Allan Cunningham

George Gilfillan, "Allan Cunningham and the Rural Poets" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 355-65.

Since we began the composition of these little sketches, Allan Cunningham, the honest, genial, dark-eyed, eloquent spirit, has departed. He is gone, not to his tryste beside "Arbigland tree," but to a darker assignation. No more he sings in firm, unquaking voice,—

There's tempest in yon horned moon,
And lightning in yon cloud,
And hark the music, Marineres,
The wind is piping loud;

but has become himself a pale and piping shade.

With his memory are connected tender and unmingled emotions. He was a genuine "son of the soil." Nationality was his principal characteristic. His blood was as deeply imbued with Scottish feeling as one of our own upland rivers with the colour and flavour of the moss. In this respect he was a Burns, — but a Burns shorn of all that was troubled and lurid in his idiosyncracy. With Burns, he must have breathed the wish,

That he, for poor auld Scotland's sake,
Some usefu' plan or book micht make,
Or sing a sang at least.

And, like Burns, his wish was granted; and many a sang, sweet and strong, pathetic, and bold, shall continue to link his name with that of his country. His genius was not only national but provincial. It clung to Criffel, and swam in Solway, and haunted the groves and scaurs of the Nith to the last. Dumfries-shire has reason to be proud of Allan Cunningham, and prouder because, in distance and absence, he never allowed his imagination, or his heart, to travel away from her well-beloved fields.

Cunningham's mind was essentially lyrical; but the airy strings of his lyre were set in a strong, rough, oaken frame. Masculine boldness, verging often on extravagance, was his leading feature as a writer. You saw the strong stonecutter in all that he did. He hewed out his way through a subject, as he was wont to do through many a block of granite and marble. Yet is his execution hardly so exact, and finished, and harmonious as you might have expected from one whose trade brought him so closely in contact with the proportions of things. It is often loose, disjointed, uneven; more like the work of a common mason, thoughtful only of the position of separate stones, than of an architect solicitous of the effect and grand outline of the whole. The Pagans represented their gods each with a musical instrument in his hand, denoting thus the exquisite and eternal harmony which prevails throughout the universe. So should all great artists be pictured, at once inspiring and controlling their conceptions, awakening and soothing their fires to the measured modulations of music. In this high sense Allan Cunningham was not an artist at all. He never felt on his intellect the control of the "spirit of law," that serene omnipresence which surrounds the steps of the highest genius, wherever it goes, and invests its own ideal of excellence with. the authority of conscience. His mind wanders untamed, like a giant of the infant world, striding, with large uneven steps, through the monstrous wildernesses of that early time, — startling, with careless step, the coiled up dragons of the desert, — dipping his fearless foot into the wet nest of the scorpion and the centipede, — shouting from the volcanic summit to some huge being unknown, sitting, silent, on the opposite peak — laying his lubber length on the dry bald burning rock, and snorting out from his deep chest terrific slumber — listening, now and then, to some snatch of melody from a distant vale, and controlling, for a while, his wild step to its tone, or even dancing to its music — but relapsing as fitfully into his eccentric and incontrollable motion. So particularly in Sir Marmaduke Maxwell and Michael Scott does his genius run riot in conscious and glorying error. His wanderings have about them this peculiarity, — they are never those of the speculative intellect, moonstruck, and gathering mist as it deviates, but of the mere young fancy, burdening itself with a profusion of harmless flowers. He never returns, like some of your Germans and Germanized French, laden with poisons, — mandragora and hemlock, opium and night-shade, nux vomica and henbane, which they have culled in the glooms of nature, and baptized in the blaspheming bitterness of their own spirits. His wanderings are those of hopeful and happy youth, not of fever, escaped from its keepers, harrowing the awe-struck woods, or ending its agonies in the embrace of the "melancholy main." Health, indeed, genial robust health, was the moral element of Cunningham's being. You say, as you read him, this is the hand-writing of a happy man. Pleasure he has known; but he is not, manifestly, that degraded and most unblessed being who has said to pleasure, thou art my god; and you never find in his writings that stimulating and well-nigh putrid flavour which indulgence bequeaths to the writings of a Byron. Nor is his that rarer blessedness which, wrung out from conflict and sorrow, lies on the page, of Sartor like moonshine distilled into something stiller, softer, and sadder far, and which is as much "better than happiness, as happiness is better than pleasure." His abiding feeling, judging from his works, is a happiness compounded of "many simples," of a fine bodily temperament — enthusiasm fresh, but never fierce — wishes moderate and subdued — speculative intellect quiescent — habits of thought and action well intermingled, and both adjusted according to genuine moral and poetic method, a quiet, deep principle of common sense intermingling with imagination, and an enacted consciousness of the God-like fact, that the strong arm of man is the "sceptre of this planet;" and that he has a strong arm.

He was a poet, a novelist, a sketcher, and a critic. As a poet he stood high in the second class. He never ventured the conception or execution of any piece of rhymed heroism, — any massive structure, rising slowly with elaborate pomp, and far-seen stress, and far-heard panting of divine endeavour; or else rushing up, with startling haste, like an exhalation. His erections are small and scattered, though denoting a muscular power equal to greater things. How fine those ballads in Cromek's collection in their rude simplicity, their touches of fearless pathos, their originality, but slenderly disguised under the pretext of imitation, — their quaint turns of expression, and their frequent escapes into real daring and grandeur of conception and language! They remind us, at a great interval, of the ballads of Schiller. They possess the abruptness, the direct dealing, the strong simplicity, the enthusiasm, of those extraordinary compositions; but have none of their depth of thought, their width of philosophic view, or the power and pressure, as if on the very sense, of their individual descriptions. Cunningham brings us no tidings from the "innermost main," where Schiller, a "diver lean and strong," disports himself among the mighty shapes, and mightier shadows; — the salamanders, snakes, dragons; hammerfish "darkening the dark of the sea;" and "terrible sharks, the hyenas of ocean;" giving to the depths of the sea a life more dreadful than utter death — a motion more appalling than the uniformity of eternal silence. Yet Allan was a genuine lover of old ocean. Love to her, rather than that other feeling shadowed in Wordsworth's line, "of the old sea some reverential fear," in all her changing moods and Protean forms, was one of the ruling passions of his nature; and of him it might have been said, that

His march was o'er the mountain wave,
His home was on the deep.

Hence those foam-drops of song, such as A wet sheet and a flowing sea, which are in every body's mouth, and his more elaborate romance of Paul Jones, which nautical men blame as not smelling strongly enough of the brine, and which critics coincide in censuring as having rather the fade flavour of a cask of salt water carted inwards than that of the real ocean,

Rolling the wild profound eternal Bass
In Nature's harmonies.

It can hardly be said, with all its occasional splendour, and incessant energy, to have become a romance of even average popularity.

"Every man carries in him a madman." So is every author big with some mad project or other, which sooner or later blossoms into a deranged, or demi-deranged, volume. Sometime it is its author's first, and then it either hurries him before a storm of laughter, into oblivion, or it gains him only so much ridicule as to rouse him, by the rebound of indignation, into after excellence and immortal fame.

Sometimes it is his last, and shelters under the charitable presumption of dotage. Sometimes it is mistaken for a quiz; and sometimes it is pardoned for the method, meaning, and otherwise inexpressible confidence which, as in Sartor Resartus, its fantastic structure faintly conceals. Under none of those pleas can Michael Scott be defended. It is neither a sin of youth, nor a drivel of age, — neither a quiz nor a splendid quaintness. It was written in sober earnest, and as a trial of strength; and yet, with all its wasted power, and spilt splendour, can be likened to nothing in earth, sea, or air, but the caldron of a Canidia or a Hecate, with thick sparkles interpiercing a thick smoke, through which you see, or seem to see, amid a tremendous "bubble and squeak," — a bell-broth in the act of cookery, which a Cerberus might, with sputtering noise, reject; and which you are thankful that no power in air, earth, or sea, can compel you to swallow.

How different the Maid of Elvar, with its soft shine of imagery, its lapse of Spenserian rhyme, its picturings of towered, and treed, and cottage-belted scenery, its murmuring tone, as of a "noon-tide bee," and all the separate beauties which nestle so thickly among its embowering branches! How different, too, that series of traditions, tales, and sketches, which he wrote in the London Magazine, and by which he turned up, with a share at once bold and tender, a tilth as yet rich and untried. Truly it was a palmy periodical during its brief reign, that same London Magazine, whence the just elegant genius and Addisonian style of John Scott had departed, early quenched, alas! and quenched in blood; where Hazlitt's penetrating pen was scratching as in scorn his rude immortalities; where De Quincey was transcribing, with tremulous hand, the most sublime and terrific dreams which opium and genius, things too kin to marry, had ever bred between them, by unnatural union; where Reynolds was edging in among graver matters, his clever Cockneyisms; where Lamb was lisping his wondrous prattle; and where the idiomatic mind of Allan Cunningham was adding a flavour of Scottish romance, as of mountain honey, to the fine medley.

As a critic, his character may be estimated from his pen and ink sketches in the New Monthly, his life of Burns, his critique on Thomson, and his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects of Great Britain. His leading quality was constant healthiness of taste. He had no profound insight into principles, but neither was he ever misled into one-sided judgments; he was no monster of discrimination, nor do you ever find in him volcanic bursts of enthusiasm, the violence of which is proportioned to the depth of dreary depression from which they spring, and which remind you of the snatches which a miserable man takes of all the pleasures within his reach, eager, short, hurrying. His criticisms are sweet-toned, sensible, generous, and as the building proceeds, the chisel ever and anon tunes itself to sudden impulse, and moves quick as to some unseen power, and you feel that the builder is a poet. He excels rather in critical talk, than criticism. He seldom hazards a new opinion; never a paradox. He is content to catch the cream of common opinion into his own silver cup. His originality lies in the power of modifying the opinions of others, and in that fine forge of imagery which. stands permanently in his own mind. His book on Painters is a gallery in itself. The English artists were precisely the theme for him. We question if he could have coped so worthily with the great Italians, in their knotty muscle, daring liberties, ethereal combinations, or in that palpable determination they evince to find their sole religion in their art — a determination so plain, that we could conceive them breaking up the true Cross for pencils, as we know they crucified slaves for subjects. Leaving them to the tingling brush of Fuseli, Cunningham, shows us, in a fine mellow light, Gainsborough seated silent on his stile; Morland among his pigs; Barry propounding his canons of austere criticism, and cooking the while his steak; West arranging the tail of the

Giant steed to be bestrode by Death,
As told in the Apocalypse,

with as much coolness as he would his own cravat; Wilson with his hand trembling at his palette, half with enthusiasm, half with brandy; dear enthusiastic Blake painting Satan from the life — asking, "Jane Boucher, do you love me, lass?" and there at once a beginning and an end of the courtship; or seeing the great vision pictured in the lines—

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Framed thy fearful symmetry
In what distant depths or skies
Burnt the fervour of thine eyes?
Did he that made the lamb make thee?

Opie lying all night awake with rapture, after his successful debut as a lecturer; or retorting the frown Peter Pindar sometimes cast at him from his enormous brows; Reynolds shifting his trumpet, or gazing with blandest look on his beauteous "child-cherubs;" Flaxman cherishing his lofty ideals; Fuseli rising on tiptoe, the bursting little man, towards the creations of the giant Italians, or bristling up against the Academy in such sort as to teach them that an inspired prophet of Lilliput was worth a whole Brobdignag of blockheads. Thus are Allan's figures not set still and stiff at their palettes, but live, move, breathe, battle, love, burn, and die.

We are thankful to Cunningham for this book, not only because it is a monument of his own powers, but because it does justice to the claims of British art; — an art which, considering the disadvantages of climate and sky, and national coldness of feeling, and taste, and bigoted religious prejudices, with which it has had to contend, when compared with the Italian school, is perhaps the greater wonder of the two. We admit that we have had no prodigies like Michael Angelo and Leonardo Da Vinci — those kings of the beautiful, who ruled with sway so absolute over all its regions, and shot their souls, with equal case and energy into a tower and a tune, a picture or a statue, a dome or a sonnet. These were monsters rather than men. We grant, too, that there has been but one Raffaelle — who was a man and no monster — and who of all men know best the art of lifting mail and woman quite out of earth "within the vail," and of showering on their face, and form, and bosom, and dress, beauty which is not of this cold clime — lustre unborrowed of that dim king of earthly day — meanings travelling out from eyes which seem set in eternity — motions of supernal grace and dignity — and who seemed made to supply the Christian's most craving desire after a pictured image of that face which was more marred than that of man — that form bent under the burden of a world's atonement, in a bend more glorious than the bend of the rainbow those arms which were instinct and vibrating with everlasting love — those long curling locks which seemed to twine lovingly round the thorns which pierced his pale majestic brow. No Raffaelle have we: the world has but one. Let Italy boast in him the Milton of painting, we have the Shakspere. Hogarth is ours — in his comic lights and tragic shadows — in his humour, force, variety, truth, absolute originality, quaint, but strong moral, and in that alchymy, all his own, by which, from the very worst materials, he deduces the richest laughter, or a sense of moral sublimity which is more precious than pure gold. And, not to speak of many other great names, we can challenge the world from the beginning to show a genius more unique, more insulated in his craggy solitude — like a volcanic cliff shot up as by unseen and unmeasured catapult from the depth of the sea — more an embodied idea — a world in himself — less prefigured by any preceding mindless likely to be eclipsed by any other — more signally demonstrative in his single self of the truth, that the human mind is sometimes a native voice speaking immediately from the deep to the day — than the painter — the poet — the creator of the Deluge and Belshazzar's Feast.

We thank him, in fine, for this book, because, like ourselves, he loves the painter. We know nothing of the technicalities of the "serene and silent art;" we leave these to the "artist and his ape; let such describe the indescribable." But we dearly love our own ideal of the painter — as a graceful alias of the poet — as a genuine and bending worshipper of the forms by which the Great Artist has redeemed his creation from chaos, and of the colours by which he has enchanted it into heaven — as himself, one of the finest figures in the landscapes of earth, sitting motionless under the rainbow; or dumb as the pencil of the lightning is dashing its fiery lines upon the black scroll of the thunder-cloud; or copying in severe sympathy from the cataract; or seated "knitting" the mountain to the sky, on a crag above the eagle's eyrie; or leaning over the rural bridge, over which, perchance, in his reverie he bedrops his pencil into the still water; or mixing unnoticed in the triumphal show, which, after living its little hour on the troubled street-page, shall live on his canvass for evermore; or gazing like a spirit into the eye of genius or on the brow and blush of beauty; or in his still studio, sitting alone, chewing the cud of those sweet and bitter fancies he is afterwards to embody in form; or looking through hopeless, yet happy tears, at the works of elder masters; or spreading before him the large canvass which he must cause to glow into a princely painting, or perish in the attempt; or even drooping over an abortive design; or dashing his brush across it in the heat of his spirit; or maddening in love to the fair creation of his hands; or haunted by some terrible figure of his own drawing; or filling his asylum-cell with the chimeras of his soul; or dying with the last touch given to an immortal work, and with no wish for any epitaph but this, "I also was a painter."

"Somewhat too much of this;" therefore, dear Allan Cunningham, farewell!

Perhaps in some far future land
We yet may meet — we yet may dwell—
If not, from off this mortal strand,
Immortal, fare-thee-well!