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LIFE OF JOHN CUNNINGHAM.
R. A. DAVENPORT, Esq.
The family from which Cunningham descended was Scotch, on the side of both his parents; but his father resided in Dublin, where he carried on the business of a wine-cooper. John Cunningham was born in the Irish metropolis, in 1729, and was the eldest of seven children. Encumbered with so large a family, his father, though living in good credit, was often straitened in his circumstances, till at length a delusive prospect of affluence was opened to him, by his gaining a prize of twelve hundred pounds in the English lottery. With this sum he commenced winemerchant. But, like many other men of weak minds, who have obtained a sudden accession of fortune, he seems to have thought that his store was inexhaustible; and the consequence was, that he speedily dissipated it, and became a bankrupt, by living in a style which his means were inadequate to support.
At the time when his father's affairs went to ruin, Cunningham was at the grammar school of Drogheda, under the tuition of Mr. Clarke, to whom belongs the praise of having taught the rudiments of knowledge (for they never acquired more) to at least two men of abilities; to Cunningham, and to Henry Jones, the author of the tragedy of The Earl of Essex. On the failure of his parent, Cunningham was recalled to Dublin, a stop was put to bis education, and, during four or five years, he lived in a state which, if not absolutely poverty, appears to have been not far removed from it. Many of his smaller poems are said to have been written at this period.
That he was early an author there is undoubted proof. At the age of seventeen, he brought out, on the Dublin Theatre, a two-act piece, called “Love in a Mist, or the Lass of Spirit,' from wbich Garrick is believed to have borrowed the plot of The Lying Valet. It met with a favourable reception, was acted several nights, and procured to its writer the freedom of the theatre.
The success of this farce decided the future fate of Cunningham. It is probable that he had already an inclination to try his skill as a performer; and, as he was now a constant companion of actors, his inclination was strengthened by their flattery, and he was easily persuaded to believe that he himself was qualified to shine upon the stage. In all the rash precipitancy of youth, he quitted his home, without communicating his design to his family, joined the company of an itinerant manager, and sailed to England. A more erroneous choice of a profession he could not have made. He had none of the physical requisites of an actor. He had neither voice nor figure; and, though his conceptions are declared to have been just and strong, so overpowering was his diffidence as to render him incapable of forcibly expressing what he strongly felt. It was only in representing the mock French character that he is said to have been tolerable.
Whether, as some have affirmed, want at length made bim sensible of his imprudence, though pride withheld him from returning to his friends; or whether he persisted in his fondness for the scenic art, and offered to it a willing sacrifice of his time; it is not of importance to inquire. The balance, perhaps,
preponderates in favour of the latter supposition. Certain it is, that, for many years, he was a member of various strolling companies of players before, as an author, he became known to the public; and that even his success as an author did not bring about a change in his occupation. His feeble powers could add little to the theatrical strength of his associates; but, as a writer of occasional addresses, prologues, epilogues, and songs, he gave effectual assistance, and gained considerable applause.
In the humble and itinerant course of life which he led, it is probable that he was often but scantily provided with the means of subsistence. I have somewhere read an anecdote of him, wbich relates that, one Sunday morning, he was caught angling by a clergyman, who sharply reproved him for profaning the Sabbath day, and threatened him with the wrath of Heaven; to which Cunningham meekly replied, that he hoped the Deity would forgive him, for that his dinner was in the pool near which he stood, and till he got it out he should have none to eat.'
To attempt to trace his wanderings would be an idle even if it were not a fruitless task. It appears, however, that they were chiefly confined to Scotland and the north of England, and that Newcastle was the place of his most frequent resort. About the year 1761, he belonged to a company then at Edinburgh, the manager of which was a Mr. Love.
While he resided in the Scottish capital, he published the ' Elegy on a Pile of Ruins, which, I believe, was the first poem that he sent from the press with his name, and in an independent form. Though in a few passages, among which are the twenty-fifth and thirty-fifth stanzas, it is too much an echo of Gray's celebrated elegy, it has great intrinsic merit both in sentiment and imagery. It is the composition of a man of poetical feeling. He is said, shortly afterwards, to have borrowed five stanzas from this