1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Mounsey Cunningham

Charles Rogers, in Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855-57) 2:139-42.



THOMAS MOUNSEY CUNNINGHAM, an elder brother of Allan Cunningham, is entitled to commemoration among the modern song-writers of his country. His ancestors were lords of that district of Ayrshire which still bears their family name; and a small inheritance in that county, which belonged to his more immediate progenitors, was lost to the name and race by the head of the family having espoused the cause and joined the army of the Duke of Montrose. For several generations his forefathers were farmers at Gogar, in the parish of Ratho, Mid-Lothian. John Cunningham, his father, was born at Gogar on the 26th March 1743, whence he removed in his twenty-third year to fill the situation of land-steward on the estate of Lumley, in the parish of Chester, and county of Durham. He next became overseer on the property of Mr. Mounsey of Ramerscales, near Lochmaben, Dumfriesshire. He married Elizabeth Harley, a lady of good connexions and of elegant personal accomplishments, and with the view of acquiring a more decided independence in his new condition, took in lease the farm of Culfaud, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright. Of a family of ten, Thomas was the second son; he was born at Culfaud on the 25th June 1776. During his infancy the farming speculations of his father proved unfortunate, and the lease of Culfaud was abandoned. Returning to his former occupation as a land-steward, John Cunningham was employed in succession by the proprietors of Barncaillie and Collieston, and latterly by the ingenious Mr. Miller of Dalswinton.

Thomas was educated at the village-school of Kellieston, and subsequently at the academy of Dumfries. The circumstances of his parents required that he should choose a manual profession; and he was apprenticed by his own desire to a neighbouring mill-wright. It was during his intervals of leisure, while acquiring a knowledge of this laborious occupation, that he first essayed the composition of verses; he submitted his poems to his father, who mingled judicious criticism with words of encouragement. The Har'st Home, one of his earliest pieces of merit, was privileged with insertion in the series of Poetry, Original and Selected, published by Brash and Reid, booksellers in Glasgow. Proceeding to England in 1797, he entered the workshop of a mill-wright in Rotherham. Under the same employer he afterwards pursued his craft at King's Lynn; in 1800 he removed to Wiltshire, and soon after to the neighbourhood of Cambridge. He next received employment at Dover, and thence proceeded to London, where he occupied a situation in the establishment of Rennie, the celebrated engineer. He afterwards became foreman to one Dickson, an engineer, and superintendent of Fowler's chain-cable manufactory. In 1812 he returned to Rennie's establishment as a clerk, with a liberal salary. On leaving his father's house to seek his fortune in the south, he had been strongly counselled by Mr. Miller of Dalswinton to abjure the gratification of his poetical tendencies, and he seems to have resolved on the faithful observance of this injunction.

For a period of nine years his muse was silent; at length, in 1806, he appeared in the Scots Magazine as the contributor of some of the best verses which had ever adorned the pages of that periodical. The editor was eloquent in his commendations; and the Ettrick Shepherd, who was already a contributor to the magazine, took pains to discover the author, and addressed him a lengthened poetical epistle, expressive of his admiration. A private intimacy ensued between the two rising poets; and when the Shepherd, in 1809, planned the Forest Minstrel, he made application to his ingenious friend for contributions. Cunningham sanctioned the republication of such of his lyrics as had appeared in the Scots Magazine, and these proved the best ornaments of the work.

Impatient of criticism, and of a whimsical turn of mind, Cunningham was incapable of steadfastly pursuing the career of a man of letters. Just as his name was becoming known by his verses in the Scots Magazine, he took offence at some incidental allusions to his style, and suddenly stopped his contributions. Silent for a second period of nine years, the circumstance of the appropriation of one of his songs in the Nithsdale Minstrel, a provincial collection of poetry, published at Dumfries, again aroused him to authorship. He made the publishers the subject of a satirical poem in the Scots Magazine of 1815. On the origin of the Edinburgh Magazine, in 1817, he became a contributor, and under the title of the Literary Legacy, wrote many curious snatches of antiquities, sketches of modern society, and scraps of song and ballad, which imparted a racy interest to the pages of the new periodical. A slight difference with the editor at length induced him to relapse into silence. Fitful and unsettled as a cultivator of literature, he was in the business of life a model of regularity and perseverance. He was much esteemed by his employer, and was ultimately promoted to the chief clerkship in his establishment. He fell a victim to the Asiatic cholera on the 28th October 1834, in the 58th year of his age. During his latter years he was in the habit of examining at certain intervals the MSS. of prose and poetry, which at a former period he had accumulated. On those occasions he uniformly destroyed some which he deemed unworthy of further preservation. During one of these purgations, he hastily committed to the flames a poem on which he had bestowed much labour, and which contained a humorous description of scenes and characters familiar to him in youth. The poem was entitled Braken Fell; and his ingenious brother Allan, in a memoir of the author, has referred to its destruction in terms of regret. The style of Thomas Cunningham seems, however, to have been lyrical, and it may be presumed that his songs afford the best evidence of his power. In private life he was much cherished by a circle of friends, and his society was gay and animated. He was rather above the middle height, and latterly was corpulent. He married in 1804, and has left a family.