1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:499-500.



ALLAN CUNNINGHAM, a happy imitator of the old Scottish ballads, and a man of various talents, was born at Blackwood, near Dalswinton, Dumfriesshire, December 7, 1784. His father was gardener to a neighbouring proprietor, but shortly afterwards became factor or land-steward to Mr. Miller of Dalswinton, Burns's landlord at Ellisland. Mr. Cunningham had few advantages in his early days, unless it might be residence in a fine pastoral and romantic district, then consecrated by the presence and the genius of Burns. His uncle having attained some eminence as a country builder, or mason, Allan was apprenticed to him, with a view to joining or following him in his trade; but this scheme did not hold, and in 1810 he removed to London, and connected himself with the newspaper press. In 1814 he was engaged as clerk of the works, or superintendent, to the late Sir Francis Chantrey, the eminent sculptor, in whose establishment he continued till his death, October 29, 1842, Mr. Cunningham was an indefatigable writer. He early contributed poetical effusions to the periodical works of the day, and nearly all the songs and fragments of verse in Cromek's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song (1810) are of his composition, though published by Cromek as undoubted originals. Some of these are warlike and Jacobite, some amatory and devotional (the wild lyrical breathings of Covenanting love and piety among the hills), and all of them abounding in traits of Scottish rural life and primitive manners. As songs, they are not pitched in a key to be popular but for natural grace and tenderness, and rich Doric simplicity and fervour, these pseudo-antique strains of Mr. Cunningham are inimitable. In 1822 he published Sir Marmaduke Maxwell, a dramatic poem, founded on Border story and superstition, and afterwards two volumes of Traditional Tales. Three novels of a similar description, but more diffuse and improbable — namely, Paul Jones, Sir Michael Scott, and Lord Roldan, also proceeded from his fertile pen. In 1832 he appeared again as a poet, with a "rustic epic," in twelve parts, entitled The Maid of Elvar. He edited a collection of Scottish songs, in four volumes and an edition of Barns in eight volumes, to which he prefixed a life of the poet, enriched with new anecdotes and information. To Murray's Family Library he contributed a series of Lives of Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which extended to six volumes, and proved the most popular of all his prose works. His last work (completed just two days before his death) was a Life of Sir David Wilkie, the distinguished artist, in three volumes. All these literary labours were produced in intervals from his stated avocations in Chantrey's studio, which most men would have considered ample employment. His taste and attainments in the fine arts were as remarkable a feature in his history as his early ballad strains; and the prose style of Mr. Cunningham, when engaged on a congenial subject, was justly admired for its force and freedom. There was always a freshness and energy about the man and his writings that arrested the attention and excited the imagination, though his genius was but little under the control of a correct or critical judgment. Strong nationality and inextinguishable ardour formed conspicuous traits in his character; and altogether, the life of Mr. Cunningham was a fine example of successful original talent and perseverance, undebased by any of the alloys by which the former is too often accompanied.