Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Anderson, Robert (1770-1833)

ANDERSON, ROBERT (1770–1833), a Cumbrian poet, was born in Carlisle, 1 Feb. 1770. He was at first sent to a charity school supported by the dean and chapter of his native city, and afterwards he attended the Quaker school of Carlisle, taught by one Isaac Ritson. This was the sum of his educational advantages. At ten years of age he began to earn his living as an assistant to a calico printer, and somewhat later he was bound apprentice to a pattern drawer in Carlisle. In pursuance of his calling he spent five years in London, and there the gratification of hearing songs sung at Vauxhall seems first to have fired his ambition as a poet. His earliest effort was entitled ‘Lucy Gray;’ and was a poetic rendering of a story he had heard from a Northumbrian rustic. Lucy had been the village beauty, who died in her seventeenth year, and was soon followed by her lover. The simple story probably suggested to Wordsworth the beautiful lines (written in 1799 and published first in 1800) beginning:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways.

The name and metre of Wordsworth's ‘Lucy Gray’ seem also to have been taken from a poem of Anderson's. In 1798 Anderson published this poem in his first volume, but it was not until seven years later that he issued the ballads in the Cumbrian dialect by which his name is known, though he wrote and published his popular ballad, ‘Betty Brown,’ in 1801. Anderson was by no means the first to write verse in the dialect of his district. Thomas Sanderson gives the name of Josiah Relph, of Sebergham, as that of the first Cumbrian poet who wrote in the dialect, and Sir F. Madden mentions a Rev. Robert Nelson, of Great Salkeld, as contemporary with Relph. Certainly Susanna Blamire, Ewan Clarke, and Mark Lonsdale, as well as Josiah Relph, were anterior to Anderson. The humour of Anderson placed him ahead of all competitors in the esteem of the peasantry. Anderson drew his materials from real life, was much feared for his personal attacks, had a keen eye for the ludicrous, and pictured with fidelity the ale-drinking, guzzling, and cock-fighting side of the character of the Cumbrian farm labourer. Perhaps his best dialect poems are ‘The Impatient Lass,’ ‘King Roger,’ ‘Will and Kate,’ ‘The Bashfu' Wooer,’ ‘Lae Stephen,’ ‘The Lass abuin Thirty,’ and ‘Jenny's Complaint.’ These poems are certainly destitute of those qualities which were supposed to place Anderson by the side of Burns, but some of them are made interesting by a vein of true rustic poetry, and all are valuable for the picture they afford of country manners and customs that are now almost, if not quite, obsolete. Late in life Anderson fell into habits of intemperance, and eventually into extreme poverty, and was haunted by the fear of ending his days in St. Mary's workhouse. He died in Carlisle 26 Sept. 1833. The portrait prefixed to one of the volumes of Sidney Gilpin's anthologies of Cumbrian songs shows a refined face of the cast of that of Wordsworth. The country people still living who remember Anderson describe with a good deal of humour the outbursts of misanthropy that tormented him in his last years. ‘If ye happen'd to say til him, “It's a fine morning, Mr. Anderson,” ten to yan bit his reply wad be, “Dust'e tak me for a fool or a bworn idiot? I kent that lang afooar I saw thee!”’ In 1805 the ‘ Cumbrian Ballads’ were published in Wigton, but the best edition is that in 2 vols. published in Carlisle in 1820.

[Poetical Works of R. Anderson, with life of the author written by himself, Carlisle, 1820; Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect, Alnwick, 1840; Songs and Ballads of Cumberland, edited by Sidney Gilpin, Carlisle, 1874.]

T. H. C.