An eloquent pastoral elegy for William Shenstone by an Irish-born poet who would shortly become the mid-century's foremost pastoralist. John Cunningham's lyric seems to comment on the dialectic of imitation and originality in the pastoral tradition: "On purpose he planted yon Trees, | That Birds in the Covert might dwell: | He cultur'd his Thyme for the Bees, | But never once rifled their Cell." The manner of the elegy imitates Shenstone's Pastoral Ballad, while the last quatrain alludes to Colin Clout's gesture of breaking his pipe. Cunningham's poem became an object of imitation in its own right, and it may well be that part of Shenstone's considerable late-eighteenth-century reputation was owing to Cunningham's success in promoting the pastoral ballad as a literary mode.
Critical Review: "The present collection [Cunningham's Poems (1766)] consists of pastorals, odes, prologues, epilogues, and other short compositions. The author has not extended any of his poetical essays to a considerable length; nor has he attempted to write on many elevated or serious subjects; we therefore do not apprehend that we shall deprecate his merit if we look upon his works as agreeable trifles. His numbers are generally easy and flowing, and his descriptions picturesque" 21 (1766) 226.
Monthly Review: "The Author's success in this kind of poetry may teach him to confine his future essays to the easy and humble, yet pleasing walks of the sylvan muse" 34 (May 1766) 355.
Edmund Gosse: "When Shenstone passed away, on February 11, 1763, the cleverest of his disciples, John Cunningham, brought to the funeral a pastoral elegy, in which he summed up the character of the deceased bard. As this neat elegy seems to be little known, I will quote the opening stanzas: '[. . .] On purpose he planted yon trees, | That birds in the covert might dwell; | He cultur'd his thyme for the bees, | But never would rifle the cell.' With regard to rifling the cell, I think Cunningham must have made a mistake. Shenstone was not the man to keep bees and not eat the honey" "A Sentimental Shepherd" in Leaves and Fruit (1927) 141.
Come Shepherds, we'll follow the Hearse,
And see our lov'd Corydon laid;
Tho' Sorrow may blemish the Verse,
Yet let a sad Tribute be paid.
They call'd him the Pride of the Plain:
In sooth he was gentle and kind;
He mark'd in his elegant Strain
The Graces that glow'd in his Mind.
On purpose he planted yon Trees,
That Birds in the Covert might dwell:
He cultur'd his Thyme for the Bees,
But never once rifled their Cell.
Ye Lambkins that play'd at his Feet,
Go bleat — and your Master bemoan:
His Musick was artless and sweet,
His Manners as mild as your own.
No Verdure shall cover the Vale,
No Bloom on the Blossoms appear,
The Sweets of the Forest shall fail,
And Winter encompass the Year;
No Birds in our Hedges shall sing,
(Our Hedges so vocal before!)
Since he that should welcome the Spring,
Can greet the gay Season no more.
His Phillis was proud of his Praise,
And Poets came round in a Throng:
They listen'd, — and envy'd his Lays;
But which of them equal'd the Song?
Ye Shepherds, henceforward be mute,
For lost is the Pastoral Strain:
So give me my Corydon's Flute,
And thus — let me break it in Twain!