1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Cunningham

Richard Ryan, in Biographica Hibernica. A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland (1819) 2:44-49.



JOHN CUNNINGHAM, an elegant and ingenious poet, and a very worthy man, was born in Dublin in the year 1729, where his father and mother, both of whom were descended from Scotch parents, then resided. His father was a wine cooper, and becoming enriched by a prize in the lottery, commenced wine merchant, but failed shortly after. He was the youngest son of his father, and early began to exhibit specimens of his poetical genius in several fugitive pieces which he published anonymously in the Dublin newspapers; and by the time he had attained his twelfth year, he had produced several poetic effusions, which are still honoured with the public esteem.

The little education our author received was from a Mr. Clark, 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. About the age of seventeen, he wrote his only dramatic piece, which was a farce, entitled, Love in a Mist; or, the Lass of Spirit, which was acted several nights at Dublin in 1747; and to this farce Garrick is said to have been considerably indebted for his fable of The Lying Valet. The free access which this little drama gave him to the theatre, was of a very pernicious consequence to him, as it created a dislike to the plodding life of a tradesman, and excited a desire to appear on the stage as a performer, though he scarcely possessed a single requisite for such a profession. His figure was totally against him either for tragedy or genteel comedy. In the "petit maitre" cast, however, he was tolerable, and he is said to have arrived at excellence in personating the mock French characters. Every attempt to suppress his passion for the stage having become fruitless, without the slightest intimation of his intentions, he secretly left his family, and embarked for England, where he obtained a precarious and unprofitable existence in various companies of strolling knights of the sock and buskin. The frequency of want, however, at length made him sensible of his imprudence; but pride prevented his return to his friends; and ere he had time to form the resolution of obeying the calls of duty, he received intelligence that his father had become insolvent. This unwelcome news was followed by that of his decease in circumstances of distress. Still, an asylum was generously offered to our author in the house of an affectionate brother, Mr. P. Cunningham, one of the best statuaries in Ireland, who repeatedly urged him to return; but the idea of a state of dependence being repugnant to his feelings, he rejected every overture that was made to him, and the profession he had embarked in originally from choice, he now found himself obliged to persist in from necessity. After having experienced the many and various vicissitudes which are the inseparable companions of those votaries of Thespis, known by the title of "would-be actors," we find him in the year 1761, a performer at Edinburgh, at which period and place he began to emerge from obscurity, by giving to the world 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 for him considerable reputation. During his theatrical engagement at Edinburgh, although insignificant as an actor, he was of much value to the manager by furnishing several prologues, and other occasional addresses, all of which were received with applause.

About this period he received an invitation from several 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; and willing to avail himself of any opportunity that might arise to extricate him from a profession in which nature had denied him the indispensable qualifications to shine, and for which he had long lost all relish, he cheerfully adopted the advice of his friends, and repaired accordingly to the metropolis; but was disappointed in the promised undertaking, by the bankruptcy of the principal person concerned in it. He soon also discovered that scandal and political altercation had entirely taken up the attention of the public, and that unless he prostituted his abilities to these objects, he was unlikely to meet with success; he therefore quitted the town with precipitation, and once more returned to his friends in the north. This was the only effort Cunningham ever made to emerge from the abject situation in which youthful imprudence had originally placed him, and where natural apathy and contented indolence had contrived to keep him. In a letter to a friend, he describes himself in these strange terms: — "You may remember my last expedition to London; I think I nay be convinced by it 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 f consequence be weary of it. I am not enterprising, and am tolerably happy in my present situation."

This passage may be truly said to mark the man, as it exhibits the most prominent trait in his character drawn by himself.

In 1762, he published The Contemplatist, but with less success than his elegy. This is supposed to be the worst of all his productions, and was censured with much ridicule in the Monthly Review. It contains little else but glittering and absurd ideas; and had it been published at the present day, might have been mistaken for a satire on those wretched masses of sickly sensibility with which the press is teeming, and which the author of the Baviad and Maeviad has chastised with both justice and humour. About 1765, he published Fortune, an Apologue, in which there are many poetical beauties; and in the course of the following year, he collected his poems into a volume, which was honoured by a long list of subscribers.

For some time he remained a performer in Mr. Digges's company, in Edinburgh, who treated our author with both respect and kindness; and under that gentleman's management, Mr. Cunningham continued until he quitted Scotland. He then returned to Newcastle upon Tyne, a spot which, as it had been his residence for many years, he had originally left with regret, and which to the last moment of his life, he used emphatically to call his home. At this place, and in the neighbouring towns, he earned a scanty, but to him a sufficient subsistence. Although his mode of life was not of the most reputable kind, his blameless and obliging conduct procured him many friends among the most respectable characters in the county, who afforded him their support and protection, and in their society he passed his days without any effort to improve his situation. Being passionately fond of retirement, and happy in the society of a little circle of rural friends, be rejected any solicitation to try once more his fortune in the capital, declaring it to be his wish, that as he had lived, so he might die among his friends in Northumberland; nor was that wish long denied him. A few months before that event, a nervous fever rendered him incapable of any exertion, theatrical and poetical. This afflicting stroke afforded his friend Mr. Slack, an opportunity for the display of his humanity and benevolence. He received him into his house, where he was attended with the utmost care, and supplied with every thing which his condition required. After languishing some time under his friend's hospitable roof, apprehending the approach of his dissolution, he conceived a design of destroying all his papers, which he soon effected by committing them to the flames. Mr. Slack, alarmed at the blaze, hastened to the room in which Cunningham lay, and expressing his surprise at so extraordinary an occurrence, the poor bard, almost breathless, pointing to the fire, whispered, "There there!"

He testified his grateful sense of the benevolence of his friend Slack, who so liberally supplied his wants, and softened the rigour of his last illness, in the following lines addressed to a particular acquaintance, which strongly indicates the impression of his mind on the melancholy occasion.

The Drama and I have shook hands,
We've parted no more to engage,
Submissive I meet her commands,
For nothing can cure me of age.

My sunshine of youth is no more;
My mornings of pleasure are fled;
'Tis painful my fate to endure,
A pension supplies me with bread.

Dependent at length on the man,
Whose fortune I struggled to raise,
I conquer my pride as I can,
His charity merits my praise.

His bounty proceeds from his heart,
'Tis principle prompts the supply,
His friendship exceeds my desert,
And often suppresses a sigh.

He expired at Newcastle, on the 18th of September, 1773, aged forty-four, and was buried in St. John's churchyard, when, to perpetuate his memory, Mr. Slack, whose friendly offices extended beyond the limits of mortality, caused a tombstone to be erected with the following inscription,—

Here lie the remains of
JOHN CUNNINGHAM;
of his excellence as a Pastoral Poet
his works will remain a monument for ages,
after this temporary tribute to esteem
is in dust forgotten.
He died at Newcastle, September IS, 1773,
Aged 44.

The following anecdote is related of Cunningham, which gave birth to a humorous impromptu.

Cunningham lodged at the Golden Lion inn, at Scarborough, in the year 1765. The landlord was a meek, passive husband, and the landlady a perfect termagant. It happened on a certain occasion, that the lady's temper was ruffled by a trivial incident that occurred, and as no soothing could restrain the impetuosity of her passion, she burst into violent exclamations; nor did either husband, guests, or servant, escape the fury of her clamorous tongue. The poet, whose placid temper ill suited with the vehemence of this virago, left the house, and taking the landlord with him into the street, pointed to the sign, and uttered these words:

Friend W***, 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-faced wife.