1773 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Cunningham

Anonymous, "Memoirs of the late Mr. John Cunningham" Morning Chronicle (14 October 1773).



When we hear of the death of a person who has signalized himself in the circle of genius — when especially we have from that person experienced sensations of uncommon admiration and delight — sensible of the loss we have sustained, we immediately find ourselves interested in his private concerns, and impatient to become acquainted with every anecdote of his rise and progress in life, which may elucidate his real manners and character. It is in order to gratify this natural curiosity, that the writer of the following narrative has now sat down. The attempt, he trusts, is laudable; and if it should be found imperfect, he is nevertheless assured, that it will not be found erroneous.

The illiberal and uncandid — those, in short, who have not learned to divest themselves of nationality and prejudiced — will esteem it a poor recommendation when they are told, that the worthy and ingenious subject of these memoirs was by birth an Irishman, and by profession a Player: by such it will be deemed incredible, that labouring, as Mr. Cunningham actually did labour, under both these "disadvantages," he should nevertheless shine forth the ornament of his fraternity, in private life, and be revered, not only as the first of poets, but of men, in the age he lived [author's note: In the pastoral walk, it ought to be added; for though Mr. Cunningham's miscellaneous pieces are possessed of no small merit, yet he never put any value upon them himself. It is for his singular talent at description, therefore, that the laurel is chiefly due to him. It may not be improper in this place to observe, that the great similarity to be found in the stile and manner of Shenstone and Cunningham is entirely to be imputed to a congeniality of sentiment and taste, the latter having written many of his most admired pastorals before he had read a line by the poet of the Leasowes].

Mr. John Cunningham was the youngest son of a once eminent wine-merchant in the city of Dublin; who owed his birth to Scotch parents, as did the mother of our poet also, whose maiden name was Fleming. He had hardly reached his twelfth year, when his poetical genius began to dawn; and hardly had it dawned, when it burst forth with an almost meridian splendour; as is evident from several ballads, and other little pieces, which, though published by him anonymously during that boyish period, are yet honoured to this hour, with the public admiration and esteem. Be this, however, as it may, they were thought no small ornament, in those days, to the Dublin papers; "and the praises (as he has often since acknowledged to his intimate friends) which he used to hear bestowed on his "crude" efforts, not only by strangers, but by his own family and friends, particularly by a mother who doated on him, excited transports in his breast, which, though he dared not to reveal them, confirmed him, however, a votary of the Muses."

About the age of seventeen he produced a "petite piece," which, under the title of Love in a Mist, or The Lass of Spirit, was repeatedly represented on the Dublin stage, and which, though it added, by means, indeed, rather unwarrantable, to the literary fame of Mr. Garrick, was of material disservice to its author [author's note: The Lying Valet is evidently borrowed from it; but as Love in a Mist was hardly known beyond the purlieus of Dublin, Mr. G. did not think it necessary to acknowledge whence he had taken his plot]. By procuring him a free passport into the Theatre and Green Room, it occasioned an intimacy between him and the performers — an intimacy which at length terminated in a disgust to the plodding life of a tradesman, and an ambition to try his talents for the stage.

Let us not with rigour censure this indiscretion; let us rather, while with candour we acknowledge his error, bewail the youthful inexperience, and (if it may be so expressesd) the "poetical enthusiasm" which led him to the commission of it.

In an evil hour he accordingly took a stolen leave of his family and friends, and embarked for England, where he commenced itinerant player, with a success that by no means answered his expectations. Indeed his figure was totally against him, either for tragedy or genteel comedy: in the petit-maitre cast, however, he was tolerable, and in his favourite walk, the mock French character, he has not been excelled even upon the London theatres.

But to dwell upon the merits of Mr. Cunningham as a performer, or upon his private anecdotes as a man, would be a task equally idle and unnecessary: the former did not, upon the whole, exceed mediocrity; and the latter (if we except the singular simplicity of his manners, and the exemplary tenor of his whole deportment) would exhibit nothing but a routine of the common transactions in life.

Long he had not engaged in the theatrical life, when he became sensible of his imprudence; but pride — a mistaken pride perhaps — forbade him to return into the bosom of his parents; and ere he had time to work himself into a resolution of obeying the calls of duty, he received intelligence that his father had become insolvent. This news was soon after followed by that of his death. Still, however, an asylum was open to our fugitive in the house of an affectionate brother, who repeatedly urged him to return. But the idea of a state of dependence was of all others the most repugnant to the disposition of Mr. Cunningham. What he had originally adopted from choice, he now found himself obliged to persist in from necessity; and, after having experienced various vicissitudes in the North of England, we find him, in the year 1761, a performer at Edinburgh, under the direction of Mr. Love. Here he wrote some of his best pieces: it is at this period that, as a poet, he also began to emerge from obscurity.

Willing to snatch at every opportunity that might extricate him from a profession in which nature had denied him the qualities to shine, and for which he had long lost all relish, he chearfully adopted the advice of his friends; and, in hopes of obtaining a more comfortable subsistence in the world of letters, he accordingly repaired from Edinburgh to London. Those hopes, however, were vain. Hardly had he set foot in the capital, when he was saluted with the intelligence that Mr. P—, who was to have been his employer, had that very morning stopped payment. But this was not his only disappointment. To his utter amazement and mortification, he found, that scandal and political altercation, the very excrement (if the term may be permitted) of literature, were the only staple commodities with the London booksellers; and that, unless he would deal largely with them in those articles, he could have no prospect of a settled custom. Cunningham was incapable of prostituting his pen; with precipitation, therefore, he bade adieu to the bustle, the pollution of London, after a short, though (to his contemplative mind) a disagreeable stay in it, and once more returned into Caledonia.

From Mr. Digges, who succeeded to Mr. Love in the direction of the Edinburgh theatre, and from Mrs. Bellamy, who partook with him in it, did our poet first experience the smiles of patronage. It was the patronage, indeed, of persons who were in a state of dependence, and, of course, claimants for protection themselves: but in exerting themselves as they did, they shewed, that it was at least their wish to serve him effectually. Equally charmed with his talents and his virtues, (rarely as they had ever met with a tolerable degree of either in their own dissipated walk of life) they on all occasions distinguished him from the herd of his fraternity: the house and table of Mr. Digges he was taught to consider as his own; and it is but justice to add, that he amply testified his grateful sense of this uncommon predilection of the manager, by furnishing him with several occasional prologues, epilogues, and other such dramatic "morceaux," few of which, in point of classical expression, and real "vis comica," have yet been excelled.

The prejudice against the gentlemen of the sock and buskin is peculiarly violent in Scotland. On his first arrival in Edinburgh, Mr. Cunningham met with no other reception from the inhabitants than what is common to every inferior performer — indifference and disregard; but as by degrees increased the fame of his writings, so by degrees increased their knowledge of the amiable delicacy of his conversation, the strictly moral rectitude of his conduct, and with it an admiration for the poet, a respect for the man.

Mr. Digges finding it necessary, from various causes, to relinquish the management of the theatre, our poet 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 his last breath, he used emphatically to call his "home."

There, and in the neighbouring towns, he earned a scanty, though (crowned as it was with content) to him a comfortable subsistence. Precarious, and rather unreputable as this mode of life may be deemed, Mr. Cunningham, however, by enjoying the caresses of some of the most respectable characters in the country, found it infinitely less so than the generality of his brother performers.

There, too, he now began to amuse himself in collecting together his scattered pieces, and in preparing them for the press. Soon as this his intention was known, his friends, and (without exaggeration it may be added) the literary part of the public at large, seemed to vie for the honour of appearing foremost in the list of subscribers to his proposed volume. Mr. Garrick, among the rest, seemed to be desirous of this honour; he likewise seemed to have the interest of the author at heart: circumstances, which Mr. Love, who was now a performer under Mr. Garrick, did not fail to communicate to Mr. Cunningham, and which accordingly produced, with the work, an elegant dedication of it to the manager of Drury-lane theatre.

A more respectable establishment upon the stage, or at least a substantial compliment, was now expected for our poet — less sanguinely indeed by himself than by his friends. But their expectations of either were false. Mr. Garrick, on being waited upon with the dedication-copy, testified, in the warmest terms, his admiration of the work, while he expressed his astonishment, that a man possessed of such rare abilities as Mr. Cunningham should have been so long hidden, as it were, from the world — and he sent him two guineas.

To any other man, perhaps, than Mr. Cunningham, this insult would have been unpardonable. But the soul of our poet was all meekness. In a fit of honest contempt, however, when the two solitary bits of gold were put into his hands, he determined to send back the paltry present to London with directions to apply it to the newly-established fund for decayed actors. This project he afterwards relinquished, in favour of objects, not less deserving of his beneficence, and more immediately under his eye: and the two guinea reward of Mr. Garrick for the dedication (written, too, with his express approbation) of a volume of poems, which will live when even the name of a Garrick shall be no more, was actually devoted to charitable purposes.

At this period — Oh! shame, where is thy blush? — Mr. Garrick rolled about in his gilded chariot, possessed of an almost princely independence, while Mr. Cunningham, contented to travel on foot, could not, with all his oeconomy, call himself the master, comparatively speaking, of a shilling beyond what he continued to earn by his profession. Yet that profession was common to both. — Whence then this amazing difference in their fortunes? — The question is easily solved. Mr. Garrick, tho' an inferior poet, was, however, a superior actor; and the neglected Cunningham, though a superior poet, had the misfortune to be ranked an inferior actor.

His poems being published, and his fame as a pastoral writer established, Mr. Cunningham seems now to have relapsed into his native indolence and inactivity, and to have relinquished every idea of farther preferment in life. Passionately fond of rural retirement, and happy in the society of a little circle of chosen friends, he rejected every solicitation to try, once more, his fortune in the capital, declaring that, as he lived, so he might die among his friends in Northumberland; nor was that wish denied him. From a long-rooted disorder in his nerves, a lingering illness ensued, which, on the 18th day of September, 1773, being the forty-first or forty-second year of his age, terminated the earthly career of a man, whose life and writings rendered him an honour to humanity.

Farewell, thou POET OF NATURE — and, what is yet more to thy praise, thou MAN OF SPOTLESS PROBITY, OF UNCONFINED BENEVOLENCE! — CUNNINGHAM, farewel! — Even now, at the very repetition of thy name, a tear will force to itself a passage: but it is a tear of virtuous sensibility; and is there an individual who knew thee, that will not, with cordial sympathy, join in it — that will not add, in the words of thy favourite Shakspeare, "Take thee for all in all, we scarce shall look upon thy like again?"—