1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 3:197-99.



We have omitted to notice among the writers of Scotland a name which, however, like Galt's, is but little connected locally with Scotland, though no more genuine Scot could be, either in his works or sentiments, than Allan Cunningham, — "honest Allan," one of those men, peasant-born and but barely educated, who, by dint of something which we must call genius, though not great enough to reach an exalted rank, have made their way out of the fields and workshops into the world of literature. Nothing but that spark of a divinity uncontrollable and subject to no laws, which, like the winds, goes "where it listeth," could account for the appearance here and there of such a simple and stalwart figure, in regions so different from those which brought him forth. Allan Cunningham was all the more remarkable that he not only brought out of a gardener's cottage enough of the faculty of Song to find him a place in the poetic records of his country, but also out of the stonemason's yard some perception of art which made him capable of becoming the trusty assistant and head workman of a great sculptor. His connection with Chantrey is still more remarkable than his connection with literature, for art exacts a harder apprenticeship than has ever been required for authorship. Perhaps it was the faithfulness of the man, and steady devotion, that made him capable for this post, rather than any insight into art. He was the author of several songs which are not unworthy of a place in the language of Burns, and a great deal of hard-working composition, Lives of Painters, and other respectable productions, a History of Literature, Biographical and Critical, with some novels which will not bear much criticism. "Honest Allan," says Sir Walter Scott of him, "a leal and true Scotchman of the old cast. A man of genius besides, who only requires the tact of knowing when and where to stop, to attain the universal praise which ought to follow it." The sight of such a man in the haunts of authors and artists in London, with his shepherd's plaid over his shoulder, his rustic breeding, and flavour of the soil, is one of the most remarkable in all the circle of strange sights. He had much intercourse with Sir Walter, and with many others of the best men of the day, and was adopted fully into that world so foreign to his race. His songs are the chief things that remain of him. This most simple, but by no means most easy branch of poetical composition has always been a special gift of Scotland, where, at the same time, many voices kindred to "honest Allan's" — those of Lady Nairne, whose fame, like that of Lady Anne Lindsay, depends on one song, of Motherwell, and Tannahill, and several other congenial spirits — were then flourishing.