1766 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Cunningham

Anonymous, Review of Cunningham, Poems, chiefly Pastoral; Critical Review 21 (March 1766).



Several of these Poems have occasionally appeared in print. The greatest part of our readers must have seen the ballad intitled, "A man to my mind," which, we find, is one of the productions of this writer. The present collection consists of pastorals, odes, prologues, epilogues, and other short compositions. The author has not extended any of his poetical essays to a considerable length; nor has he attempted to write on many elevated or serious subjects; we therefore do not apprehend that we shall depreciate his merit if we look upon his works as agreeable trifles. His numbers are generally easy and flowing, and his descriptions picturesque. In this respect the following thought, on the rising moon, is admirable:

The moon, preceded by the breeze
That bade the clouds retire,
Appears, among the tufted trees,
A phoneix nest on fire.

Nature presents an infinite variety of beautiful images to the view of all mankind. It is the business of the poet to select the most agreeable and romantic, and place them in a clear and striking light. In this he chiefly displays his abilities, and distinguishes himself from the mechanical composer of rhimes. Let the reader bear this observation in his mind, and he will perceive, by the following composition, that Mr. Cunningham is no contemptible poet.

DAY: A Pastoral. MORNING.
In the barn the tenant cock,
Close to partlet perch'd on high,
Briskly crows, (the shepherd's clock!)
Jocund that the morning's nigh.

Swiftly from the mountain's brow,
Shadows, nurs'd by night, retire:
And the peeping sun-beam, now,
Paints with gold the village spire.

Philomel forsakes the thorn,
Plaintive where she prates at night;
And the lark, to meet the morn,
Soars beyond the shepherd's sight.

From the low-roof'd cottage ridge,
See the chatt'ring swallow spring;
Darting through the one-arch'd bridge,
Quick she dips her dappled wing.

Now the pine-tree's waving top,
Gently greets the morning gale:
Kidlings, now, begin to crop
Daisies, on the dewey dale.

From the balmy sweets, uncloy'd,
(Restless till her task be done)
Now the busy bee's employ'd
Sipping dew before the sun.

Trickling through the crevic'd rock,
Where the limpid stream distills,
Sweet refreshment waits the flock
When 'tis sun-drove from the hills.

Colin's for the promis'd corn
(E're the harvest hopes are ripe)
Anxious; — whilst the huntsman's horn,
Boldly sounding, drowns his pipe.

Sweet, — O sweet, the warbling throng,
On the white emblossom'd spray!
Nature's universal song
Echos to the rising day.

NOON.
Fervid on the glitt'ring flood,
Now the noontide radiance glows:
Drooping o'er its infant bud,
Not a dew-drop's left the rose.

By the brook the shepherd dines,
From the fierce meridian heat,
Shelter'd, by the branching pines,
Pendant o'er his grassy seat.

Now the flock forsakes the glade,
Where uncheck'd the sun-beams fall;
Sure to find a pleasing shade
By the ivy'd abbey wall.

Echo in her airy round,
O'er the river, rock and hill,
Cannot catch a single sound,
Save the clack of yonder mill.

Cattle court the zephirs bland,
Where the streamlet wanders cool;
Or with languid silence stand
Midway in the marshy pool.

But from mountain, dell, or stream,
Not a flutt'ring zephir springs:
Fearful lest the noontide beam
Scorch its soft, its silken wings.

Not a leaf has leave to stir,
Nature's lull'd — serene — and still!
Quiet e'en the shepherd's cur,
Sleeping on the heath-clad hill.

Languid is the landscape round,
Till the fresh descending shower,
Grateful to the thirsty ground,
Raises ev'ry fainting flower.

Now the hill — the hedge — is green,
Now the warblers' throats in tune;
Blithesome is the verdant scene,
Brighten'd by the beams of Noon!

EVENING.
O'er the heath the heifer strays
Free; — (the furrow'd task is done)
Now the village windows blaze,
Burnish'd by the setting sun.

Now he sets behind a hill,
Sinking from a golden sky:
Can the pencil's mimic skill,
Copy the refulgent dye?

Trudging as the plowmen go,
(To the smoaking hamlet bound)
Giant-like their shadows grow,
Lengthen'd o'er the level ground.

Where the rising forest spreads,
Shelter, for the lordly dome!
To their high-built airy beds,
See the rooks returning home!

As the lark with vary'd tune,
Carrols to the eveningl loud;
Mark the mild resplendent moon,
Breaking through a parted cloud!

Now the hermit howlet peeps
From the barn, or twisted brake;
And the blue mist slowly creeps,
Curling on the silver lake.

As the trout in speckled pride,
Playful from its bosom springs;
To the banks, a ruffled tide
Verges in successive rings.

Tripping through the silken grass,
O'er the path-divided dale,
Mark the rose-complexion'd lass
With her well-pois'd milking pail.

Linnets with unnumber'd notes,
And the cuckow bird with two,
Tuning sweet their mellow throats,
Bid the setting sun adieu.

This piece, which abounds with agreeable imagery, is sufficient to shew that the author possess a lively imagination, and deserves a place among the first descriptive poets of the present age.

We shall produce a specimen of his abilities in another way; and we make no doubt but our readers will allow that he writes a fable with ease and humour.

The FOX and the CAT. A Fable.
The fox and the cat, as they travel'd one day,
With moral discourses cut shorter the way:
'Tis great, says the fox, to make justice our guide!
How godlike is mercy, Grimalkin reply'd.

Whilst thus they proceeded, — a wolf from the wood,
Impatient of hunger, and thirsting for blood,
Rush'd forth — as he saw the dull shepherd asleep,
And seiz'd for his supper an innocent sheep:
In vain, wretched victim, for mercy bleat,
When mutton's at hand, says the wolf, I must eat.

Grimalkin's astonish'd, — the fox stood aghast,
To see the fell beast at his bloody repast.
What a wretch, says the cat, — 'tis the vilest of brutes:
Does he feed upon flesh, when there's herbage, — and roots?
Cries the fox — while our oaks give us acorns so good,
What a tyrant is this, to spill innocent blood?

Well, onward thy march'd, and they moraliz'd still,
Till they came where some poultry pick'd chaff by a mill:
Sly Reynard survey'd them with gluttonous eyes,
And made (spite of morals) a pullet his prize.
A mouse too, that chanc'd from her covert to stray,
The greedy Grimalikin secur'd as her prey.

A spider that sat in her web on the wall,
Perceiv'd the poor victims, and pity'd their fall;
She cry'd — of such murders how guiltless am I!
So ran to regale on a new-taken fly.

MORAL.
The faults of our neighbours with freedom we blame,
But tax not ourselves, tho' we practise the same.

There are many things, without doubt, in this collection of an inferior kind; but in this age, as in the days of Martial — "aliter non fit, Avite, liber."