1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 144.



ALLAN CUNNINGHAM was born at Blackwood, a place of much natural beauty, on Nithside, a few miles above Dumfries, on the 7th of 1784. His father and grandfather were farmers; and one of his ancestors, an officer under the great Montrose, shared in his leader's good and evil fortune at Kilsythe and Philiphaugh. Some hopes held out by a relative of a situation in India, having, it appears, failed, Allan, at eleven years of age, was removed from school, to learn, under an elder brother, his business of a mason. This he did not dislike, and soon became a skilful workman; but he loved still better to pore over old books — listen to old songs and tales — and roam among hjs native glens and hills. A thirst for knowledge came early; but a love of writing, as we have heard him say, came late. Some of his lyrics, however, found their way into a singular book, — Cromek's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, — and, passing for ancient, were received with an applause which it once startled and amused the writer. Dr. Percy boldly declared they were too good to be old; and the author of Marmion [Walter Scott] has more than once said, that not even Burns himself had enriched Scottish song with more beautiful effusions. In 1810, Mr. Cunningham was allured from the Nith to the Thames. For some years he attached himself to the public press; and in 1814, entered the studio of Sir Francis Chantrey, the distinguished sculptor, as superintendant of his works, — a station which he continues to occupy. The first volume he ventured to publish was Sir Marmaduke Maxwell, a dramatic poem, named after one of the heroes of his native district. It was well received by critics; and Sir Walter Scott generously "Handed the rustic stranger up to fame," by a kind notice of his first attempt in the Preface to the Fortunes of Nigel. Thenceforward Mr. Cunningham took his place among the Poets of Great Britain. He has since supplied us with but occasional proofs of his right to retain it; having devoted much of his leisure to the production of prose works of fiction; and commenced an undertaking of vast magnitude and importance, — the Lives of the Poets from Chaucer to Coleridge; — a task for which he is eminently qualified.

Few modern writers are more universally respected and esteemed than Mr. Cunningham; he numbers among his personal friends all the most eminent and accomplished of his contemporaries: in private life he has ever been irreproachable: — an early and a happy marriage probably preserved him from the errors and eccentricities which too generally mark the career of a youth of genius, upon entering the perilous maze of the metropolis; — where hundreds of as rare promise have sunk under the effect of dissipation or despondency; and whose names are to be found only in the terrible records of Calamities of Authors [by Isaac D'Israeli]. Cunningham, in person, seems better fitted to deal with huge blocks of marble than with creations of fancy. His frame is of vigorous proportions; his countenance highly expressive of mental as well as physical power; his eye keen and searching, but peculiarly gentle and winning. He combines industry with genius, and a rigid integrity with both. His biographies have been objected to on the ground that he has seen more to censure than to praise in the subjects of them: if, however, such contributions are valuable only, as they are TRUE and in proportion to their distance from the imaginative and the misleading, they are the best, and will be the most enduring of his works.

The Poems of Cunningham, as we have intimated, are not numerous; his last poetical production of any length, — the Maid of Elvar, — is, perhaps, his best: the scene of this little rustic epic, as he correctly styles it, is laid in his native vale and many of the delicious pictures it contains, with a true vein of poetry throughout, are drawn from rural life. It is, however, written in a measure ill calculated to become extensively popular. The poetical reputation of Allan Cunningham has been made, and is sustained, by his ballads and lyrical pieces. They are exquisite in feeling — chaste and elegant in style — graceful in expression, and natural in conception: they seem, indeed, the mere and unstudied out-pourings of the heart; yet will bear the strictest and most critical inspection of those who consider elaborate finish to be at least the second requisite of writers of song. His own country has supplied him with his principal themes; and the peculiar dialect of Scotland — in which he frequently writes — his good taste prevents him from ever rendering harsh, or even inharmonious, to Southern ears.