William Tennant

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1877) 2:148-50.

WILLIAM TENNANT, LL.D., an accomplished linguist and poet, was born at Anstruther, in Fifeshire, May 15, 1784. Although born without any personal malformation, in infancy the future poet and professor lost the use of both his feet, and was obliged to move upon crutches for the rest of his life. The lame boy was educated at the burgh school of Astruther, and was sent afterwards to the University of St. Andrews. In his twentieth year he went to Glasgow, where he was employed as clerk to his brother, a corn-factor in that city. His business was afterwards removed to Anstruther, but proving unsuccessful, he suddenly disappeared, leaving William to endure incarceration as if he had been the real debtor.

The introductory stanzas of Anster Fair are said to have been written whilst he was in durance. After sustaining unmerited reproach he was set free, when he returned to his father's roof, and devoted himself in earnest to authorship. The result was Anster Fair, which was issued from the obscure press of an Astruther publisher in 1812. Another little production deserves to be mentioned, as showing the cheerfulness with which he bore the calamity of his lameness — The Anster Concert, a brochure of twelve pages, written in 1810, and published at Cupar in January, 1811, purporting to be by W. Crookley. In a few years Anster Fair found its way to Edinburgh, and attracted the notice of Lord Woodhouselee, who wrote to the publisher for the name of the author, which he said could not long remain concealed; and Lord Jeffrey, in a criticism in the Edinburgh Review, declared the poem one of the most talented and remarkable productions of its kind that had yet appeared.

As it was not by literature that Tennant meant to maintain himself, he became a schoolmaster, the occupation for which he was educated. His first school was in the parish of Denino, a few miles from St. Andrews. It speaks not a little for his contented spirit and moderate wishes, that he accepted a situation yielding but 40 per annum at a time when he had obtained celebrity as a poet, and was known as one of the ablest linguists of the land. But, for the time being, he was content with his humble cottage, and access to the library of St. Andrews College; and here, without any other teacher than books, he made himself master of the Arabic, Persian, and Syriac languages. His next situation was the more lucrative one of parish schoolmaster at Lasswade, where he remained until January, 1819, when he was appointed a teacher of the classical and oriental languages in the newly established and richly endowed institution of Dollar.

Tennant's next publication was a poem called Papistry Storm'd, or the Dingin' Doun o' the Cathedral, followed in 1822 by an epic under the title of The Thane of Fife, having for its theme the invasion of the east coast of Fife by the Danes in the ninth century. The year after appeared Cardinal Beaton, a Tragedy in five acts, and in 1825 he published another Poem entitled John Baliol. None of these publications met with success, nor did they add anything to the author's reputation. In 1831 the chair of oriental languages in St. Mary's College, St. Andrews, became vacant, and Tennant offered himself as a candidate, but Dr. Scott of Corstorphine, a rival candidate, was preferred. He remained three years longer at Dollar, when the professorship again becoming vacant by the death of Dr. Scott, he was appointed to it. In this way, by a series of steps, he ascended from the lowest to one of the highest grades of Scottish academical distinction. Tennant's last work, published in 1845, was entitled Hebrew Dramas, founded on Incidents in Bible History, and consisted of three dramatic compositions. He was also the author of a Syriac and Chaldee grammar, and of a memoir of Allan Ramsay, published with his works, which he put forth as the pioneer of an edition of the Scottish poets. As a prose writer he never attained any distinction. He contributed numerous articles to the Edinburgh Literary Journal, none of which, however, exhibit any peculiar excellence. Tennant usually spent his summer months at his own villa of Devongrove, near Dollar, and here he breathed his last, October 15, 1848, in his sixty-fourth year. A memoir of his life and writings by Matthew Foster Conolly appeared in 1861.

The following unpublished letters, addressed to Mrs. Grant of Laggan, will be read with interest, as they refer to a new metrical translation of the Psalms, in regard to which Tennant had a spirited correspondence with the Ettrick Shepherd, afterwards collected and issued in a volume by Constable & Co.:—

"Devongrove, Dollar, 28th Sept. 1831.

My dear Mrs. Grant,—

I beg leave to send you herewith, according to promise, the corrected copy of our Scottish version of the Psalms, of which I spoke to you while I was in Edinburgh. I should be happy if you took the trouble to glance into it at your leisure moments. You will find the emendations made only on a few passages, and these, I think, the most objectionable and indefensible as relates either to the bad grammar or the false or double rhymes in the Scotticisms to be found in our psalmody. I have not ventured to touch any passage which I deemed not in some respect blameworthy; and very probably you may mark off some few slight passages which may admit of some gentle healing, but which by me have not been observed, or have not come within that scope of emendation which I prescribed to myself. If our present version, which is assuredly the best, is ever to be at all purified or emended, it should be done by gentle means and by making the smallest possible alterations, so that its present readers and admirers may read and admire on without being conscious of any violence committed — without having their attention distracted, and their time-confirmed respect shocked by any modern botches of superfluous or glaring emendation. Whether I have done according to my own design and conception I do not know; but if correction is to be tried at all, assuredly it should proceed in this gentle manner. I should be glad not only to have your written opinion so soon as you have perused my attempted corrections, but that you yourself as an amusement (which I found a delightful one) should try your hand at correcting any false rhyme or return stanza, for instance in Psalms xviii. and xix., or any other you may deem deserving of it....

The volume of corrected Psalms you will please retain till I revisit Edinburgh, which perhaps, if weather be favourable, may be at Christmas. — I have the honour to be, my dear Mrs. Grant, your very faithful servant,


"Devongrove, Dollar, 15th Dec. 1831.

My dear Mrs. Grant,—

It was with the utmost pleasure I received your esteemed letter of 28th ult., which I perused with much delight. I am glad indeed to find that you enjoy the same good health in which I left you in September. I shall be now fain to see your remarks on the attempted emendations of our much-revered old Scottish Psalm-version....

Since I had the pleasure of seeing you I have been bereaved of my good old mother, who died at my house about four weeks ago. She lived with me after my father's death for the space of about three and a half years. She had enjoyed for several years very good health, and we were all happy together. What a blank has been created in our happy house hold by her departure! It will be a long time ere I become reconciled to it.

Attached to this, I beg leave to send you a few lines written after her decease, — 'To her Spinning-wheel' — an exercise in which she took great delight. I was much affected by the circumstance of her leaving the 'task of flax' unspun. I should be glad if you were pleased with the few stanzas written upon this familiar household subject.

Should I be in Edinburgh at the Christmas holidays, I shall avail myself of that opportunity again to enjoy the pleasure of your conversation. — And believe me to be at all times, my dear Mrs. Grant, very sincerely your faithful servant,