1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Cumberland

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:545-46.



RICHARD CUMBERLAND, the dramatist, was author of three novels, Arundel, Henry, and John de Lancaster. The learning, knowledge of society (including foreign manners), and the dramatic talents of this author, would seem to have qualified him in an eminent degree for novel writing; but this is by no means the case. His fame must rest on his comedies of The West Indian, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Jew. Mr. Cumberland was son of Mr. Denison Cumberland, bishop of Clonfort, and afterwards of Kilmore. He was born in 1732, in the Master's Lodge of Trinity college, Cambridge, then occupied by his celebrated maternal grandfather, Dr. Bentley. He was designed for the church; but in return for some services rendered by his father, the young student was appointed private secretary to the Marquis of Halifax, whom he accompanied to Ireland. Through the influence of his patron, he was made crown agent for the province of Nova Scotia; and he was afterwards appointed, by Lord George Germain, secretary to the Board of Trade. The dramatic performances of Cumberland written about this time were highly successful, and introduced him to all the literary and distinguished society of his day. The character of him by Goldsmith in his Retaliation, where he is praised as "The Terence of England, the mender of hearts," is one of the finest compliments ever paid by one author to another. In the year 1780 Cumberland was employed on a secret mission to Spain, in order to endeavour to detach that country from the hostile confederacy against England. He seems to have been misled by the Abbe Hussey, chaplain to the king of Spain; and after residing a twelvemonth at Madrid, he was recalled and payment of his drafts refused. A sum of £5000 was due him; but as Cumberland had failed in the negotiation, and had exceeded his commission through excess of zeal, the minister harshly refused to remunerate him. Thus situated, the unfortunate dramatist was compelled to sell his paternal estate and retire into private life. He took up his abode at Tunbridge, and there poured forth a variety of dramas, essays, and other works, among which were two epic poems, Calvary and The Exodiad, the latter written in conjunction with Sir James Bland Burgess. None of these efforts can be said to have overstepped the line of mediocrity; for though Cumberland had erudition, taste, and accomplishments, he wanted, in all but two or three of his plays, the vivifying power of genius. His Memoirs of his Own Life (for which he obtained £500) are graphic and entertaining, but too many of his anecdotes of his contemporaries will not bear a rigid scrutiny. Mr. Cumberland died on the 7th of May 1811. His first novel, Arundel (1789), was hurriedly composed; but the scene being partly in college and at court, and treating of scenes and characters in high-life, the author drew upon his recollections, and painted vigorously what he had felt and witnessed. His second work, Henry (1795), which he polished with great care, to imitate the elaborate style of Fielding, was less happy; for in low-life Cumberland was not so much at home, and his portraits are grossly overcharged. The character of Ezekiel Dow, a Methodist preacher, is praised by Sir Walter Scott as not only an exquisite but a just portrait. The resemblance to Fielding's Parson Adams is, however, too marked, while the Methodistic traits introduced are, however faithful, less pleasing than the learned simplicity and bonhomie of the worthy parson. Another peculiarity of the author is thus touched upon by Scott: "He had a peculiar taste in love affairs, which induced him to reverse the natural and usual practice of courtship, and to throw upon the softer sex the task of wooing, which is more gracefully, as well as naturally, the province of the man." In these wooing scenes, too, there is a great want of delicacy and propriety: Cumberland was not here a "mender of hearts." The third novel of our author was the work of his advanced years, and is of a very inferior description. It would be unjust not to add, that the prose style of Cumberland in his memoirs and ordinary narratives, where humour is not attempted, is easy and flowing — the style of a scholar and gentleman.