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JOHN CUNNINGHAM was born in 1729, in Dublin, where his father was a wine merchant. He gave early indications of genius, and produced a successful drama at the age of seventeen. This circumstance, however, was an unhappy one; it procured him free access to the theatres, and he was degraded into a green-room lounger. In the end, he agreed with a manager of a strolling company to enter "the profession;" became an itinerant player in England; and continued, during his life, to endure the bitter privations, disappointments and degradations, universally attendant upon such a career. Nature, which had endowed his mind with some of her rarest qualities, had been chary of her personal gifts. Neither his voice nor his figure was such as promised to be attractive on the stage. He soon found that his choice had been an evil one, but was too proud to acknowledge his transgression, and seek the shelter of his paternal roof. This was not, however, pride only, but independence; for when offered a home with an industrious brother, he refused it; the occupation he had chosen for its glare he soon adopted of necessity, and travelled to various towns of England. In 1762, while at Edinburgh, he became first distinguished as a poet. For several years afterwards he continued to issue poems on various subjects; and, in 1766, they were collected into a volume, and published by subscription. It was inscribed to David Garrick, in a few simple lines, and with a degree of taste unusual to the poets of that age: “ according to the ideas the author has conceived of Mr. Garrick's delicacy and good sense, a single period in the garb of flattery would certainly offend him." He died at Newcastle, in 1773, in the house of a generous printer, to whose. liberality he had been often indebted.
His character appears to have been that of an indolent, amiable man. Although exposed to various vicissitudes, he preserved an honest name; and obtained, without ever forfeiting, the good opinion of many persons of worth and reputation. His friend, Robert Fergusson, honoured his memory; and recorded the leading points of his dis position and his muse:
* To many a fanciful spring
His lyre was melodiously strung ;
Have applauded the swain as he sung.
To the woeful his sigh and his tear;
When the voice of oppression was near." Cunningham not only found admirers during his own time-he has found them even in ours. His great merit, perhaps, is that he was never ambitious of attempting that which presented more than ordinary difficulties. All his compositions are of a simple and unpretending character :- the themes he selected are to be found in the common paths of life, but they are such as the man of genius only observes and turns to account. An ordinary person passes by unnoticed objects which attract the attention, and, it may be, excite the admiration of him who is an observer of nature and her works:
Nothing is lost on him who sees
With an eye that feeling gave." The "good in every thing," which those of more elevated faculties perceive and take advantage of, produces a profitable harvest:
** The attentive mind
Becomes herself harmonious," The Poems of Cunningham will, therefore, always continue to give enjoyment to the reader who can derive it from faithful transcripts of nature. They are, for the most part, pastoral; and are more correctly so styled than most of the productions that have been sent forth under the misapplied title. The simplicity so prominent in his poems was perfectly natural and unstudied. The writer saw things as they were-saw them certainly with a kindly and gentle mind, and he described as he felt. He produced nothing of any length, and, as we have intimated, nothing that can be characterized as great.
The silver moon's enamour'd beam
Steals softly through the night, To wanton with the winding stream,
And kiss reflected light.
("Tis where you've seldom been) May's vigil whilst the shepherds keep
With Kate of Aberdeen.
In rosy chaplets gay,
Methinks I hear the maids declare,
The promis d May, when seen,
As Kate of Aberdeen.
We'll rouse the nodding grove;
And hail the maid I love:
He quits the tufted green:
'Tis Kate of Aberdeen.
Now lightsome o'er the level mead,
Where midnight fairies rove,
Or tune the reed to love.
She claims a virgin queen;
'Tis Kate of Aberdeen.
In the barn the tenant cock,
Close to partlet perch'd on high, Briskly crows, (the shepherd's clock !)
Jocund that the morning's nigh. Swiftly from the mountain's brow,
Shadows, nurs'd by night, retire: And the peeping sun-beam, now,
Paints with gold the village spire. Philomel forsakes the thorn,
Plaintive where she prates at night ; And the lark, to meet the morn,
Soars beyond the shepherd's sight. From the low-roof*d cottage ridge,
See the chatt'ring swallow spring; Darting through the one-arch'd bridge,
Quick she dips her dappled wing.
Now the pine-tree's waving top
Gently greets the morning gale: Kidlings, now, begin to crop
Daisies, on the dewey dale. From the balmy sweets, uncloy'd,
(Restless till her task be done) Now the busy bee's employ'd
Sipping dew before the sun. Trickling through the crevic'd rock,
Where the limpid stream distills, Sweet refreshment waits the flock
When 'tis sun-drove from the hills. Colin's for the promis'd corn
(Ere the harvest hopes are ripe) Anxious;—whilst the huntsman's horn,
Boldly sounding, drowns his pipe. Sweet,-0 sweet, the warbling throng,
On the white emblossom'd spray ! Nature's universal song
Echoes to the rising day.
A SONG, SENT WITH A ROSE.
Yes, every flower that blows
I pass'd unheeded by,
Had fix'd my wand'ring eye;
That wanton'd o'er the stream,
To meet the morning beam.
Its fragrance can't excel,
The damask charmer fell;
On Chloe's breast she pours,
The gentle queen of Flowers.
WILLIAM FALCONER was the son of a barber in Edinburgh, and was born in 1750. He was bred to the sea, and passed his boyhood on board a Leith trader. But it would appear that his choice was determined by necessity rather than will—that he was,
** By severe decree.
Condemned reluctant to the faithless sea." Subsequently he served on board a merchant vessel - the Britannia. She was wrecked in the Levant, off Cape Colonna, and the whole of the crew perished, except Falconer and two other mariners. To this event the world is indebted for " The Shipwreck,"--a poem that stands at the head of the class to which it belongs. The perils he encountered he has described, and to the agonies he endured he has given adequate expression. His work has, therefore, truth for its foundation ;** The Shipwreck" is the result of experience. The author was, moreover, a skilful seaman; and the details of the storm, and the awful circumstances that followed it, are given with a degree of accuracy and technicality of which none but a practised sailor was capable. It was published in 1762; immediately attracted attention, and led to the writer's appointment as a midshipman in the navy, and subsequently to the office of purser in the Glory frigate. His leisure was then occupied in the production of a marine Dictionary. He also enlisted in the corps of political combatants, and issued a poem, “The Demagogue,” in which he attacked Churchill and his party. It is written in a manly and energetic style, and contains passages that may be compared with the best of his more vigorous and skilful opponent. These, with the exception of some lines to the memory of the Prince Frederick of Wales, an ode to the Duke of York on his departure from England, a ballad, and a song of no great merit, are all the productions of the muse of Falconer.
In September 1769, he embarked for India, in the Aurora. In December the vessel touched at the Cape, pursued her voyage, and was never heard of afterwards. The author of "The Shipwreck" was therefore doomed to perish by a calamity which he so eloquently depicts. Whether he suddenly sunk in the great deep, or, as it may be, remained for days struggling with the storm, or perhaps upon some frail rast battling with the ocean, can never be ascertained.
* The Shipwreck” has been always popular, and will remain so while British sympathies are excited by the hazards of those who,
“ Sweep through the deep
While the stormy tempests blow." It is a clear, accurate, and able description of the peculiar perils of a seaman's life, the duties he has to perform, and the hopes which his situation perpetually excites. The writer was an “able seaman;" but he was more. The theme of his muse was "new to epic lore;" and it required a mind of no common order to deal with it. Later times have sufficiently shown that the cabin of a ship may be made the school of literary excellence; but a century ago it was a startling circumstance to find a mariner producing elegant and vigorous verse. Falconer, although he has given abundant proof that he had read and studied the poets who preceded him, was an ORIGINAL writer, for his subject was original and daring. The Shipwreck is not confined to the topic most prominent in it; it contains several fine descriptions of scenery,--the characters of the officers are drawn by a masterly pencil, -and the episode of Palemon and Anna is exquisitely wrought. The Storm and the Wreck are necessarily the principal incidents of the poem. They are described with exceeding minuteness ;-—the accuracy of the writer is indeed one of the marvels of his work; yet the details never weary, they grow naturally out of the subject. There is at the same time a rare degree of vigour thrown into the interesting story. Its faults are, that he so continually alludes to classic names and associations, called up though they are by the seas and shores of Greece — and that the speeches of the captain and his mates are too prolonged, considering the perilous position in which they were placed. It is also perhaps opposed to probability, that Palemon should have been sent by his “rough parent" on ship-board, with the father of the maid, from whom the voyage was designed to estrange the "love-sick youth.” The Shipwreck, however, amply merits the popularity it received and retains.