1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 111-14.



We come naturally next to say a few words of Allan Cunningham, another racy and original poet, who also sprang front the bosom of the people, and whose genius was as sterling as it was peculiar. Allan Cunningham stands in direct contrast to James Hogg in this, that his best poetry, like that of Robert Burns, was composed in early life, and before he had emerged from obscurity, or become at all conversant with the conventional forms of the world. His vein was intrinsically and genuinely a native one, and could only be spoiled by artificial cultivation. His prose improved by practice; but his verse lost the peculiar characteristics which originally gave it value. He seemed himself unaware of this, and kept writing on, in the crawling crowds of London, about the pastoral Nith, and the heights of Blackwood, and the groves of Dalswinton; but in a far different tone from that to which he had tuned his youthful harp, "amang the primrose banks of the bonny Cowehill," or beside the bloodstained lintels of "Carlisle Yetts." Indeed, I doubt much if any injury would have accrued to Cunningham's fame had he dropped his poetic mantle before crossing the Border, and trusted his reputation to the early ballads published in Cromek's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song; for by these, as a poet, will he be chiefly remembered. His latter vein was thinner and weaker; he wrote more ambitiously, but more diffusely and, in attempting polish, he lost raciness. His larger and more elaborate compositions, his Sir Marmaduke Maxwell, and his Maid of Elvar, with many scintillations of genius, with many diamond sparks of true inspiration, want thews and sinews and, at best, are unsatisfactory. He is sadly deficient in plot and constructiveness; and although his eloquence and enthusiasm never flag, the reader wearies, and cannot help deploring that these are often misdirected. He knew not where to stop, and continually perilled success from lack of critical discretion.

This goes far to account for the fact that all his happiest compositions are in the shape of ballad and song, where he was necessarily compelled to be concise and concentrated. His fine peculiar genius was intensely national; and he had the wonderful faculty of completely throwing himself back into, and identifying his feelings and thoughts with, those of bygone generations. Amid these, as viewed by him in the mirror of imagination, we feel that he is far more secure and at home than amid the imperfectly understood manners of his own day, while with the things of departed ages neither himself nor his readers have any misgivings about the tone or colouring of his pictures; for, when reality fails he brightens them over with the tints of fairyland, or overshadows them with the "gloom of earthquake and eclipse."

The genius of Allan Cunningham was essentially lyrical. In the narrative and descriptive his drawing is continually out of keeping; and lie lacks discretion or discernment. He was fond of large surfaces, and of painting in al-fresco; whereas his forte lay in miniature, and on small canvass. He mistook himself for an Etty, when he might have been a Noel Paton.

His early poems, The Mermaid of Galloway, She's gane to dwall in Heaven, The Lord's Marie, and Bonny Lady Anne, are perfect gems — are in their way unsurpassed and inimitable and scarcely less may be said of his songs — 'Tis Hame, hame, hame, The Sun rises bright in France, The wee, wee German Lairdie, A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea, and My Nannie, O. The following very characteristic fragment has all the picturesque setting and artless pathos of the genuine traditionary ballad:—

Gane were but the winter cauld,
And gane were but the snaw,
I could sleep in the wild-woods,
Where primroses blaw.

Cauld's the snaw, at my head,
And cauld at my feet,
And the finger o' death's at my e'en,
Faulding them to sleep.

Let nane tell my father,
Or my mither sae dear;
I'll meet them baith in heaven,
At the spring o' the year.