This pastoral and popular poet was born in Dublin, 1729, but both his parents were of Scottish extraction.
John Cunningham was early sent to the grammar school of Drogheda; but his father, who was a wine-cooper, failing in business, he was recalled to Dublin, and soon shewed a predilection for the stage.
Before he was seventeen years of age, he produced a drama, under the title of Love in a Mist, which was several times acted at the theatre in his native city. This introduced him to an acquaintance with performers; and his passion for the stage getting the better of his reason, he secretly withdrew from his friends, and engaging himself with an itinerant manager, continued in this profession, with little variation, until his death. As an actor, however, he never gained high reputation, even on provincial boards; both his figure and his voice were against him; and his chief merit lay in having a good conception of his author's meaning.
At York, Newcastle, Sunderland, Alnwick, and other places in the north of England, he experienced all the vicissitudes of the profession he had chosen; and though he soon saw his imprudence, his pride would not allow him to return to his friends.
In 1761, he engaged as a performer on the Edinburgh stage; and while in that city, he wrote some of his most admired poetical pieces. An Elegy on a Pile of Ruins appeared in 1762; and the following year The Contemplation, and other pleasing compositions.
Having acquired some celebrity as a poet, he was invited by a bookseller in London to pursue the literary career, and accordingly he set out for the capital; but his intended patron having stopped payment before his arrival, he made no efforts to obtain employment from others, but hastened back to Edinburgh, and ever after patiently acquiesced in his allotments, discharging the duties of an actor with assiduity, and the duties of a man with universal applause.
Though the situation of an itinerant player is not very reputable, the talents and integrity of Cunningham overcame prejudice, and he was valued and countenanced by persons of worth and respectability wherever he resided.
In 1766 he collected his poems, which he published by subscription in one volume 8vo. under the title of Poems, chiefly Pastoral, with a dedication to Garrick. His subscribers were numerous and respectable; and from this period to the time of his death, he lived chiefly among his friends in Northumberland, to whom he was most sincerely attached, and among whom he wished his dust to repose.
After lingering some time under a nervous disorder, he departed this life on the 18th of September 1773, in the 44th year of his age, and was buried in St. John's church-yard, Newcastle, where a tombstone is erected by friendship to his memory, and charged with a suitable inscription.
Cunningham was an amiable and worthy man, and an ingenious and elegant, though not a first-rate, poet. His principal merit seems to lie in the easy and humble, yet pleasing walks of the pastoral muse. His compositions exhibit ample proofs of elegance, tenderness, and simplicity; but they are deficient in strength, animation, and enthusiasm. He had a lively imagination and a feeling heart; but his judgment was not equal to his fancy, and his most finished productions discover an incorrectness of taste. They are the native efforts of true genius; but the sentiments and images they exhibit, are not always attended with an elegant simplicity of expression.
"Cunningham," says Mr. Ritson, in his Historical View of the Progress of English Song, "though not equal to his countryman Goldsmith in native genius, and still less so in learned application, possesses a pleasing simplicity which cannot fail to recommend him to a reader of unadulterated taste. This simplicity may, perhaps, in some of his compositions, be thought too great; but when it is known that they were necessarily adapted to the intellects of a country theatre, little censure can be justly incurred by the poet."