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Allan Cunningham Biography | Poet

Photo of Allan Cunningham

CUNNINGHAM, ALLAN (1784-1842), Scottish poet and man of letters, was born at Keir, Dumfriesshire, on the 7th of December 1784, and began life as a stone mason’s apprentice. His father was a neighbour of Burns at Ellisland, and Allan with his brother James visited James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, who became a friend to both. Cunningham contributed some songs to Roche’s Literary Recreations in 1807, and in 1809 he collected old ballads for Robert Hartley Cromek’s Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song; he sent in, however, poems of his own, which the editor inserted, even though he may have suspected their real authorship. In 1810 Cunningham went to London, where he supported himself chiefly by newspaper reporting till 1814, when he became clerk of the works in the studio of Francis Chantrey, retaining this employment till the sculptor’s death in 1841. He meanwhile continued to be busily engaged in literary work. Cunningham’s prose is often spoiled by its misplaced and too ambitious rhetoric; his verse also is often over-ornate, and both are full of mannerisms. Some of his songs, however, hold a high place among British lyrics. “A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea” is one of the best of our sea-songs, although written by a landsman; and many other of Cunningham’s songs will bear comparison with it. He died on the 30th of October 1842.

He was married to Jean Walker, who had been servant in a house where he lived, and had five sons and one daughter. Joseph Davey Cunningham(1812-1851) entered the Bengal Engineers, and is known by his History of the Sikhs (1849). Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893) also entered the Bengal Engineers, attaining the rank of major-general; he was director general of the Indian Archaeological Survey (1870-1885), and wrote anAncient Geography of India (1871) and Coins of Medieval India (1894). Peter Cunningham (1816-1869) published several topographical and biographical studies, of which the most important are his Handbook of London (1849) and The Life of Drummond of Hawthornden (1833). Francis Cunningham (1820-1875) joined the Indian army, and published editions of Ben Jonson (1871), Marlowe (1870) and Massinger (1871).

The works of Allan Cunningham include Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1829-1833); Sir Marmaduke Maxwell (1820), a dramatic poem; Traditionary Tales of the Peasantry (1822), several novels (Paul Jones, Sir Michael Scott, Lord Roldan); theMaid of Elwar, a sort of epic romance; the Songs of Scotland (1825); Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the Last Fifty Years(1833); an edition of The Works of Robert Burns, with notes and a life containing a good deal of new material (1834); Biographical and Critical Dissertations affixed to Major’s Cabinet Gallery of Pictures; and Life, Journals and Correspondence of Sir David Wilkie, published in 1843. An edition of his Poems and Songs was issued by his son, Peter Cunningham, in 1847.


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