1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cunningham

Richard Ryan, in Biographica Hibernica. A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland (1819) 2:49-50.



WILLIAM CUNNINGHAM, a poet of some ability, but more worthy of being recorded for his classical attainments. He was of that numerous class of individuals termed "self taught;" and had little to aid him in his literary pursuits, but that portion of steady application which is usually possessed by those who are determined to emerge from the obscurity in which Providence has placed them.

He was born on the 19th of March, 1781, near Dromore, and was "in daily labours of the loom employed," during which period he received the first rudiments of education at one of the Bishop of Dromore's Sunday schools; and had, by reading such books as he could borrow, made so considerable a progress, that in the autumn of 1800, he presented his lordship with a copy of verses, requesting the loan of books. The bishop recognising the indelible marks of genius displayed throughout the poem, determined to rescue him from the miserable drudgery in which he was doomed to toil, which he shortly afterwards did, and placed him at the diocesan school of Dromore, where he sedulously cultivated the flame of learning, which in the midst of sordid society he had cherished, and aided by application the most industrious and diligent, in about two years and a half he had read the principal of the Greek and Latin classics.

Being thus qualified to superintend the education of youth, which had been the object of his wishes, he was received, early in 1804, as an assistant teacher in Dr. Bruce's academy at Belfast, where he was distinguished for the diligence and skill with which he prepared the boys under his care, for their examination prior to the last summer vacation. But by this time such strong symptoms of that disease, "for which medicine hath no cure," had appeared in his slender frame, that he could not any more return to the praiseworthy pursuit in which he had been engaged. His health continued to decline, and he was confined to the house of his poor mother, near the turnpike-gate between Hillsborough and Dromore, where he continued to experience the kindness of his former patron; and he was most generously attended by Sir George Atkinson, an eminent physician in Hillsborough. Every attempt to afford him any effectual relief was beyond the reach of medicine. Consumption had laid her icy finger on him, and he sunk into the arms of death beneath her withering touch; dying on the 27th of December, 1804, having nearly completed his twenty-fourth year.

Thus died William Cunningham, a young man, who, had he lived, would in all probability have reflected honour on his patrons, his country, and himself. Indefatigable in the acquisition of knowledge, amiable and grateful in his disposition and temper, and scrupulously exact in the performance of every moral duty; he presents to posterity a pleasing, yet unfrequent picture of genius without pride, humility without affectation, and talent without vice.