1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

James Hogg, "My first Interview with Allan Cunningham" Edinburgh Literary Journal (16 May 1829) 374-75.



One day about the beginning of Autumn, some three-and-twenty years ago, as I was herding my master's ewes on the great hill of Queensberry, in Nithsdale, I perceived two men coming towards me, who appeared to be strangers. I saw, by their way of walking, they were not shepherds, and could not conceive what the men were seeking there, where there was neither path nor aim toward any human habitation. However, I stood staring about me, till they came up, always ordering my old dog Hector to silence in an authoritative style, he being the only servant I had to attend to my orders. The men approached me rather in a breathless state, from climbing the hill. The one was a tall thin man, of a fairish complexion, and pleasant intelligent features, seemingly approaching to forty, and the other a dark ungainly youth of about eighteen, with a heartily frame for his age, and strongly marked manly features. The very model of Burns, and exactly such a man, as that, had they been of the same age, it would not have been easy to have distinguished the one from the other.

The eldest came up and addressed me frankly, asking if I was Mr. Harkness's shepherd, and if my name was James Hogg? to both of which queries I answered cautiously in the affirmative, for I was afraid they were come to look after me with an accusation regarding some of the lasses. The younger stood at a respectful distance, as if I had been the Duke of Queensberry, instead of a ragged servant lad herding sheep upon it. The other seized my hand, and said, "Well, then, sir, I am glad to see you. There is not a man in Scotland whose hand I am prouder to hold."

I could not say a single word in answer to this address; but when he called me SIR, I looked down at my bare feet and ragged coat, to remind the man whom he was addressing. But he continued, "My name is James Cunningham, a name unknown to you, though yours is not entirely so to me; and this is my youngest brother Allan, the greatest admirer that you have on earth, and himself a young aspiring poet of some promise. You will be so kind as excuse this intrusion of ours on your solitude, for, in truth, I could get no peace either night or day with Allan, till I consented to come and see you."

I then stepped down the hill to where Allan Cunningham still stood, with his weather-beaten cheek toward me, and, seizing his hard brawny hand, I gave it a hearty shake, saying something as kind as I was able and, at the same time, I am sure as stupid as it possibly could be. From that moment we were friends; for Allan has none of the proverbial Scottish caution about him; he is all heart together, without reserve either of expression or manner: you at once see the unaffected benevolence, warmth of feeling, and firm independence, of a man conscious of his own rectitude and mental energies. Young as he was, I had heard of his name, although slightly, and, I think, seen one or two of his juvenile pieces. Of an elder brother of his, Thomas Mauncey, I had, previous to that, conceived a very high idea, and I always marvel how he could possibly put his poetical vein under lock and key, as he did all at once; for he certainly then bid fair to be the first of Scottish bards.

I had a small bothy upon the hill in which I took my breakfast and dinner on wet days, and rested myself. It was so small, that we had to walk in on all-fours; and when we were in, we could not get up our heads any way, but in a sitting posture. It was exactly my own length, and, on the one side, I had a bed of rushes, which served likewise as a seat; on this we all three sat down, and there we spent the whole afternoon, — and, I am sure, a happier group of three never met on the hill of Queensberry. Allan brightened up prodigiously after he got fairly into the dark bothy, repeating all his early pieces of poetry, and part of his brother's, to me. The two brothers partook heartily, and without reserve, of my scrip and bottle of sweet milk, and the elder Mr. Cunningham had a strong bottle with him — I have forgot whether it was brandy or rum, but I remember it was excessively good, and helped to keep up our spirits to a late hour. Thus began at that bothy in the wilderness a friendship, and a mutual attachment between two aspiring Scottish peasants, over which the shadow of a cloud has never yet passed.

From that day forward I failed not to improve my acquaintance with the Cunninghams. I visited them several times at Dalswinton, and never missed an opportunity of meeting with Allan when it was in my power to do so. I was astonished at the luxuriousness of his fancy. It was boundless; but it was the luxury of a rich garden overrun with rampant weeds. He was likewise then a great mannerist in expression, and no man could mistake his verses for those of any other man. I remember of seeing some imitations of Ossian by him, which I thought exceedingly good; and it struck me that that style of composition was peculiarly fitted for his vast and fervent imagination.

When Cromek's Nithsdale and Galloway Relics came to my hand, I at once discerned the strains of my friend, and I cannot describe with what sensations of delight I first heard Mr. Morrison read the Mermaid of Galloway, while at every verse I kept naming the author. It had long been my fixed opinion, that if a person could once succeed in the genuine ballad style, his muse was adequate for any other; and after seeing Allan's strains in that work, I concluded that no man could calculate what he was capable of.

I continued my asseverations to all my intimate friends, that Allan Cunningham was the author of all that was beautiful in the work. Gray who had an attachment to Cromek, denied it positively on his friend's authority. Grieve joined him. Morrison, I saw, had strong lurking suspicions; but then he stickled for ancient genius of Galloway. When I went to Sir Walter Scott, (then Mr. Scott,) I found him decidedly of the same opinion; and he said he wished to God we had that valuable and original young man fairly out of Cromek's hands again.

I next wrote a review of the work, in which I laid the saddle on the right horse, and sent it to Mr. Jeffrey but after retaining it for some time, he returned it with a note, saying, that he had read over the article, and was convinced of the fraud which had been attempted to be played off on the public, but he did not think it worthy of exposure. I have the article, and card, by me to this day.

Mr. Cunningham's style of poetry is greatly changed for the better of late. I have never seen any improve so much. It is free of all that crudeness and mannerism that once marked it so decidedly. He is now uniformly lively, serious, descriptive, or pathetic, as he changes his subject; but formerly he jumbled all these together, as in a boiling caldron, and when once he began, it was impossible to calculate where or when he was going to end. If these reminiscences should meet his friendly eye, he will pardon them, on the score that they are the effusions of a heart that loves to dwell on some scenes of our former days.

JAMES HOGG.

Mount Benger, May 6, 1829.