1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

Bryan Waller Procter, in "Poetry — Cunningham's Songs" Edinburgh Review 47 (January 1828) 201-04.



From the songs themselves we cannot afford to make any extracts; for if we were once to venture ourselves in that flowery wilderness, we know not when we should escape. We intended, out of regard for Mr. C., to have given one or two of his own performances; but unluckily his best pieces are the longest — and we could not please ourselves with any specimen of admissible dimensions. He is a good imitator of Burns — and that is no light praise; but his genius is intrinsically imitative, and we cannot well guess what manner of poet he would have been, if he had been obliged to work without models.

We will give one song after all — and it shall neither be from Burns nor Cunningham, but from an obscure living writer of the name of Laidlaw, of whom even our collector has not told us anything but that this simple ditty is from his hand. It is a fair example, we think, of the lowly pathetic; and though it may appear dull and vulgar to our learned readers of the south, we are so persuaded that it will go to the heart of many a village-bred Scotchman in remote regions, and all conditions of society, that, for their sake, we willingly submit ourselves to the ridicule of our more fastidious neighbours — It is called "Lucy's Flitting," and runs thus:

'Twas when the wan leaf frae the birk tree was fa'in',
And Martinmas dowie had wound up the year,
That Lucy row'd up her wee kist wi' her a' in,
And left her auld master, and neibours sae dear.
For Lucy had i' the glen a' the simmer;
She cam there afore the flow'r bloom'd on the pea;
An orphan was she, and they had been gude till her,—
Sure that was the thing brought the tear in her ee.

She gaed by the stable, whare Jamie was stannin',
Right sair was his kind heart the flittin' to see
Fare ye weel, Lucy! quo Jamie, and ran in.—
The gatherin tears trickled fast frae her ee.
As down the burn side she gaed slow wi' her flittin',
Fare ye weel, Lucy! was ilka bird's sang
She heard the craw sayin't, high on the tree sittin',
And robin was chirpin't the brown leaves amang.

O what is't that pits my poor heart in a flutter?
And what gars the tear come sae fast to my ee?
If I was nae ettled to be onie better,
Then what gars me wish onie better to be?
I'm just like a lammie that loses its mither;
Nae mither nor frien' the poor lammie can see;
I fear I hae left my bit heart a'thegither;
Nae wonder the tear fa's sae fast frae my ee.

Wi' the rest o' my claes I hae row'd up the ribbon,
The bonnie blue ribbon that Jamie ga'e me:
Yestreen when he ga'e me't, and saw I was sabbin',
I'll never forget the wae blink o' his ee.
Tho' now he said naething but Fare ye weel, Lucy!
It made me I neither could speak, hear, nor see:
He could na say mair, but just Fare ye weel, Lucy!
Yet that I will mind to the day that I die.

The lamb likes the gowan wi' dew when it's droukit;
The hare likes the brake, and the braird on the lea;
But Lucy likes Jamie; — she turn'd and she lookit;
She thought the dear place she wad never mair see.
Ah! weel may young Jamie gang dowie and cheerless,
And weel may he greet on the bank o' the burn!
His bonnie sweet Lucy, sae gentle and peerless,
Lies cauld in her grave, and will never return!

Before finally parting with Mr. C. as a collector and editor of songs, we may observe, that we have often met with him before, in the capacity of an original author. He has indited a strange, half-romantic, half-pastoral tragedy, called Sir Marmaduke Maxwell; and he has more lately given to the world two very extraordinary tales or novels — the one entitled Paul Jones, the other Sir Michael Scott. In all these works, there are the same merits and the same defects — a profusion of fancy and a penury of common sense — a prodigality of imagery, startling incidents, and fantastic characters — with an utter want of probability, nature, or sustained interest. He has all the ornaments of genius, in short, without its solid supports; and his books bear the same relation to works of sterling merit in the same department, that an assortment of spices and garnishings would do to a splendid feast, or a collection of gilded capitals and sculptured mouldings to a magnificent palace. In Paul Jones alone there is ten times as much glittering description, ingenious metaphor, and emphatic dialogue, as would enliven and embellish a work of twice the size; while, from the extravagance of the fictions, and the utter want of coherence in the events, or human interest in the characters, it becomes tedious, by the very redundance and excess of its stimulating qualities. Sir Michael Scott, again — being all magic, witchcraft and mystery — is absolutely illegible; and much excellent invention and powerful fancy is thrown away on delineations which revolt by their monstrous exaggerations, and tire out by their long-continued soaring above the region of human sympathy.

Mr. C. is beyond all question a man of genius, taste and feeling; but he is deficient in judgment and knowledge of the world, to a degree which seems to unfit him for pleasing those who belong to it, by any long work. To interest our fellow creatures effectually, we must have a fellow feeling of all their passions and infirmities. It is the province of genius to rise to the highest part of the sphere which these inhabit, and at times even to soar beyond it. But it is the part of judgment to retain our flights, for the most part, within its circuit; and, however loftily our fictions are reared, to let it be seen and felt that they rest on the solid earth at last, and are connected with upper air by gradations which all can understand. There is nothing more remarkable than the different proportions in which these intellectual faculties have been dealt out to different individuals. It is but rarely that they are seen so happily balanced as in Shakspeare and the author of Waverley. The most ordinary defect is in the more ethereal qualities of high feeling, fancy, and imagination. But these also we sometimes find in excess — as in the case of Keates and Cunningham, and many of the German inventors.