"The Awkward Squad"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Allan Cunningham, Scottish poet and man of letters, was well acquainted with many of the writers of his native land, including the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg (1770–1835). Cunningham wrote three original novels and many songs, one of them "A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea" (1825). His imitations of old Scotch ballads, published in Cromek's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song (1810), seemed so authentic that they attracted the attention of Sir Walter Scott and led to a life-long friendship. Cunningham was also a biographer. He began with a six-volume Lives of the Most Eminent British Poets, Sculptors, and Architects (1829–1834), and a threevolume life of the Scottish genre and portrait painter, Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841), who began his work in a humble Scotch home and ended painting kings. However, the works for which Cunningham will be longest remembered are his accounts of his friendship with another humble Scotsman, Robert Burns (1759–1796). Burns was one of the most prolific and varied of lyric poets. He sent 160 songs to Johnson's Museum. For his friend Thomson, he wrote at least a hundred more, some of them recasting old and imperfect songs of his country. Not until the very end of Burns's life, when he realized he had little time to live, did he write to Johnson to beg that his poems–or copies of them–be returned to him to allow them to be put into permanent shape for publishing, but by then it was too late, and he was too ill. So it was left to his young friend, Allan Cunningham, to collect the prose and verse scattered around the country at random. At least a third of these works had never been published. He edited them in an eight volume Works of Robert Burns; With his Life (London; James Cochrane, 1834), with a second edition the following year. The first volume, of 380 pages, is devoted to the life. In the final section, describing Burns' last days, Cunningham tells of the poet's trip to the seashore where Dr. John Maxwell, his physician, hoped salt water bathing would be beneficial. He returned home late in July, 1796, knowing that his end was near. In 1794, at the possibility of an invasion by France, Burns had enlisted in the Dumfriesshire Volunteers. Though he never saw military service, he knew he would receive a military funeral, and joked about it. In describing the funeral, Cunningham wrote: "When the first shovelfull of earth sounded on the coffin-lid, I looked up and saw tears on many cheeks where tears were not usual. The Volunteers justified the surmise of Burns by three ragged and straggling volleys: the earth was heaped up, and the vast multitude melted silently away." Earlier in the account, Cunningham wrote:

Though Burns now knew he was dying, his good humor was unruffled, and his wit never forsook him. When he looked up and saw Dr. Maxwell at his bed-side,–"Alas!" he said, "what has brought you here? I am but a poor crow, and not worth plucking." He pointed to his pistols and desired that Maxwell would accept them, saying they could not be in worthier keeping, and that he should never more have need of them. This relieved his proud heart from a sense of obligation. Soon afterward he saw Gibson, one of his brother-volunteers, by the bedside with tears in his eyes. He smiled and said,–"John, don't let the awkward squad fire over me!"