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The Burns Encyclopedia
Home | Introduction | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Cunningham, Alexander (d 1812)

A nephew of Principal William Robertson, the historian, Alexander Cunningham was the eldest son of James Cunningham of Hyndhope. When Burns arrived in Edinburgh, Cunningham was practising law. It is not known exactly when or where they met, but it may well have been at a meeting of the Crochallan Fencibles. Cunningham's chambers were in St James's Square, where the poet lodged for a time with William Cruikshank, so the neighbourly proximity may equally possibly have given rise to the friendship.

Before he met Burns, Cunningham had been wooing Anne the daughter of John Stewart of East Craigs. Writing from Ellisland on 27th July 1788, Burns enclosed some verses asking:

"And is thy ardour still the same?
And kindled still at Anna?
Others may boast a pastoral flame,
But thou art a volcano."

Volcano or no, Anne Stewart turned down Cunningham in favour of an Edinburgh surgeon, Forrest Dewar, to whom she bore a son and three daughters. On 24th January 1789, Burns wrote to console his friend:

'When I saw in my last Newspaper that a Surgeon in Edinb was married to a certain amiable and accomplished young lady whose name begins with, Ann; a lady with whom I fancy I have the honour of being a little acquainted, I sincerely felt for a worthy much-esteemed friend of mine. As you are the single only instance that ever came within the sphere of my observation of human nature, of a young fellow, dissipated but not debauched, a circumstance that has ever given me the highest idea of the native qualities of your heart, I am certain that a disappointment in the tender passion must, to you, be a very serious matter. To the hopeful youth, keen on the badger-foot of Mammon, or listed under the gaudy banners of Ambition, a love-disappointment, as such, is an easy business; nay, perhaps he hugs himself on his escape; but to your scanty tribe of mankind, whose souls bear, on the richest materials, the most elegant impress of the Great Creator, Love enters deeply into their existence, and is entwined with their very thread of life. I myself can affirm, both from bachelor and wedlock experience, that Love is the Alpha and the Omega of human enjoyment. All the pleasures, all the happiness of my humble Compeers, flow immediately and directly from this delicious source. It is that spark of celestial fire which lights up the wintry hut of Poverty, and makes the chearless mansion, warm, comfortable and gay. It is the emanation of Divinity that preserves the Sons and Daughters of rustic labour from degenerating into the brutes with which they daily hold converse. Without it, life to the poor inmates of the Cottage would be a damning gift.'

As there seems to have been no formal engagement between Cunningham and Anne Stewart, Burns's reference to her as having prostituted her character merely by changing her mind, seems somewhat absurd. Cunningham is alleged by tradition to have been permanently prostrated by the loss; but in fact, on 10th April 1792, he married Agnes, younger daughter of the Rev Henry Moir of Auchtertool, by whom he had 2 sons.

Writing on 4th May 1789, Burns revealed his feelings towards blood sports; 'I have just put the last hand to a little Poem, which I think will be something to your taste. One morning lately as I was out pretty early in the fields sowing some grass seeds, I heard the burst of a shot from a neighbouring Plantation, and presently a poor little wounded hare came crippling by me. You will guess my indignation at the inhuman fellow, who could shoot a hare at this season when they all of them have young ones; and it gave me no little gloomy satisfaction to see the poor injured creature escape him. Indeed there is something in all that multiform business of destroying our sport individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, that I could never reconcile to my ideas of native Virtue and Eternal Right'. The poem was: 'On Seeing a Fellow Wound a Hare with a Shot', dated April 1789:

"Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb'rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!
Go live, poor wanderer of the wood and field,
The bitter little that of life remains!
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee shall home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o'er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest..."

Incidentally the marksman was supposed to have been John Thomson, son of a farmer near Ellisland, and Burns is supposed to have threatened to throw him into the Nith.

The friendship between Burns and Cunningham was warm and frank. Writing to the poet from Edinburgh on 25th September 1789, with a gift copy of Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Cunningham said:

'Accept this copy of the Lives of the Poets. In addition to your value as my friend, it is a small tribute of the sincerity with which I admire you as one of their number. Let me indulge your every wish of my heart for your prosperity and happiness, which, by the way, has not always been the concomitant or realised in the lives of those who have written for the instruction and entertainment of mankind.'

The way of life and the prospects of an after-life were both themes in the long letters begun by Burns in December 1789, but not finished and despatched until 16th February 1790:

'... What strange beings we are! Since we have a portion of conscious existence, equally capable of enjoying Pleasure, Happiness & Rapture, or of suffering Pain, Wretchedness & Misery, it is surely worthy of enquiry whether there be not such a thing as Science of life; whether Method, Economy and Fertility of expedients, be not applicable to Enjoyment; and whether there be not a want of dexterity in Pleasure which renders our little scantling of happiness still less, and a profuseness, an intoxication in bliss, which leads to Satiety, Disgust and Self-abhorrence.

'There is not a doubt but that health, talents, character, decent competency, respectable friends, are real and substantial blessings and yet do we not daily see those who enjoy many or all of these good things, and notwithstanding, contrive to be as unhappy as others to whose lot few of them have fallen. I believe one great source of this mistake or misconduct is owing to a certain stimulus with us called Ambition, which goads us up the hill of life, not as we ascend other eminences, for the laudible curiosity of viewing an extended landscape, but rather for the dishonest pride of looking down on others of our fellow creatures seemingly diminutive in humbler stations...

'All my fears & cares are of this world; if there is Another, an honest man has nothing to fear from it. I hate a man that wishes to be a Deist, but I fear, every fair, unprejudiced Enquirer must in some degree be a Sceptic. It is not that there are any very staggering arguments against the Immortality of Man; but, that like Electricity, Phlogiston, &c. the subject is so involved in darkness that we want Data to go upon. One thing frightens me much: that we are to live forever seems too good news to be true. That we are to enter into a new scene of existence, where exempt from want and pain we shall enjoy ourselves & our friends without satiety or separation — how much would I be indebted to any one who could fully assure me that this were certain fact!...'

Enclosing the first version of 'The Banks of Doom' on 11th March 1791, Burns invited Cunningham's 'strictures' on it, adding his own views on a poet's partiality for what he had just created:

'For my own part, a thing that I have just composed, always appears through a double portion of that partial medium in which an Author will ever view his own Works. I believe in general, Novelty has something in it that inebriates the fancy; & not unfrequently dissipates & fumes away like other intoxication, & leaves the poor Patient as usual with an aching heart. A striking instance of this might be adduced in the revolution of many a Hymenal honeymoon.'

On 5th February 1792, Burns wrote to his 'ever dear Cunningham', invoking his assistance in the affair of James Clarke, the Moffat schoolmaster threatened with dismissal for alleged cruelty to his pupils.

On 10th September 1792, Cunningham got a long fanciful letter, touching once again upon religion, and giving Burns's considered view of marriage:

'You must know, I have set a nipperkin of Toddy by me, just by way of Spell to keep away the meikle horned Deil, or any of his subaltern Imps who may be on their nightly rounds.

'But what shall I write to you? "The Voice said, Cry: & I said, What shall I cry?" O thou Spirit! Whatever thou art, or wherever thou makest thyself visible. Be thou a Bogle by the eerie side of an auld thorn, in the dreary glen through which the herd-callan maun bicker in his gloamin route frae the fauld! Be thou a Brownie set, at dead of night, to thy task by the blazing ingle, or in the solitary barn, where the repercussions of they iron flail half affright thyself, as thou performest the work of twenty of the sons of men ere the cockcrowing summon thee to thy ample cog of substantial brose! Be thou a Kelpie, haunting the ford or ferry in the starless night, mixing thy laughing yell with the howling of the storm & the roaring of the flood, as thou viewest the perils & miseries of Man on the foundering horse, or in the tumbling boat! Or, lastly, be thou a Ghost, paying thy nocturnal visits to the hoary ruins of decayed Grandeur; or performing thy mystic rites in the shadow of the time worn Church, while the Moon looks, without a cloud, on the silent, ghastly dwellings of the dead around thee; or, taking thy stand by the bed side of the Villain, or the Murderer, pourtraying on his dreaming fancy, pictures, dreadful as the horrors of unveiled Hell, & terrible as the wrath of incensed Deity!!! Come, thou Spirit, but not in these horrid forms; come with the milder gentle, easy inspirations which thou breathest round the wig of a prating Advocate, or the tete of a tea-bibing Gossip, while their tongues run at the light-horse gallop of clishmaclaiver for ever & ever — come, & assist a poor devil who is quite jaded in the attempt to share half an idea among half a hundred words; to fill up four quarto pages, while he has not got one single sentence of recollection, information, or remark, worth putting pen to paper for.

'I feel, I feel the presence of Supernatural assistance! Circled in the embrace of my elbow chair, my breast labors like the bloated Sybil on her three-footed stool, & like her too, labors with Nonsense. Nonsense, auspicious name!!! Tutor, Friend & Finger-post in the mystic mazes of Law; the cadaverous paths of Physic; & particularly in the sightless soarings of School Divinity, who, leaving Common Sense confounded at his strength of pinion, Reason delirious with eyeing his giddy flight & Truth creeping back into the bottom of her well, cursing the hour that ever she offered her scorned alliance to the wizard Power of Theologic Vision — raves abroad on all the winds, "On Earth, Discord! A gloomy Heaven above, opening her jealous gates to the nineteen thousandth part of the tithe of mankind! And below, an inescapable & inexorable Hell, expanding it leviathan jaws for the vast residue of Mortals !!!" O doctrine comfortable & healing to the weary wounded soul of man! Ye sons & daughters of affliction, ye pauvers Miserables, to whom day brings no pleasure & night yields no rest, be comforted! "'Tis but one to nineteen hundred thousand, that your situation will mend in this world; so alas the Experience of the Poor & the Needy too truly affirms; & 'tis nineteen hundred thousand to one by the dogmas of Theology, that you will be damned eternally in the World to come!"

'But of all Nonsense, Religious Nonsense is the most nonsensical; so enough, & more than enough of it — Only, by the bye, will you, or can you tell me, my dear Cunningham, why a religioso turn of mind has always a tendency to narrow and illiberalise the heart? They are orderly; they may be just; nay, I have known them merciful: but still your children of Sanctity move among their fellow creatures with a nostril snuffing putrescence, & a foot spurning filth, in short, with that conceited dignity which your titled Douglasses, Hamiltons, Gordons or any other of your Scots Lordlings of seven centuries standing, display when they accidentally mix among the many-aproned Sons of Mechanical life. I remember in my Plough-boy days, I could conceive it possible that a noble lord could be a Fool, or that a Godly man could be a Knave. How ignorant are Plough-boys! Nay, I have since discovered that a godly woman may be a - ! But hold — here's t'ye again — this Rum is damn'd generous Antigua, so a very unfit menstruum for scandal.

'Apropos, how do you like, I mean really like the Married life? Ah, my Friend! Matrimony is quite a different thing from what your love-sick youths & sighing girls take it to be! But Marriage, we are told, is appointed by G- & I shall never quarrel with any of HIS institutions. I am a Husband of older standing than you, & I shall give you my ideas of the Conjugal State — (En passant, you know I am no Latin is not 'Conjugal' derived from 'Jugum' a yoke?) — well, then the scale of Goodwifeship I divide into ten parts — Good nature, four; Goodsense two; Wit, one; Personal Charms, viz. A sweet face, eloquent eyes, fine limbs, graceful carriage ( I would add a fine waist too, but that is so soon spoilt you know), all these one; as for the other qualities belonging to, or attending on, a Wife, such as fortune,connections, education (I mean education extraordinary), family blood, etc. divide the two remaining degrees among them as you please; only, remember that all these minor properties must be expressed by fractions for there is not any one of them in the aforesaid scale, entitled to the dignity of an Integer.'

On 20th February 1793, Burns included a political catechism in his letter:

'Quere, What is Politics?
Answer, Politics is a science wherewith, by means of nefarious cunning and hypocritical pretence, we govern civil Politics for the emolument of ourselves and our adherents.
Quere, What is a Minister?
Answer, a Minister is an unprincipled fellow, who by the influence of hereditary or acquired wealth; by superior abilities; or by a lucky conjecture of circumstances, obtains a principal place in the administration of the affairs of government.
Q. What is a Patriot?
A. An individual exactly of the same description as a Minister, only, out of place.'

On 25th February 1794, recovering from an illness Burns wrote in depression:

'...Are you deep in the language of consolation? I have exhausted in reflection every topic of comfort. A heart at ease would have been charmed with my sentiments and reasonings; but as to myself, I was like Judas Iscariot preaching the Gospel: he might melt and mould the hearts of those around him, but his own kept its native incorrigibility.
'Still there are two great pillars that bear us up, amid the wreck of misfortune and misery. The ONE is composed of the different modifications of a certain noble, stubborn something in man, known by the names of courage, fortitude, magnanimity. The OTHER is made up of those feelings and sentiments which however the sceptic may deny them or the enthusiast disfigure them, are yet, I am convinced, original and component parts of the human soul; those senses of the mind, if I may be allowed the expression, which connect us with, and link us to, those awful obscure realities — an allpowerful and equally beneficient God, and a world to come, beyond the death and the grave. The first gives the nerve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on the field; the last pours the balm of comfort into the wound which time can never cure.
'I do not remember my dear Cunningham, that you and I ever talked on the subject of religion at all. I know some who laugh at it, as the trick of the crafty FEW to lead the undiscerning MANY; or at most as an uncertain obscurity, which mankind can never know anything of, and with which they are fools if they give themselves much to do. Nor would I quarrel with a man for his irreligion, any more than I would for his want of musical ear. I would regret that he was shut out from what, to me, and to others, were such superlative sources of enjoyment.'

It was Cunningham to whom 'The Red, Red Rose' was sent in the autumn of 1794. From 'Brow-Sea-bathing quarters' on 7th July 1796, Burns wrote to him:

'Alas! My friend, I fear the voice of the Bard will soon be heard among you no more! For these eight or ten months I have been ailing, sometimes bed-fast & sometimes not; but these last three months I have been tortured with an excruciating rheumatism which has reduced me to nearly the last stage. You actually would not know me if you saw me. Pale, emaciated, & so feeble as occasionally to need help from my chair — my spirits fled! Fled! — but I can no more on the subject — only the medical folks tell me that my last & only chance is bathing & country quarters & riding. The deuce of the matter is this: when an Excise man is off duty, his salary is reduced to £35 instead of £50. What way, in the name of thrift, shall I maintain myself & keep a horse in Country quarters with a wife & five children at home on £35? I mention this, because I had intended to beg your utmost interest & all friends you can muster to move our Commiss of Excise to grant me the full salary. I dare say you know them all personally. If they do not grant it me, I must lay my account with an exit truly en poete, if I die not of disease I must perish with hunger...'

As late as 12th July, Burns sent Cunningham a song 'Here's a Health to Ane I lo'e dear', with a mention of his plan to get Excise promotion, an event as we know, which was only frustrated by his death.

Having acquired part of an estate in South Carolina through his wife, Cunningham became a Writer to the Signet in 1798, But by 1806, he had gone into partnership with his uncle,. Patrick Robertson, as a jeweller. He was the moving spirit in the raising of money for the poet's family. His correspondence with Syme may be seen in the Burns Chronicle, Raeburn painted his portrait.

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