1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 18 (December 1842) 665-66.



Oct. 29. In Lower Belgrave-place, Pimlico, aged 56, Allan Cunningham, esq.

Allan Cunningham, the fourth son of his parents, was born at Blackwood, in Dumfriesshire. Though his family was in humble circumstances, a biographical memoir, published some years since, tells us that one of the poet's ancestors, by taking the side of Montrose, lost for the family their patrimony in Ayrshire. Such a tradition is, in some sort, an inheritance, to one endowed with Allan Cunningham's poetical spirit. Then, again, his father was the possessor of a few good books, and the treasurer of those antique legends, which abound on the banks of the Solway; "a man," to quote the poet's own words, "fond of collecting all that was characteristic of his country, and possessing a warm heart, lively fancy, benevolent humour, and pleasant happy wit." In his schoolmasters Allan was less lucky. The two men under whose care he was successively placed, were sturdy and precise Cameronians. He was taken from school when eleven years old ad apprenticed to a mason. Little calculated as such a position might seen to allow much leisure for cultivation, it is certain, that from an early age Allan must have been a diligent and miscellaneous reader; while to foster his taste for song and tradition, there were "rokkings" and trystes of Nithsdale, at which neither the labour nor the mirth was thought complete without some ditty being sung or some story recited by one of those vagrants — the prototypes of Scott's Edie Ochiltree — who rambled from homestead to homestead maintaining themselves after the fashion of the tale-tellers of the East. The traces of these early studies and early habits were never effaced from his works. While his prose and poetry displayed a variety of fancy, which one poorer in allusion could not have maintained, they never lost, to the last, the echo and the savour of a joyous pastoral district. There is all the freshness and geniality of an open-air life in every line Allan Cunningham wrote, without a trace of that monotony which accompanies the lucubrations of. those who, well read in the pages of Nature, are familiar with few other books besides.

It was about the year 1810 that Allan Cunningham's name began first to be seen in print; one of his earliest appearances being as a contributor to Cromek's "Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song." Most of the old fragments, which there bear his name, were recast, — not a few were fabricated by him. Some of his ballads in this collection are exquisitely tender, touching, and beautiful. In the year 1810, too, Cunningham came to seek his fortune in London. This advanced progressively, thanks to his own prudence and industry. By turns he tried most of the means of which a literary man can avail himself: reported for a newspaper and wrote for the periodicals, particularly the Literary Gazette, the London Magazine, and the Athenaeum. More substantial labours, such as "Sir Marmaduke Maxwell," a drama, — the novels, "Paul Jones," and "Sir Michael Scott," with the "Songs of Scotland," attested in succession his literary industry. Meanwhile his other craft was not forgotten. He obtained a situation in the studio of Sir Francis Chantrey, and this he continued worthily to occupy till his own death.

This association had considerable influence upon the future career of both parties. To Cunningham, though acting in a comparatively humble capacity, Chantrey, there is reason to believe, was deeply indebted for those poetical ideas which raised his most successful sculpture into reputation, and himself into the high road to eminence and wealth. Not that Chantrey was himself destitute of imagination; but that he derived infinite benefit from the hints elicited by collision with his bookkeeper and amanuensis. In another manner, also, the services of the latter were of value to the artist. From his intercourse with the press, Cunningham had ready access to that potential auxiliary; and his pen was indefatigable in proclaiming far and wide the skill of his friend; in fighting his battles where public competition was the order of the day; and, in fact, doing everything to promote his interests which newspaper support could accomplish. Sir Francis by his will made a grateful acknowledgment for this faithful and effectual devotedness.

Comfortably situated in the studio of Chantrey, offering much of congenial pursuit, and bringing him into contact with men of rank and genius, Allan had leisure enough to cultivate his own literary tastes, and in succession to produce a number of estimable works. His own poetry stamped his name with distinction among the minstrels of Scotland; and Scott, Hogg, and others in the foremost rank, at once allowed his brotherhood. His best compositions are sweetly natural as well as national; and many of them stirring and spirited, contrasting finely with the melancholy strains of others, wherein dool and misfortune supersede the martial theme. His "British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects," in five volumes of the Family Library, deservedly became a popular work; since, though its writer falls short of that calm and farsighted knowledge which is every year increasingly demanded of the English critic, the spirit of poetry is every where present in it. One of the memoirs — "The Life of Blake " — is a contribution to our national biography, which will live, as being, after its kind, little less exquisite than Johnson's famous apology for Richard Savage. Besides this work Mr. Cunningham published, during the last fifteen years, a series of illustrations to "Major's National Gallery of Pictures," "The Maid of Elvar," poem; "The Life of Burns;" and "Lord Roldan," a romance. It was generally understood that he had made considerable progress in an extended edition of Johnson's "Lives of the Poets:" and he put the finishing touches to his "Memoirs of Sir David Wilkie" but two days before his own decease. This was caused by a paralytic seizure: for some previous months, however, his health had been very infirm; and the shock of his loss will be mitigated to his attached family, by the remembrance that he passed away from among them peacefully and free from all pain.

We have spoken of his friend Sir David Wilkie, his friend Sir Walter Scott, and we might add a long list of other eminent men who loved and esteemed Allan Cunningham; for few persons ever tasted the felicity of passing through the world with more of friendship and less of enmity than this worthy and well-deserving individual. He was straight-forward, right-minded, and conscientious: true to himself and to others. A rare share of sound common sense accompanied his fanciful faculties; and as a man fit for business and the most ordinary concerns and duties, he was so regular and attentive that it would hardly have been supposed he could so palpably claim a right to exercise or play off the eccentricities of the poet.

In his personal appearance Mr. Cunningham was a tall stout man, somewhat high-shouldered, broad-cheated, and altogether strongly proportioned. He had a noble and expanded brow, and dark expressive eyes, deeply set beneath shaggy yet moveable eyebrows. His accent was strongly Scotch, and he expressed himself when warmed into a subject with eloquence and feeling; but, generally speaking, his manner was quiet and reserved; not, however, timid and gauche like that of Sir David Wilkie, but easy and self-possessed, quiet from a habit of observing rather than a dislike to conversation.

In his domestic and private life he was equally deserving of praise. Blessed with an excellent wife, and a family (including one daughter) not unworthy of their parentage, he saw his sons reach the age of manhood, and embark under happy auspices in the turmoil of life. His eldest, after finishing his education with honour at Addiscomb, is now serving his country in the East, as are also the second and third brothers. His youngest, Peter, has already made himself reputably known to the world of letters.

On the 4th Nov. the remains of this lamented author and artist were removed to the general cemetery in the Harrowroad, for interment in the catacombs of that place. The hearse was followed only by two mourning-coaches. In the first were the deceased's youngest son, his brother Mr. Peter Cunningham, Dr. Tweedie, and Archibald Hastie, esq. M.P.; in the second rode Mr. Lockhart, Mr. Walkinshaw, Mr. Martin, and Mr. John Murray, the bookseller, of Albemarle-street.