1790 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Cunningham

Joseph Ritson, 1790 ca.; in Letters of Joseph Ritson (1833) 1:vi-viii.



Mr. Cunningham was of a very good family in Dublin; his parents, whom he left when young, a step he often repented, were Roman Catholics. He was a worthy honest man, and the contents of this volume sufficiently display his poetical genius and fertile invention. In the latter part of his life he addicted himself very much to drinking, particularly that unhealthiest of compounds, English geneva. He has often told me that he could not bear reflection; and thus, in order to avoid it, he impaired his faculties, acquired a loathsome disease, rendered his existence miserable, and finally, after a languishing illness, added one more to the number of those deluded wretches who have fallen a sacrifice to the above detestable habit. What has often astonished me is, that in the earlier part of his life (as I have been told) he was remarkably sober, and supposed to save money; was a very desirable companion, and a very healthy man. Long before his death, however, he was reduced to great poverty, hardly subsisting on the pittance he received as a sharer in the company, and never able to purchase either clothes or linen. His table-talk was dull, tedious, and very often disagreeable; yet the man, who disgusted with his conversation, could at the same time, please with his letters or delight with his verses; though his extreme indolence commonly prevented him from doing either. He had been a performer in the Edinburgh theatre, and in some strolling company or other, from his first coming into England till within a few months of his death; but had belonged for a great many years to one of which Mr. Bates was manager, and which visited Shields, Sunderland, Durham, Stockton, Whitby, and Scarborough. He was unequalled in a Frenchman, but excelled perhaps in almost every other character; I remember him excellent in Orator Gruel. In Cawdells poems are some very pathetic lines addressed to him after Mr. Cunninghams retirement, if it may be so called, to Newcastle. The account of his death, which appeared in the Newcastle Chronicle, was written by Mrs. Slack, wife of the printer, at whose house he died; whose disinterested friendship and tender attention to this most ingenious and unhappy man were as meritorious as instances of such a nature are uncommon.