The only account we have of Mr. Cunningham appeared originally in the London Magazine for 1773, from which it has been repeatedly copied without acknowledgment.
He was born in 1729, in Dublin, where his father and mother, both descendants of Scotch parents, then resided. His father was a wine-cooper, and becoming enriched by a prize in the lottery, commenced wine-merchant, and failed. The little education our author received was from a Mr. Clarke, who was master of the grammar-school of the city of Drogheda; and when his father's affairs became embarrassed, he was recalled to Dublin, where he produced many of his lesser poems at a very early age. At seventeen he wrote a farce, entitled, Love in a Mist, which was acted for several nights at Dublin in the year 1747. Garrick is said to have been indebted to this farce for the fable or plot of his Lying Valet.
The success of his little drama procured him the freedom of the theatre, to which he became immoderately attached, and, mistaking inclination for ability, commenced actor without one essential qualification either natural or acquired, if we except a knack at personating the mock French character, in which he is said to have been tolerable. His passion for the stage, however, predominated so strongly, that without any intimation of his intentions, he left his family and embarked for England, where he obtained a precarious and unprofitable employment in various companies of strolling comedians. Frequent want made him at length sensible of his imprudence, but pride prevented his return to his friends; and the death of his father, in circumstances of distress, probably reconciled him to a way of life which he could not now exchange for a better. About the year 1761 we find him a performer at Edinburgh, under the direction of Mr. Love, and here he published his Elegy on a Pile of Ruins, which, although obviously an imitation of Gray's Elegy, contains many passages conceived in the true spirit of poetry, and obtained considerable reputation. He soon afterwards borrowed five stanzas from this Elegy, and placed them in his Elegiac Ode on the Death of his late Majesty, an instance of taking freedom with a recent poem for which it is not easy to account. During his theatrical engagement at Edinburgh, although insignificant as an actor, he was of some value to the manager, by furnishing prologues and other occasional addresses, which were much applauded.
About this time he received an invitation from certain booksellers in London, who proposed to engage him in such works of literature as might procure him a more easy and honourable employment than he had hitherto followed. He repaired accordingly to the metropolis, but was disappointed in the promised undertaking by the bankruptcy of the principal person concerned in it, and, after a short stay, was glad to return to his friends in the north.
This was the only effort he ever made to emerge from the abject situation in which youthful imprudence had originally placed him. But with this state, says his biographer, he appeared by no means dissatisfied. Competence and obscurity were all he desired. He had no views of ambition; and indolence had possessed him so entirely, that he never made a second attempt. In a letter to a friend, he describes himself in these terms: "You may remember my last expedition to London. I think I may be convinced by it that I am not calculated for the business you mention. Though I scribble (but a little neither) to amuse myself, the moment I consider it as my duty it would cease to be an amusement, and I should of consequence he weary on't. I am not enterprizing: and tolerably happy in my present situation."
In 1762 he published The Contemplatist, but with less success than his Elegy. This is indeed the worst of all his productions, and was censured with much force of ridicule by a writer in the Monthly Review. It abounds with glittering and absurd conceits, and had it been published now, might have been mistaken for a satire on the maukish namby-pamby stuff which the author of The Baviad and Maeviad has chastised with equal justice and humour. It may here be mentioned that in 1765 he published Fortune, an Apologue, in which there are some poetical beauties, particularly the description of avarice, but not much consistency of plan; and in the following year collected his poems into a volume, which was honoured by a numerous list of subscribers.
For some time, he was a performer in Mr. Digges's company at Edinburgh, and on that gentleman's quitting Scotland, returned to Newcastle upon Tyne, a spot which had been his residence for many years, and which he considered as his home. Here and in the neighbouring towns he earned a scanty subsistence. Although his mode of life was not of the reputable kind, his blameless and obliging conduct procured him many friends, and in their society he passed his days without any effort to improve his situation. Yet in the verses he wrote about three weeks before he died, it appears that he was not quite so contented as his biographer has represented.
A few months before his death, being incapable of any theatrical exertion, he was removed to the house of his friend, Mr. Slack of Newcastle, who with great kindness received him under his roof, and paid every attention to him which his state required. After lingering some time under a nervous disorder, during which he burnt all his papers, he died on the 18th of September, 1773, and was buried in St. John's church yard, Newcastle. On a tomb-stone erected to his memory is the following inscription
Here lie the remains of
Of his excellence
As a pastoral poet,
His works will remain a monument
After this temporary tribute of esteem
Is in dust forgotten.
He died in Newcastle, Sept. 18, 1773,
Although Cunningham cannot be admitted to a very high rank among poets, he may be allowed to possess a considerable share of genius. His poems have a peculiar sweetness and elegance; his sentiments are generally natural, and his language simple, and appropriate to his subject, except in some of his longer pieces, where he accumulates epithets that appear to be laboured, and are sometimes uncouth compounds, either obsolete or unauthorized. As he contemplated Nature with a fond and minute attention, and had familiarized his mind to rural scenes and images, his pastorals will probably continue to be his most favoured efforts. He has informed us that Shenstone, with whose correspondence he was honoured, encouraged him to cultivate this species of poetry. His Landscape is a cluster of beauties which every reader must feel, but such as only a very accurate observer of nature could have grouped with equal effect. His fables are ingenious, and his lyric pieces were at one time in very high estimation, and certainly cannot suffer by a comparison with their successors on the stage and public gardens. His love-verses and his tributes of affection bespeak considerable ardour, with sometimes an attempt at conceits to which he seems to have been led by imitation. If he does not often move the passions, he always pleases the fancy, and his works have lost little of the popularity with which they were originally favoured.