1891 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

Samuel Smiles, "Allan Cunnintham" A Publisher and his Friends: Memoir of John Murray (1891) 2:152-54.



Allan Cunningham, who had already obtained some eminence as a poet and dramatist, made the acquaintance of Mr. Murray through Mr. Chantrey, the sculptor, of whose establishment he was the chief clerk and overseer. The first letter we find of a long and intimate correspondence between Allan Cunningham and Mr. Murray is dated January 1823, in which he offers "a medal head of Sir Walter Scott by a young Scottish lad of the name of Bain." He proceeds to say that he was "afraid Lord Byron felt displeased with me — an ordinary person — for presenting my little book of verse to one so distinguished by rank and genius as himself, for he has taken no notice of it."

Allan Cunningham was about this time, meditating a drama or a romance, as will be seen from the following letter to Mr. Murray on the subject, but it does not appear that the proposal was accepted:

Mr. Allan Cunningham to John Murray.

Eccleston Street, Pimlico, April 26th, 1823.

DEAR SIR,

I have to thank you for your very welcome present of our pleasant historian of New York; I have seldom found so much amusement in a book of that kind, and certainly never met with illustrations which embodied so truly the peculiar and happy spirit of the author.

I am afraid you will think I take an ungenerous advantage of your kindness in adding to my thanks something about myself. I have long felt like Burns the wish to write "a Book or sing a song at least," and this I have accomplished with more success than I had any right to expect; but here I have no wish to stop. I am anxious to put forth all my strength, my knowledge of nature, and character, and all my sympathy with the purer feelings and superstitious beliefs of my native land. I wish to put them forth in a Poem or a Prose Romance. Something of this kind it has long been my wish to do, and Sir Walter Scott was so good as urge me to imagine a Romantic Drama, and fill it with lyrics; and he went farther — he pointed out a subject. It is true that in poetry and also in prose there are giants in the land, and by no person could such a circumstance be more felt than by the illustrious friend who gave me this counsel. To a mind which thinks and sees and feels for itself there is enough of originality in nature, and, possest as my heart is with an impressive subject, I would like to evoke the demon by poetry or by prose.

I could certainly find a way to the world for such a work as I shall write, and also obtain a moderate recompense; but need I tell you the reasons which induce me to think of you? The external grace which you cast over all your productions, the certainty of their winning public favour if they deserve it, and the liberality which you show to all those, and they are many, who are so fortunate as walk in the highway to fame, of which the English name is Albemarle Street.

I know that to many, a Book written by one in humble life suggests immediate images of rudeness and vulgarity. It is true I have not been so well educated as some of the foremost favourites of literature; but there are two kinds of knowledge and two kinds of taste — of the latter there is the natural and the acquired — the first is the more spirited monitor and the latter the dullest. Of education there is the kind infused by the stripes or the persuasion of a teacher, and that which is obtained by observing men, and musing on nature and seeking for knowledge among the works of the wise and the gifted which are open to all. In such a school has my mind been disciplined, and I can see nothing to interpose between a scholar of this sort and the greatest purity of thought and delicacy of expression. I have read much and observed much and stored my mind with the characters and feelings and actions and superstitious beliefs of the poetic people of a region into which the muse has but partially penetrated.

If you put faith in me, may I ask what encouragement you would offer for a Dramatic Romance in blank verse of three hundred octavo pages, or a Prose Romance in three volumes.

I remain, Dear Sir,

Your very faithful Servant,

ALLAN CUNNINGHAM.