1864 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Tennant

Andrew R. Bonar, in Poets and Poetry of Scotland (1864) 305-07.



WILLIAM TENNANT was born in the coast village of Anstruther, Fifeshire, in 1784. His father was a small merchant or dealer: the son lost, when but an infant, the use of both feet, and was consequently unable to move without crutches.

Lameness, however, conduced, in Tennant's case, as sometimes in the case of others similarly affected, to studious habits; and as he was unfit for more active employment, after attending the school in his native town, he proceeded, in 1789, to the University of St. Andrews, where, a linguist by taste, he made rapid progress under Drs. Hunter and Hill, then occupants respectively of the Latin and Greek chairs. After only two years at College, his father's straitened circumstances necessitated Tennant's return to the parental roof. He still, however, prosecuted linguistic studies, and became, through perseverance, and with only the aid of a Hebrew Bible and Dictionary, a proficient in that branch of Biblical study.

We next find Tennant in Glasgow, acting as clerk to his brother, who carried on that city the business of a corn factor. His brother afterwards removed to Anstruther, where Tennant continued to be similarly engaged, devoting, however, all the leisure he could command to his favourite studies. The business was unsuccessful, and the creditors, with great unreasonableness, lodged Tennant for a time in jail as the remanent partner. Tennant, on being discharged, returned to his father's house, where he became known in a new character, not only as a person of eminent learning, but also as a poet. Anster Fair, his first and best production, appeared in 1811. It became known to only a very limited circle, until Lord Woodhouselee stamped it with the seal of his approbation, after which Jeffrey brought it into wider notice by a friendly and eulogistic critique in the Edinburgh Review, dwelling upon its profusion of images and groups, and eulogising the fancy and imagination of the narrative. The poem was written in the ottava rima of the Italians, a measure said to have been invented by Boccaccio, afterwards used by Ariosto and Tasso, and which was transferred into English poetry by Fairfax in his translation of the Jerusalem Delivered.

In 1813 Tennant was appointed schoolmaster of Denino, in the neighbourhood of Anstruther and St. Andrews. His salary was small, but the leisure afforded by the light nature of his official duties, enabled him to master the Syriac, Persian, and Arabic languages. From Denino he was translated to the parish school of Lasswade, which allowed of his frequently associating with distinguished literary society in Edinburgh; and he was, not long afterwards, appointed, in 1819, teacher of the classical and oriental languages in the newly-founded Dollar Institution. In 1831 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Chair of Oriental Languages at St. Andrews, to which, on the death of Dr. Scott, he was eventually appointed, three years after the vacancy just mentioned.

Besides Anster Fair, Tennant published several poetico-dramatic works, none of which can be spoken of as successful. While discharging the duties of his professional office at St. Andrews during the winter months, the larger portion of each year was spent by him in a country house on the pleasant and romantic shore of the Devon, where, on the 13th of October 1848, he expired, after a protracted illness, which fairly wore out a constitution never robust.