John Cunningham

William Mudford, "Critique on the Poetry of Cunningham" Universal Magazine NS 1 (May 1804) 488-91.


I have often, in the secrecy of my own thoughts, lamented the poverty to which our greatest poets have been exposed; and that want of patronage among the affluent, who frequently dissipate their fortunes in fashionable vice and extravagance, while indigent merit has scarcely wherewith to satisfy the wants of nature. Among the illustrious names which dignified the commencement of the last century, and close of the preceding one, how few are there who could boast the comforts of affluence, or even competency! Humanity weeps as she peruses the fate of a Butler, a Dryden, and an Otway; and amid the inspired of a later age, who does not shed a tear to the memory of the unfortunate Chatterton? This neglect of merit among those who by their rank and wealth are enabled to patronize it, reflects little credit on their memory; nor do they seem aware, that a small portion of that profusion which they idly lavish on unworthy trifles, might render many an ingenious man happy; might foster by its possession a genius weighed down by poverty; and that they might then be transmitted to posterity, not as the most accomplished debauchee, the most expert jockey, or the most fashionable rake, but as the benevolent supporter of modest worth, the amiable patron of struggling merit, and the envied Augustus of a lettered age.

These remarks occurred to me lately, on a perusal of the works of the pastoral poet Cunningham. The merits of some of his productions are certainly of no common class. His "Contemplatist," "An Elegy on a Pile of Ruins," "The Landscape," and other small pieces, display a rich luxuriance of fancy, a chaste imagery, and a correctness of language, which would not have disgraced the sublime pen of Gray, or the more modest effusions of a Goldsmith.

With the few occurrences of his life, which diligence has been able to collect, you are doubtless well acquainted. He, too, was poor, and owed a decent interment after his death to the kindness of a friend, who had generously supported him, during his previous illness, from the purest motives of humanity. Yet, to a mind chastened by learning, and which feels its on individuality of character, dependence, clothe it in whatever garb you will, must always be a painful reflection. To this our poet feelingly reverts in the following stanzas, which he addressed to a particular acquaintance.

The drama and I have shook hands,
We've parted, no more to engage:
Submissive, I meet her commands,
For nothing can cure me of age.

My sunshine of youth is no more,
My mornings of pleasure are fled:
'Tis painful my fate to endure;
A pension supplies me with bread.

Dependant at length on the man
Whose fortunes I struggled to raise;
I conquer my pride as I can;
His charity merits my praise.

His bounty proceeds from his heart,
'Tis principle prompts the supply;
His friendship exceeds my desert,
And often suppresses a sigh.

Though these stanzas boast no superior merit, yet they evince a sentiment and dignity in the author which certainly claim our approbation and esteem.

The principal productions of Cunningham are pastoral, and it is only to be regretted they are so few in number. Of his lighter pieces it may be said, that they would not suffer in a comparison with others of a similar cast. His odes are, perhaps, the worst of all his performances. They have not sufficient variety, and the language is tame.

Of his pastorals, the three which appear to me to possess most merit are "Day" (divided into morning, noon, and evening); "Corydon" (to the memory of William Shenstone); and "Content." To illustrate this opinion, it will not, I hope, be unpleasing to your readers if I select such parts as are most striking, and transcribe them for their perusal. To begin, then with "Day."

This pastoral our poet divides into three parts: morning, noon, and evening. In the former he describes the appearances which introduce the day; and after observing (as usual) "the cock's shrill clarion," the shadows of night dispelled by the sun-beams, &c., he makes the following very pretty, and, I believe, novel observation:

From the low-roof'd cottage ridge,
See the chatt'ring swallow spring,
"Darting thro' the one-arch'd bridge,
Quick she dips her dappled wing."

The two last lines have great beauty in them, nor is the concluding stanza devoid of merit.

Sweet, O sweet! The warbling throng
On the white emblossom'd spray;
Nature's universal song
Echoes to the rising day.

His Noon is greatly superior to either his Morning or Evening. It possesses more harmony of versification, greater strength of imagery, and a more diversified association than either of the others. Indeed, so excellent is it in all its parts, that to transcribe any particular stanza would be to injure the whole. You will therefore excuse me, if, to do justice to the merits of this composition, I trespass on your attention by an entire transcription.

Fervid on the glitt'ring flood,
Now the noontide radiance glows:
Drooping o'er its infant bud,
Not a dew-drop's left the rose.

By the brook the shepherd dines,
From the fierce meridian heat,
Shelter'd, by the branching pines,
Pendant o'er his grassy seat.

Now the flock forsakes the glade,
Where uncheck'd the sun-beams fall;
Sure to find a pleasing shade
By the ivy'd abbey wall.

Echo in her airy round,
O'er the river, rock and hill,
Cannot catch a single sound,
Save the clack of yonder mill.

Cattle court the zephyrs bland,
Where the streamlet wanders cool;
Or with languid silence stand
Midway in the marshy pool.

But from mountain, dell, or stream,
Not a flutt'ring zephyr springs:
Fearful lest the noontide beam
Scorch its soft, its silken wings.

Not a leaf has leave to stir,
Nature's lull'd serene and still;
Quiet e'en the shepherd's cur,
Sleeping on the heath-clad hill.

Languid is the landscape round,
Till the fresh descending shower,
Grateful to the thirsty ground,
Raises ev'ry fainting flower.

Now the hill, the hedge is green,
Now the warblers' throats in tune;
Blithesome is the verdant scene,
Brighten'd by the beams of noon!

I will not pay your readers so ill a compliment, as to attempt to point out the particular beauties of this pastoral. Thus before them I leave it to their own comments, and shall proceed to extract a stanza or two from the Evening of our poet, which, by the bye, is far inferior to either of the preceding. He seems to have taken little pains in this to reach above mediocrity. His ideas are such as every magazine poet can furnish; nor is his language distinguished by that neatness and propriety of adaptation which in other occasions call forth our commendation. Perhaps the following are the best which this presents.

How the hermit owlet peeps
From the barn, or twisted brake;
And the blue mist slowly creeps,
Curling on the silver lake.

As the trout in speckled pride,
Playful from its bosom springs;
To the banks, a ruffled tide
Verges in successive rings.

With the following lines it concludes.

Linnets with unnumber'd notes,
And the cuckoo bird with two,
Tuning sweet their mellow throats,
Bid the setting sun adieu.

His "Corydon," a pastoral to the memory of William Shenstone, Esq., it will be unnecessary to transcribe; for it is a production with which every reader of Shenstone must be acquainted, it being usually prefixed to the poems of that author. It breathes a tender spirit of poetry, though as an elegiac composition it would have been better were it written in a different metre.

The third pastoral which I have enumerated may aspire to the praise only of being pretty. The idea is pretty, the language is pretty, and the conclusion is pretty; yet, as the "pretty" sometimes proves a seasonable relief to the sublime and beautiful, I will venture upon your patience by a transcription of it.

O'er moorlands and mountains rude, barren, and bare,
As wilder'd and wearied I roam,
A gentle young shepherdess sees my despair,
And leads me o'er lawns to her home.
Yellow sheafs from rich Ceres her cottage had crown'd,
Green rushes were strew'd on her floor,
Her casement sweet woodbines crept wantonly round,
And deck'd the sod seats at her door.

We sate ourselves down to a cooling repast:
Fresh fruits — and she cull'd me the best:
Whilst, thrown from my guard by some glances she cast,
Love slily stole into my breast.
I told my soft wishes; — she sweetly reply'd,
(Ye virgins! her voice was divine!)
I've rich ones rejected, and great ones deny'd,
Yet take me, fond shepherd — I'm thine.

Her air was so modest, her aspect so meek,
So simple, yet sweet were her charms,
I kiss'd the ripe roses that glow'd on her cheek,
And lock'd the lov'd maid in my arms.
Now jocund together we tend a few sheep;
And if on the banks by the stream,
Reclin'd on her bosom I sink into sleep,
Her image still softens my dream.

Together we range o'er the slow-rising hills,
Delighted with pastoral views,
Or rest on the rock whence the streamlet distills,
And mark out new themes for my muse.
To pomp or proud titles she ne'er did aspire;
The damsel's of humble descent:
The cottager Peace is well known for her sire,
And shepherds have nam'd her Content.

You will perceive in this, and the preceding extracts, that our poet has a considerable partiality for alliteration, or initial resemblances. This is particularly evident in his larger pieces, and he has sometimes employed it with great beauty.

On a future occasion I shall resume this topic. I will then give you my opinion on what I conceive in he his three best productions; viz. his "Contemplatist, a Night Piece;" "Landscape;" and his "Elegy on a Pile of Ruins:" this last may vie in many respects with the far famed Elegy of Gray.

I remain, &c.