1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

William Maginn, "Gallery of Literary Characters: Allan Cunningham, Esq." Fraser's Magazine 6 (September 1832) 249.



Honest Allan Cunningham! Such is the flattering sobriquet by which the worthy fellow who sits on the opposite page is generally known; and no title is better deserved. We think that his very face is almost a sufficient guarantee for its justice.

Allan's biography is sufficiently known to excuse us from the task of writing it over again. Like Ben Jonson, he began with trowel and mallet, which he abandoned for divine poetry; — not, however, abandoned as completely as Rare Ben, because he has wielded them, or superintended their wielding, in a higher department; and, instead of helping to build up houses for the savages of Nithisdate and the adjoining districts, acting now as aide-de-camp to Chantrey, it is his province to assist in bringing forth the features of those distinguished individuals whom the public delighteth to honour, or who delight to honour themselves, by setting up graven images of heads, frequently as brainless and impenetrable as the marble out of which they are hewn, for no small consideration. In this post we believe that Allan has found a resting-place for his maturing years, more comfortable than those in which the Muses are too often fond of quartering their votaries.

He has himself expressed his dissatisfaction with his own Scotch novels, as compared with those of Sir Walter Scott; but we must not allow him to make a comparison so odious. "Who," says the Greek proverb, "is to compete with Apollo in the bow?" We admit with, or rather without pleasure, that we do not exactly recollect what all the novels of our friend Allan are about; but we have a misty recollection of their being very fine matters, full of chivalry, and Scotland, and clouds, and warriors, and Cameronians, in the most approved Caledonian fashion; and of Paul Jones we have already recorded a most favourable opinion, which we have no idea of retracting in this our infallible magazine. Nor, though we have reviewed his Maid of Elvar, and read with singular delight his Sir Marmaduke Maxwell, and other dramatic compositions, full, as Sir Walter says, of "fine passages that lead to nothing," are these more lengthy compositions impressed with much vivid distinctness upon our mental retina. But his songs, who shall forget? Who that has any taste for ballad poetry will have let slip from his memory those beautiful specimens of that style of composition in its most exquisite perfection, which, under the pretence of being fragments of Galloway and Nithisdale songs, were published by an especial ass of the name of Cromek, on whom Allan — in that particular, not honest Allan, but about as dishonest as Chatterton — palmed them as genuine. They are simply chefs-d'oeuvre, and are almost, but not entirely, equalled by the Jacobite relics, which he at another period, but in a similar mood of humbug and inspiration, gave to the not-altogether-unsuspecting, nor the altogether-in-such-arts-unpractised Hogg. It is foolish to compare either him or Hogg with Burns — they are all three Scotch, and all three makers of verses; but there the similarity ends. Cunningham has his own merits — he will never be able to write a song with Burns: but Burns never could have turned off a ballad like him.

So far for Allan's inner man. In his outer, he is one of the Anakim of literature — Doric in the proportions of his frame as in his poetry — a strapping specimen of Caledonia stern and wild, who, if he be not a great deceiver, would be as well able to maintain his claim to the crown of the causey as Dandie Dinmont himself; and if we do not mistake, he takes care that every one of his heroes, in all his works, both of prose and verse, should be as ably built as himself — all well-qualified members of the six-feet club, et supra. In all other matters he is a good-natured, good-humoured, good-hearted fellow, jogging on through the world with merited good fortune, increasing every year, and, we are happy to say, seeing those who are to follow him in his name raising themselves to well-won honours and launching in the career of life with every hope and prospect of deserved success.

And sue gude night, my bonny man!
And sae gude night, quo' she;
And it stouter chiel in a' Scotland
Ye'll never live to see.