In surveying the extensive range of literary talents, it is impossible to overlook those of this gentleman, whom we may consider as a dramatist, as a novelist, as a critic, and as a poet. He is the son of the late Dr. Denison, bishop of Kilmore, in Ireland, whose merits, in that country, were deemed so great, that, as a tribute of grateful acknowledgment, the corporation of Dublin presented him with the freedom of that city; an honour which, till then, had never been conferred on any personage whatever below the dignity of Lord Lieutenant. His great grandfather, likewise a learned bishop, wrote several pieces, among which was that, entitled, "De Legibus Naturae." His mother was Joanna, daughter of Dr. Bentley, master of Trinity College; Byron, in his Idyll, "My time O ye Muses," has transmitted her name to future ages.
The first place of public instruction to which he resorted was Bury school, where he was placed under the care of the Rev. Arthur Kinsman; but, on the retirement of that gentleman from that post, he proceeded to Westminster, and thence to Trinity College, at the early period of fourteen years. While a very young man, Mr. Cumberland, like Mr. Hayley, wrote some verses on the birth-day of the Prince of Wales. During his station of an under-graduate, his attention was directed entirely to the more abstruse studies, so that he was called up to dispute before he had even commenced his course of Euclid. But when the mathematics once became the object of his study, he pursued it with such rapidity of genius, and acquired such celebrity for his profound knowledge, that, when he entered the lists, crowds attended, who listened with admiration to the astonishing youth. Nor were his labours left unrewarded by the University, who honoured him with the first academical dignity, at the time that he received his degree of bachelor of arts. In addition to this, he was also chosen a fellow of the college, at the age of nineteen, with this distinction, that the appointment took place a year before the customary time. In the sequel, his prospects in life taking another direction than that which his forefathers had followed, the election as one of the two lay-fellows of that college fell upon him, as an inducement for him not to quit the academic life. By the friendship of the late Lord Sackville, better known by the title of Lord George Germaine, he was introduced to the office of trade and plantations, where he succeeded the late Mr. Pownal, as secretary, in which post he continued till the suppression of that appointment by Mr. Burke's bill, when he retired on a pension.
During a period of twenty years, he was connected with the late Earl of Halifax; and, on his present Majesty's accession to the throne, he attended that nobleman, on his appointment to the honour of lord lieutenant of Ireland, to that country, in the capacity of under secretary. Of his self-denial and disinterestedness we have a striking proof in his refusal of a baronetcy offered him by his patron, and in his soliciting the bishopric of Clonfert for his father.
With respect to his family, we learn that he married Elizabeth, the daughter of George Ridge, by whom he had eight children, four sons and four daughters. The former all followed the honourable profession of arms, two engaging themselves in the army, and the other two preferring the navy; a singular circumstance here is, that in each line, one has paid the debt of nature, and in each one yet survives. One of his daughters died at a very early period of life, two are married, and the fourth is still unmarried. The last was born in Madrid, whither Mr. Cumberland was sent in the year 1780, on some important national charge, but without appearing in a public character.
A fatality not uncommon to patriots even of the greatest integrity, befel Mr. Cumberland in this mission, by the cruel and treacherous conduct of his superiors at home. Whatever its actual nature, and the motives may have been from which it originated, it would be futile here to pretend to unravel, all being idle conjecture, and Mr. Cumberland himself having always been extremely reserved on this point. At this time the unfortunate riots of London commenced, which at once frustrated all his labours in the execution of his mission, in the very moment when the most sanguine success seemed on the point of crowning his exertions.
During his residence in that country, his health was most sensibly impaired, partly by the climate and partly by too close an application to his duties, exclusive of the impression which the ungenerous proceeding abovementioned must have left upon his mind. In addition to these distresses, he experienced the loss of his situation as secretary to the Board of Trade, on the suppression of that commission in consequence of Mr. Burke's bill, as before mentioned.
Few men have experienced a more singular combination of untoward scenes, some of which singly were sufficient to have borne down many by their weight. His sufferings seem to have been poured down in full measure; but there was still another draught to be taken from the bitter cup, and one which, in its effects, could not fail to increase the afflictions of his body and mind. A person advanced in years, with whom he was connected only by the tie of relationship, but without any particular intimacy farther, presented him with the deeds of his estates, with the injunction, that he should cause a transfer to be made to him of whatever he might be possessed at the time of his death. But here Mr. Cumberland gave another proof of the most disinterested generosity, by his refusal of this offer, unless it were made on the express condition, that it should always be optional with the donor to reclaim his gift at any future period. After a lapse of ten years, during which their friendship had existed unalloyed, his relation suddenly thought proper, from private motives, to reclaim his donation and papers, with which our author immediately complied, to the great injury of his own fortune.
Thus deprived of his situation in his official capacity, and of the prospect of an easy, independent fortune, he now appears to have applied himself entirely to those literary pursuits, from which the republic of letters have derived such considerable advantage. In the year 1792, he published "Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries;" for an account of which are the Monthly Review, vol. lxvii. p. 50. If we consider the various matters treated of by him in the course of his literary career, his publications of "The Observer," his novels, dramatic and poetical works, particularly his chef d'oeuvre, his epic poem, denominated "Calvary," we are almost at a loss which to admire most, whether the diversity or fertility of his genius, in which he has been equaled but by few, and surpassed scarcely by any author in so short a space. With respect to his dramatic writings, of which we already have nearly forty, we observe that, considering their number, merits, and exquisite execution, Mr. Cumberland certainly ranks high as a dramatic author. As a proof of the favourable reception they have met with from the public, it is necessary to remark, that of this number, the comedy of "The Dependant" is reported to be the only exception which experienced total censure from a British audience.
It is but natural to suppose, that such a continual flow of public applause should attract the jaundiced eye of invidiousness, an occurrence by no means rare in the republic of letters; thus we find him occasionally charged with a certain degree of haste and inattention in his writings. To this it maybe replied, that if an opinion be formed of their merit merely from the great rapidity in their succession, compared with the tardy productions of many authors, without examining them closely, and without considering the fertility of his genius, there might appear to be some foundation for the charge. But of any precipitation, in fact, no one can decide, except those who were in the habits of the closest intimacy with him, and who are, therefore, the best judges of the labour which he bestowed on his performances. Like many other men of great talents, he has frequently been severely handled by illiberal criticism, and borne it with manly patience, and without expressing any resentment. The best opinion may be formed of his character from the following passage in his "Observers," where, in speaking of himself, he says,
"I have passed a life of many labours, and now being near its end, have little to boast but of an inherent good-will towards mankind, which disappointments, injuries, and age itself, have not been able to diminish. It has been the chief aim of all my attempts to reconcile and endear man to man; I love my country and contemporaries to a degree of enthusiasm, that I am not sure is perfectly defensible; though, to do them justice, each in their turns have taken some pains to cure me of my partiality. It is, however, one of those stubborn habits which people are apt to excuse in themselves, by calling it a second nature."
Of his writings, the greater part of which are dramatic, the following will be found a correct list.
Summer's Tale, a musical comedy, acted at Covent Garden.
Brothers, one of the most sterling comedies on the English stage, acted at ditto.
West Indian, a comedy, acted at Drury Lane, in 1771, at that time reconciled him with Garrick.
Fashionable Lover, a comedy, at ditto, in 1772.
Amelia, a musical entertainment, altered.
Choleric Man, a comedy, at ditto, in 5775, bearing some affinity to Richard Steele's Tender Husband.
Note of Hand, or a Trip to Newmarket, a farce, at ditto, in 1774.
Timon of Athens, altered from Shakespeare, at ditto.
A volume of odes, in 4to. published in 1776.
Banishment of Cicero, in 4to. published in the year 1761. This piece was refused to be brought on the stage by Garrick, being rather a dramatic poem than a tragedy.
Battle of Hastings, a tragedy, at Drury Lane.
The Duke of Milan, a tragedy, altered.
Calypso, an opera, the music by Butler, at Covent Garden.
The Bondman, a tragedy, altered.
The Widow of Delphi, a comic opera, at ditto.
The Walloons, a comedy, at ditto.
The Mysterious Husband, a tragedy, in prose, at ditto, in the year 1783.
The Carmelite, a tragedy, at Drury Lane, in 1785.
The Natural Son, a comedy, at Drury Lane, published in 1785.
In the same year, Mr. Cumberland published a character of his deceased friend, Lord Viscount Sackville.
The School for Widows, a comedy, at Covent Garden.
The Country Attorney, a comedy, at the Haymarket.
The Armourer, a comic opera, at Covent Garden, in 1793.
The Arab, a tragedy, acted for the benefit of Mr. Henderson.
The Jew, a comedy, at Drury Lane, in 1794, most deservedly esteemed; being written with the laudable design of removing the stigma which accompanies that most persecuted people.
The Wheel of Fortune, a comedy, at ditto, in 5795.
First Love, a comedy, at ditto, in 1795.
The Dependant, a comedy, at ditto.
The Duke of York, a play, in three acts, at Covent Garden, published in 1796.
Don Pedro, a play, at the Haymarket.
The Last of the Family, a comedy, at Drury Lane, published in 1797.
The Spanish Painters, with an accurate descriptive catalogue of the paintings in the king of Spain's palace at Madrid, 2 vols. published in 1787.
Arundel, in 2 vols. published in 1787. He is accused, but on very slight foundation, as seeming to palliate, in this novel, adultery and duelling.
Henry, in 4 vols. 1795.
Calvary, an epic poem, 1 vol. in 4to. published in 1792; but lately republished in a portable size, with beautiful engravings.
The Box Lobby Challenge, published in 1794.
Various tracts, controversial and political, with some few poems, mostly juvenile.
Prologues, Epilogues, &c. &c. pretty numerous.
We believe he has written one or two pieces between the last mentioned period, and 1804, when he produced the Sailor's Daughter; but we cannot recal them to our remembrance.
The Observer, first published in 1785, in 5 vols. These essays abound with pleasing and instructive information, and discover extensive reading. On mentioning this performance, the learned author of the Pursuits of Literature, observes,
"Richard Cumberland, esq. is an author of various talents, and of considerable learning. It is scarcely necessary to enumerate his compositions, in particular his dramatic works, which have received the sanction of public esteem. In my, opinion he has done very great service to the cause of morality and of literature. He is author of a work called The Observer, and from the translations in that work of the fragments of the Greek comic writers, I believe all learned readers will agrees that he is the only man in the kingdom (with whom we are publicly acquainted) equal to the translation of Aristophanes. I wish it were to be the amusement of his retired hours. I shall never think he has been 'public too long,' but as he has quitted the stage, (as he affirms himself,) such a translation would be an easy, yet an adequate and honourable employment for a man of unquestionable genius, versatility of talents, knowledge of the world, and a consummate master of the poetical language of our best ancient dramatic writers. Let us hope that Aristophanes may yet be our own."
The portrait which is given of Mr. Cumberland, in our frontispiece, may be relied on as a most correct likeness, it having been copied from a drawing in the possession of an intimate friend, to whom it was not long since presented.