John Cunningham's 36 elegiac quatrains, treat the theme of mutability in an imitation of Thomas Gray's famous Elegy: "Inexorably calm, with silent pace | Here TIME has pass'd — What ruin marks his way! | This pile, now crumbling o'er its hallow'd base, | Turn'd not his step, nor could his course delay" p. 3. The elegy is, of course, replete with gothic imagery and its many personifications mimic the fractured imagery of the ruins. Cunningham indulges in Spenserian alliteration to the point of affectation.
The Elegy on a Pile of Ruins was one of the most popular of the many imitations of Gray's poem and was reprinted in collections of the British poets well into the nineteenth century. It stands at the head of what would become a busy sequence of ruin-poems based on Gray's Elegy, and is also an early example of the provincial poetry that would likewise become increasingly significant in coming decades. John Cunningham, who corresponded with Shenstone, was a Scotch-Irish actor who became a much-admired literary figure in Newcastle. The Elegy on a Pile of Ruins was explicitly imitated by another Newcastle poet, John Brand, in "An Elegy on a Pile of Sacred Ruins" in his Collection of Poetical Essays (1765).
Critical Review: "We are much pleased with this description: it is truly poetical; and wish we could spare room for a quotation, which would certainly be very agreeable to the reader" 12 (October 1761) 319-20.
British Magazine: "Poetically picturesque" 2 (October 1761) 382.
Public Ledger: "this little poem has afforded us the highest satisfaction in the perusal. Indeed to be insensible to its merit, the reader must be utterly insensible to all poetic ornament, as the most beautiful descriptions are here given in the most harmonious numbers, with reflexions which would not disgrace the sage mind of philosophy itself" 2 (12 November 1761) 1081.
Monthly Review: "This is an obvious imitation of Mr. Gray, but written with more spirit and real Poetry than we have generally been entertained with in Imitations. Perhaps, his admiration of the original has led Mr. Cunningham, in some places, to an affectation of descriptive and alliterative epithets, which, (however easily they appear to flow from the rustic Moralist of the Church-yard) in this poem, wear the uneasy garb of Labour and Imitation. In Elegy it is impossible, provided the diction is not mean, that it ever should be too simple: and therefore, we will hazard this observation, even against some fashionable Writers of the times, That compound epithets have a harshness very rarely suitable to the English language, and are to be used very sparingly. — The epithets 'vernal-coated,' 'time-corroded,' 'faint-encyphered,' 'brown-brow'd,' 'time-unlettered,' and 'silver-working,' may have cost the Author much more pains than they are worth; and though we cannot suppose that any species of Poetry is written without labour, yet whenever it appears, it disgusts" 25 (1761) 328.
Andrew Erskine to James Boswell: "There are some things lately published in London which I would be glad to have, particularly a Spousal Hymn on the Marriage of the King and Queen, and an Elegy on viewing a ruined Pile of Building: see what you can do for me; I know you will not take it ill to be busied a little for that greatest of all poets, Captain Andrew" 13 December 1761; in Letters between the Honourable Andrew Erskine, and James Boswell, Esq. (1763) 52.
Alexander Chalmers: "About the year 1761 we find him a performer at Edinburgh, under the direction of Mr. Love, and here he published his Elegy on a Pile of Ruins, which, although obviously an imitation of Gray's Elegy, contains many passages conceived in the true spirit of poetry, and obtained considerable reputation. He soon afterwards borrowed five stanzas from this Elegy, and placed them in his Elegiac Ode on the Death of his late Majesty, an instance of taking freedom with a recent poem for which it is not easy to account" Works of the English Poets (1810) 14:425.
Tobias Oldschool: "On the whole, we may safely pronounce the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, to be the most beautiful pathetic effusion in the English language. There have been many imitations of this poem, but the happiest is Cunningham's Elegy on a Pile of Ruins" Literary Speculum 1 (March 1822) 308.
Iolo Williams: "It was his first work, yet from its thirty-six stanzas a selection can be made to form quite a pretty, if rather disjointed, poem in the gently melancholic 'memento mori' manner. Such a selection I, with some daring, venture to present" By-Ways around Helicon (1922) 34.
Eric Partridge: "In 1766 ... was published a volume of Poems, chiefly Pastoral by John Cunningham. Before that date he had issued his Elegy on a Pile of Ruins (1761) which, though obviously modelled on Gray's Elegy, had much merit. Cunningham treated his theme in an original manner and produced a poem notable for its dignified lyricism, its quiet wistfulness, its apt allusions to Nature, and its profoundly poetic outlook on life and death. It is uniformly good" Eighteenth-Century English Romantic Poetry (1924) 102.
On the full prospect yonder hill commands,
O'er forests, fields, and vernal-coated plains;
The vestige of an ancient abbey stands,
Close by a ruin'd castle's rude remains.
Half buried, there, lie many a broken bust,
And obelisk, and urn, o'erthrown by TIME;
And many a cherub, here, descends in dust
From the rent roof, and portico sublime.
The rivulets, oft frighted at the sound
Of fragments, tumbling from the tow'rs on high;
Plunge to their source in secret caves profound,
Leaving their banks and pebbly bottoms dry.
Where rev'rend shrines in Gothic grandeur stood,
The nettle, or the noxious night-shade, spreads;
And ashlings, wafted from the neigh'bring wood,
Through the worn turrets wave their trembling heads.
There Contemplation, to the crowd unknown,
Her attitude compos'd, and aspect sweet!
Sits musing on a monumental stone,
And points to the MEMENTO at her feet.
Soon as sage ev'ning check'd day's sunny pride,
I left the mantling shade, in moral mood;
And seated by the maid's sequester'd side,
Thus sigh'd, the mould'ring ruins as I view'd.
Inexorably calm, with silent pace
Here TIME has pass'd — What ruin marks his way!
This pile, now crumbling o'er its hallow'd base,
Turn'd not his step, nor could his course delay.
Religion rais'd her supplicating eyes
In vain; and Melody, her song sublime:
In vain, Philosophy, with maxims wise,
Would touch the cold unfeeling heart of TIME.
Yet the hoar tyrant, tho' not mov'd to spare,
Relented when he struck its finish'd pride;
And partly the rude ravage to repair,
The tott'ring tow'rs with twisted Ivy tied.
How solemn is the cell o'ergrown with moss,
That terminates the view, yon cloister'd way!
In the crush'd wall, a time-corroded cross,
Religion like, stands mould'ring in decay!
Where the mild sun, through saint-encypher'd glass,
Illum'd with mellow light that brown-brow'd isle;
Many rapt hours might Meditation pass,
Slow-moving 'twixt the pillars of the pile!
And Piety, with mystic-meaning beads,
Bowing to saints on ev'ry side inurn'd,
Trod oft the solitary path, that leads
Where, now, the sacred altar lies o'erturn'd!
Through the grey grove, between those with'ring trees,
'Mongst a rude group of monuments, appears
A marble-imag'd matron on her knees,
Half wasted, like a Niobe in tears:
Low levell'd in the dust her darlings laid!
Death pity'd not the pride of youthful bloom;
Nor could maternal piety dissuade,
Or soften the fell tyrant of the tomb.
The relicks of a mitred saint may rest,
Where, mould'ring in the niche, his statue stands;
Now nameless, as the crowd that kiss'd his vest,
And crav'd the benediction of his hands.
Near the brown arch, redoubling yonder gloom,
The bones of an illustrious Chieftain lie;
As trac'd upon the time-unletter'd tomb,
The trophies of a broken fame imply.
Ah! what avails, that o'er the vassal plain,
His rights and rich demesnes extended wide!
That honour, and her knights, compos'd his train,
And chivalry stood marshall'd by his side!
Tho' to the clouds his castle seem'd to climb,
And frown'd defiance on the desp'rate foe;
Tho' deem'd invincible, the conqueror, TIME,
Levell'd the fabrick, as the founder, low.
Where the light lyre gave many a soft'ning sound,
Ravens and rooks, the birds of discord, dwell;
And where Society sat sweetly crown'd,
Eternal Solitude has fix'd her cell.
The lizard, and the lazy lurking bat,
Inhabit now, perhaps, the painted room,
Where the sage matron and her maidens sat,
Sweet-singing at the sliver-working loom.
The traveller's bewilder'd on a waste;
And the rude winds incessant seem to roar,
Where, in his groves with arching arbours grac'd,
Young lovers often sigh'd in days of yore.
His aqueducts, that led the limpid tide
To pure canals, a chrystal cool supply!
In the deep dust their barren beauties hide:
TIME'S thirst, unquenchable, has drain'd them dry!
Tho' his rich hours in revelry were spent,
With Comus, and the laughter-loving crew;
And the sweet brow of Beauty, still unbent,
Brighten'd his fleecy moments as they flew:
Fleet are the fleecy moments! fly they must;
Not to be stay'd by masque, or midnight roar!
Nor shall a pulse amongst that mould'ring dust,
Beat wanton at the smiles of Beauty more!
Can the deep statesman, skill'd in great design,
Protract, but for a day, precarious breath?
Or the tun'd follower of the sacred Nine,
Sooth, with his melody, insatiate Death?
No — Tho' the palace bar her golden gate,
Or monarchs plant ten thousand guards around;
Unerring, and unseen, the shaft of fate
Strikes the devoted victim to the ground!
What then avails Ambition's wide stretch'd wing,
The Schoolman's page, or pride of Beauty's bloom!
The crape-clad hermit, and the rich-rob'd king,
Levell'd lie mix'd promiscuous in the tomb.
The Macedonian monarch, wise and good,
Bade, when the morning's rosy reign began,
Courtiers should call, as round his couch they stood,
"PHILIP! remember, thou'rt no more than man.
"Tho' glory spread thy name from pole to pole;
Tho' thou art merciful, and brave, and just;
PHILIP, reflect, thou'rt posting to the goal,
Where mortals mix in undistinguish'd dust!"
So SALADIN, for arts and arms renown'd,
(Egypt and Syria's wide domains subdu'd)
Returning with imperial triumphs crown'd,
Sigh'd, when the perishable pomp he view'd:
And as he rode, high in his regal car,
In all the purple pride of conquest drest;
Conspicuous, o'er the trophies gain'd in war,
Plac'd, pendant on a spear, his burial vest:
While thus the herald cry'd — "This son of pow'r,
This SALADIN, to whom the nations bow'd;
May, in the space of one revolving hour,
Boast of no other spoil, but yonder shroud!"
Search where Ambition rag'd, with rigour steel'd;
Where Slaughter, like the rapid lightning, ran;
And say, while mem'ry weeps the blood-stain'd field,
Where lies the chief, and where the common man?
Vain are the pyramids, and motto'd stones,
And monumental trophies rais'd on high!
For TIME confounds them with the crumbling bones,
That mix'd in hasty graves unnotic'd lie.
Rests not, beneath the turf, the peasant's head,
Soft as the lord's, beneath the labour'd tomb?
Or sleeps one colder, in his close clay bed;
Than t' other, in the wide vault's dreary womb?
Hither, let LUXURY lead her loose-rob'd train;
Here flutter PRIDE, on purple-painted wings:
And, from the moral prospect, learn — how vain
The wish, that sighs for sublunary things!