1830 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Cunningham

Robert Southey, 1830 ca.; in The Doctor (1849) 433.



There is a history (and of no ordinary value) of Great Britain from the Revolution to the Accession of George I. written in Latin by Alexander Cunningham, translated from the Author's Manuscript by Dr. William Thompson, and published in two quarto volumes by Dr. Hollingsbery in 1787. That the Author was Minister for George I. to the Venetian Republic is certain; but whether he were the Alexander Cunningham that lived at the same time, whose editions of Virgil and Horace are well known, and whose reputation as a critic stood high among the continental scholars of the last century, is altogether doubtful. If they were two persons, each was born in Scotland and educated in Holland, each a friend and favourite of Carstares, King William's confidential secretary for Scotch affairs, each a remarkably good Chess Player, each an accomplished Latinist, and each concerned in the education of John Duke of Argyle. Upon weaker evidence, says Dr. Thompson, than that which seems to prove the identity of the two Cunninghams, decisions have been given that have affected fortunes, fame, life, posterity, and all that is dear to mankind; and yet, notwithstanding these accumulated coincidences, he comes at length to the conclusion, that there are circumstances which seem incompatible with their identity, and that probably they were different persons.

But what signifies it now to any one whether certain books published in the seventeenth century were written by one and the same John Webster, or by four persons of that name? What signifies it whether Alexander Cunningham the historian was one and indivisible, like the French Republic, or that there were two Alexander Cunninghams, resembling each other as much as the two Sosias of the ancient Dromios and their twin masters in the Comedy of Errors? What signifies it to any creature upon earth? It may indeed afford matter for inquiry in a Biographical Dictionary, or in the Gentleman's Magazine, and by possibility of the remotest kind, for a law-suit. And can we wonder that an identity of names has sometimes occasioned a singular confusion of persons, and that Biographers and Bibliographers should sometimes be thus at fault, when we find that the same thing has deceived the most unerring of all Messengers, — Death himself.