Lover a comedy, a performance which did not retract from, if it did not greatly add to, his former reputation. In 1774 he produced a farce entitled The Note of Hand, or Trip to Newmarket: in 1775, The Choleric Man, a comedy: in 1776, a thin quarto volume of Odes: and in 1778, The Battle of Hastings, a tragedy, perhaps the least happy of Mr. Cumberland's productions. Having been sent as a commissioner to the Court of Madrid during the American war, he published, upon his return, in the year 1782, Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in two volumes duodecimo. In 1783 he again furnished the stage with a tragedy, entitled, The Mysterious Husband: and likewise published a letter to the Bishop of Llandaff on the subject of his Lordship's letter to the late Archbishop of Canterbury, respecting ecclesiastical grievances. That this letter contained some wit, vivacity and shrewdness was generally allowed, but it had little argument, and still less decorum and candour: it was very ably answered by an anonymous writer. In 1785, Mr. Cumberland brought out The Carmelite, his best tragedy; and the Natural Son, a comedy; in this year he also published a character of his departed friend Lord Viscount Sackville, in a small pamphlet, and the first edition of his celebrated work the Observer. This edition contained only forty essays, and the second, which was published the following year, in three volumes, crown octavo, consisted of ninety three; two volumes have since been added, and the work is very generally known and approved. To pronounce these five volumes finished specimens of essay writing, would be to honour them with a name superior to their desert: since their frequent want of strength and elegance must for ever deprive them of that character. That they abound however with pleasing and instructive information, and often discover extensive reading, we are very ready to allow. The papers upon Grecian History and the Greek Comedy are particularly valuable: and the translations from fragments of Greek Comic Writers, eminently distinguished by care and fidelity of execution. By these specimens, Mr. Cumberland appears most singularly qualified to make Aristophanes our own: and it is a circumstance, devoutly to be wished by every man of letters, that he would turn his thoughts to the accomplishment of such a task. It is a little extraordinary, that this learned and ingenious gentleman should have thought it worth his while to seek, collect and exhibit in group, the foul aspersions, upon the character of Socrates, which remain scattered among later ancient writers, but are reported neither on authority to bear any comparison with the united testimony of Plato an Xenophon, nor by any appearance of probability. But his quarrel with Socrates seems to have been taken up in revenge for the imputations, which, some admirers of the philosopher, with more zeal than either candour or good sense, have thrown upon the comic poet Aristophanes. In 1787, Mr. Cumberland published An accurate and descriptive Catalogue of the several paintings in the King of Spain's Palace at Madrid, which was transmitted to the author after his return from Spain, but came too late to be inserted in his Anecdotes of Spanish Painters. And in 1789, the comedy of The Impostors, and a novel entitled Arundel, in two volumes duodecimo: for which latter performance Mr. Cumberland has been censured, as seeming to palliate adultery and duelling. In 1792 was published his poem Calvary, or the death of Christ, in eight books: which we have heard was recalled by its author before the whole of the first impression was sold; and in the following year, The Songs and Choruses in the comic opera of The Armorer. In 1794, Mr. Cumberland produced The Box-Lobby Challenge, a comedy; and the comedy of The Jew. The principal design of the latter piece is to exhibit on the stage the character of an honest and charitable Jew: the play was very favourably received, and has continued a favourite with the public. The following year however was to display a still more brilliant effort of Mr. Cumberland's talents in dramatic composition: and in times truly discouraging to such an attempt, in times, in which the depravity of public taste had well nigh converted the theatre into a puppet show, he produced a comedy which overcame these disadvantages, and struck so vigorously on the chord of nature and feeling, as in some measure to shake us out of our dullness, and alarm the sleeping sense of the nation: such is his Wheel of Fortune, the only one of his dramatic pieces, which, in our opinion, can rank with The West Indian. In this year also was published his First Love, another very successful comedy, and Henry, a novel, in four volumes duodecimo. In 1796, Mr. Cumberland produced The Days of Yore, a drama in three acts, and in the following, the comedy of The Last of the Family, which abounds with many genuine traits of nature, vivacity and manly sentiment. Thus numerous, and thus diversified in subject and merit, have been the writings of Mr. Cumberland: yet let it not be forgotten that they have ever had for their object the establishment of Moral Goodness, by inculcating its principles and perfections with unwearied assiduity and care.