1894 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

David McAllister, in Poets and Poetry of the Covenant (1894) 243-45.



This famous song and ballad writer was born at Blackwood, near Dumfries, on 7th December 1784. Educated at a school kept by a stauch Cameronian, the future poet was put as an apprentice to learn to be a stone mason, and in time became one of the best builders in the district. A great reader from his very early years, he began to write poetry when very young. Before. he was twenty he made the acquaintance of the Ettrick Shepherd, who soon became impressed with the genius of the youthful poet, and afterwards thus introduced him as one of the competing bards in The Queen's Wake:

And long by Nith the maidens young
Shall chant the strains their minstrel sung
At ewe-bright or at evening fold,
When resting on the daisied wold,
Combing their locks of waving gold,
Oft the fair group enrapt shall name
Their lost, their darling Cunninghame;
His was a song beloved in youth,
A tale of weir, a tale of truth.

Having contributed some ballads to Cromek's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, Cunningham was induced to go to London and was fortunate, after some hardships endured, to get an engagement in the establishment of Sir Francis Chantrey, the sculptor, as superintendent, and remained with him till his death, nearly thirty years after, writing much, and writing well both in poetry and prose. His songs, especially, are with those of Burns, Hogg and one or two others, the best in the language. Cunningham, while in London, came into close contact with most of the great men of his time, and "Honest Allan," as he was familiarly called, was a favourite with them all. His heart, however, was constantly in Scotland, and of the green hills of Galloway he loved best to sing and to talk. When his master, the great sculptor, a little before his death, was showing Cunningham the plan of the granite tomb in which he wished to be buried in Norton churchyard, Derbyshire, his native place, he said to him, with a look of anxiety: "But there will be no room for you." "Room for me!" exclaimed Cunningham. "I would not lie like a toad in a stone. Oh! no; let me lie where the green grass and the daisies grow, waving under the winds of the blue heaven." And so it soon came about to both. Chantrey lies in his granite tomb; and only a year after him, Cunningham was laid to rest in the pretty green cemetery of Kensal Green, when he had only reached the age of fifty-seven years. His master, who loved him greatly, left him a legacy of two thousand pounds, which, however, he did not live long to enjoy. Had his life been spared but a little longer, he intended to retire and spend the remainder of his days in the peaceful and picturesque valley of the Nith.