1781 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Cunningham

Anonymous, "Life of John Cunningham" in Bell's Poets of Great Britain (1781) v-xi.



It has been a frequent observation, that the life of a good writer is best read in his Works, which seldom fail to receive a peculiar tincture from his temper, manners, and habits; at least that the distinguishing character of his mind, his ruling passion, will there appear undisguised. Hitherto no anecdotes of the life of our Author, so far as we know, have been printed with his Works, though these have undergone several editions. It has therefore become necessary, along with this more perfect edition, to narrate what has come to our knowledge concerning Mr. Cunningham himself, which indeed will be found little more than what the life of almost every man does afford, viz. where he was born, where he was educated, and where he died.

John Cunningham was born in the city of Dublin about the year 1728. His father was by profession a winecooper, and lived in good credit; but having a numerous family, our Author being the eldest of seven, was frequently in straitened circumstances. Having the good or bad fortune to get a 1200 prize in the English lottery, it proved his and his family's ruin; for this sudden acquisition of wealth enlarged his views, he commenced winemerchant, assumed a higher port of life "than his faint means would grant continuance," and not long thereafter became bankrupt.

At this afflicting period our Author was at the grammar-school in the city of Drogheda, under the care of Mr. Clark, the then master, the same who gave Mr. Henry Jones, author of the Earl of Essex, &c. &c., all the school-education he ever received. From thence young Cunningham was recalled to Dublin, where he continued for four or five years, and of course experienced all the difficulties that attend distressed situations.

Thus circumstanced, our Author turned his views to the stage, and produced a little piece of two acts called Love in a Mist; or, the Lass of Spirit, which was performed at the theatre-royal Smock-Alley several nights, and met with a very favourable reception. This introduced him to the acquaintance of the gentlemen of the theatre, who prevailed on him to enlist himself under the banner of an itinerant manager, with whom he came to England in the capacity of an actor, which profession he followed with little or no variation till the time of his death.

As an actor Mr. Cunningham had very little merit, chiefly owing to an extreme diffidence. He had just and strong conceptions, but neither voice, figure, nor utterance, to give them birth. He was two or three seasons at the theatre Edinburgh, when under the management of Mr. Digges, and on his return to England became exceedingly serviceable to Mr. Slack, printer in Newcastle upon Tyne, by assisting him in establishing a weekly newspaper.

Mr. Cunningham's life was so uniform, and of so little adventure, that with a due regard to truth, nothing can be related of him either entertaining or extraordinary. His every wish seemed to include in it nothing beyond competence and obscurity; "Along the cool sequester'd vale of life to keep the noiseless tenour of his way." An original letter of his, partly here to be inserted, fully shews his temper and disposition; but first it is necessary to be understood, that about the year 1762 he was solicited to leave the country, and to exert his talents in London as a writer, with promises of patronage, and every possible encouragement. These proffers had the effect upon him to continue there, though a very handsome premium was offered to be secured to him. Yet his indolence or diffidence had gained such absolute dominion over him, that when he found the sollicitations of his friends too powerful for him openly to resist, he privately withdrew himself, and returned to Mr. Bates's company in the country. It was whilst here that he wrote the letter above-mentioned, so descriptive of himself, and of which we shall extract such passages as may be necessary for the reader to know. The letter is dated Scarborough, November 3d, 1764, and is addressed to Mr. Philip Lewis of the theatre-royal Covent Garden. It runs thus;

"Dear Phil. We arrived at Scarborough the beginning of the week, and I was agreeably surprised to find a letter from you had been lying a few days in the postoffice. I reproach myself severely for my general indolence, and much for my particular fault in not writing to you before, as I might reasonably conclude a letter to addressed to you at the theatre would find you. I hope you will excuse me, and not impute my long silence to a want of real friendship for you, or a proper sense of the many marks you have given of your's for me.

"Mr. Davies does me honour by his proposal. I am solicited daily both from Edinburgh and Newcastle to the same purpose, at both which places I think I might depend on genteel subscriptions (nay in most of the north towns I have a sort of acquainted interest;) but I have some diffidence, and, as I observed above, much indolence, so that I have never yet come to a determination.

"I should be happy in a correspondence with Mr. Davies, and as he is supplied with French articles, should like to divert myself with a translation. I am fond, you know, of the French. I remember you liked The Rose and the Butterfly I imitated from La Motte.

"I am infinitely obliged to you for the trouble you take on my account. 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 considered it as my duty it would cease to be an amusement, and I should in consequence be weary on't. I am not enterprising, and tolerably happy in my present situation.

"I am afraid I shall not compass my Collection of Fugitives this winter; but after a tedious fit of idleness I scribbled up an affair, within these few days, which I call an Apologue, &c. &c."

This letter requires no apology, as the matter contained in it throws a stronger light on the character of our Author than is to be discovered any where else. Here he has drawn a striking likeness of himself; and it must be allowed the portrait is by the hand of an original.

There is a little anecdote of Mr. Cunningham which had its birth at Scarborough in summer 1765. He then lodged at the Golden Lion Inn. The landlord was a peaceable fellow; the landlady a shrew. One day as she was exercising her talents indiscriminately on all who unfortunately came in her way, husband, guests, servants, &c. Cunningham, to escape this wordy war, steered towards the door, carrying the landlord along with him, and pointing to the sign, viz. The Golden Lion, spoke the four following lines extempore;

Friend W—n! if you would get rid of a scold,
And live without trouble and strife,
I'd advise you to take down your Lion of Gold,
And hang up your brazen-fac'd wife.

[Author's note: These lines afterwards underwent some small alteration by the Author. See the verses entitled A Postscript.]

A few months before our Author's death, being then entirely incapable of theatrical business, or indeed any other, Mr. Slack of Newcastle gave him a kind invitation, sent a carriage for him, and had him brought home to his house. Whilst he languished under this hospitable roof, he came to a resolution to destroy his papers; and desiring the made to make up a fire, he requested her to leave the room. He then got out of bed, and committed all his papers to the flames. The blaze alarming the neighbours, Mr. Slack hastened to Mr. Cunningham's room, who had by this time got to the bed-side, and pointing to the fire, faintly observed, There! There!

Whilst he laboured under the disorder which at length put a period to his life, he had the following words often in his mouth;

Why was this irksome being forc'd upon me?
Incapable of choice, I sought it not.
Where is then the boasted mercy men allow you,
Since not to be avoided? I am wretched.

[Author's note: The sense of these lines is obscure; nor will an alteration of the stops restore them to much meaning.]

Our Author breathed his last at Newcastle, in the house of his friend Mr. Slack, though in what year, month, or on what day of the month, we have not been able to investigate. Mr. Slack's friendly offices did not terminate with the life of Mr. Cunningham, to whose memory he generously erected a monument.

Mr. Cunningham's Writings are the best testimony of his merits. His pastoral compositions (to which sort of poem it is said he betook himself at the request, and by the advice, of the late Mr. Shenstone) place him in no contemptible line. As to himself, he was of the most placid and benevolent disposition, but inclined to despondency; "A melancholy man, but when he spoke honey dropp'd from his lips."