Place of Publication
Anderson received some education at the Quaker school of Carlisle – surely helping to instill in him a veneration of equality – but had to turn to hard labor at the age of ten to assist his "poor father." He was apprenticed as a calico printer – using any spare money to obtain copies of Addison, Pope, Fielding and Smollet – and later as a pattern drawer. During the five years he spent in London, he was exploited terribly, and was "confined to a wretched garret" for several months until a sister came to his aid. The mock pastoral Scottish-style songs Anderson heard on visiting Vauxhall Gardens simultaneously disgusted him and roused his poetic sensibilities.
Anderson’s earliest poem, Lucy Gray of Allendale, was inspired by a tale he heard from a Northumbrian rustic, about a village beauty – "fairer than any flow’r that blows" – who died at seventeen, and was thereafter followed by her lover. He was granted free admission to the gardens after the song was performed to "great applause." The story also seemingly informed Wordsworth’s own "Lucy Gray." Anderson published his first collection, Poems on various Subjects, in 1798, which included "The Slave," conveying his indignation at the slave trade:
Torn from every dear connection,
Forc'd across the yielding wave,
The Negro, stung by keen reflection,
May exclaim, Man's but a slave!
It was not until 1805 that Anderson published his best-known work, Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect, a selection taken from verse and prose featured in a local newspaper, delineating the manners and customs of his native land. Caine (2004) writes: "since he drew his materials from real life, Anderson was much feared for his personal attacks; he 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."
Following the death of his father in 1807, Anderson went to work in Belfast via a pilgrimage to the grave of Robert Burns, which affected him greatly, as did the "distressing scenes" of poverty in the countryside outside Belfast. In his memoir, he wrote, "it is much to be lamented that no provision whatever is held out by the British government to the poor of Ireland." The two-volume edition of Anderson’s Poetical Works appeared in 1820, at a time when his local reputation drew subscriptions from Wordsworth and Southey.
In his twilight years Anderson’s life became marred by bouts of intemperance and acute poverty, and he was haunted by the prospect of ending his life in St Mary’s workhouse. He died in Carlisle on 26 September 1833.
Published Poetry Collections
Poems on Various Subjects. London: J. Mitchell, 1798
Ballads in the Cumbrian dialect. Carlisle, 1805, London, 1881
Poetical Works of Robert Anderson: to which is prefixed the life of the author, written by himself, 2 vols. Carlisle, 1820
Anderson’s Cumberland Ballads and Songs. A Centenary Edition, ed. Revd T. Ellwood. Ulverston: W. Holmes, 1904
Selections from the Cumberland Ballads of Robert Anderson, ed. George Crowther. Ulverston: W. Holmes, 1907
Allan, Thomas, Allan’s Illustrated Edition of Tyneside Songs and Readings, with Lives, Portraits, and Autographs of the Writers, revised edition (Newcastle upon Tyne: Thomas & George Allan, 1891), 167-8
Ashraf, Mary (ed), Political Verse and Song from Britain and Ireland (East Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1975), 117-18
Basker, James G. (ed), Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery 1660-1810 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 528-9
Anonymous. Robert Anderson, the Cumberland Bard. A Centenary Celebration Souvenir. Carlisle: 1933
Burke, Tim, "Robert Anderson (1770-1833)," Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700-1800. 3 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2003. Vol. III, 305-328
Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler, "The Romantic 'Peasant' Poets and their Patrons," The Wordsworth Circle, 26 (1995), 77-87, 83-4
Gregson, K, "The Cumberland Bard: Anniversary Reflections," Folk Music Journal 4 (1983), 333-66
Johnson, C.R., Provincial Poetry 1789-1839: British Verse Printed in the Provinces: The Romantic Background (London: Jed Press, 1992), items 17-22, 64, 573, 743, 795
Sutton, David C. (ed), Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (London: The British Library, 1995), 14
Pickering and Chatto Volumes
- Mitchell Library (Glasgow District Libraries)
- “The delights of love” [poem addressed to Mrs. John Little] (MOR, p.99)
- 3 letters from Thomas Campbell. Recipients: Robert Anderson, [James] Grahame, & John Wilson (MS75/28,29 & 205)
- University of Edinburgh Library
- Letter [fragmentary] from Thomas Campbell, 1800 (La.III.370,f.18)
- University of Glasgow Library
- Songs: contributed to “Whistle-binkie.” Contents: “Peggy Penn,” “The dawtie,” “The impatient lassie” (MS.Robertson 19/107-108 & 161)