1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Tennant

J—y [plagiarized from Francis Jeffrey], "William Tennant, a Literary and Biographical Sketch" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 2:348-50.



We consider Tennant's first work, Anster fair, not only as eminently original, but as belonging to a class of composition hitherto but little known in the literature of Britain — to that species, we mean, of gayer fantastic poetry which plays through the works of Pulci and Ariosto, and animates the compositions of many inferior writers both in Spain and in Italy — which is equally removed from the vulgarity of mere burlesque or mock-heroic — and from the sarcasm and point and finesse of satirical pleasantry — which is extravagant rather than ridiculous, and displays only the vague and unbounded licence of a sportive and raised imagination, without the cold pungency of wit, or the practised sagacity of derision. It frequently relaxes into childishness, and is sometimes concentrated to humour; but its leading character is a kind of enthusiastic gayety, a certain intoxication and nimbleness of fancy which pours out a profusion of images without much congruity or selection, and covers all the objects to which it is directed with colours that are rather brilliant than harmonious, and combines them into groupes that are more lively than graceful. This effervescence of the spirits has been hitherto supposed almost peculiar to the warmer regions of the south; and the poetry in which it naturally exhales itself, seems as it could only find a suitable vehicle in their plastic and flexible idioms, or a fitting audience among the susceptible races by whom they were framed.

Born in a very humble condition of life, and disabled, by the infirmities of his person, from earning a subsistence by his labour, the future poet of mirth would probably have perished in helpless penury in any other country of the world. In Scotland, however, education is not very costly, — and no condition is so low, as to exempt a parent from the duty, of bestowing it, even upon the most numerous offspring. The youth was early initiated, therefore, in the mysteries of reading and writing; and after passing some years, in the situation of clerk to a little merchant in one of the small towns of Fife, was at length promoted to the dignity of parish school master in one of the most dreary and thinly peopled parishes in the same country, where he has ever since remained in unbroken cheerfulness and measureless content, on an income of less than thirty pounds a year. In his low and lonely cottage, in this cheerless seclusion, — with no literary society, — with the most scanty materials for study, and the most dim and distant anticipations of literary distinction, he not only made himself a distinguished proficient in classical learning, before he had attained his twenty-fifth year, but acquired a familiar acquaintance with the languages — and literature of modern Europe, — and cheered his solitude with the composition of verses remarkable for spirit and originality; — considered in connection with the author's condition, we think they are altogether surprising. The subject, which we do not think very fortunately chosen, is borrowed from some ancient legends, respecting the marriage choice of a fair lady, whose beauty is still celebrated in the ballads and traditions of Mr. Tennant's native district — and whose hand, it seems, was held out as the reward of the victor in an ass-race, and a match of running in sacks, a competition of bag-piping and of story-telling. Upon this homely foundation, Mr. T. has erected a vast superstructure of description, and expended a great treasure of poetry. He has also engrafted upon it, the airy and ticklish machinery of Shakespeare's, or rather of Wieland's Oberon, though he has given the less adventurous name of Puck to his ministering spirit, who, with the female fairy to whom he is wedded, patronizes the Victor in these successive contentions, and secures not only his success, but his acceptance with the devoted fair. — The merit of the poem does not consist at all, as it appears to us, in the contrivance or conduct of the story — of which the outline is briefly as follows. The blooming heroine sitting one evening by her lonely parlour-fire, is startled by the sudden apparition of a gay and fluttering fairy, who presents himself among the dishes on her supper-table, and after many admonitions, directs her to proclaim to the world her resolution of bestowing her hand in the whimsical manner that has been already mentioned, and to appoint the day of the next fair or annual market at Anster (or Anstruther in Fife) for this great competition. The orders of the tricksy spirit are accordingly obeyed; and a prodigious concourse of suitors and spectators, including the king and all his court, assemble on the day appointed. The description of their various and contrasted groupes, forms one of the longest and most spirited parts of the poem. The successive contentions are then narrated with great spirit and effect, — and the victory falling of course in every instance to the favourite of the fairies, the denouement is brought about by the actual appearance of those alert personages at the grand supper which solemnizes the betrothment, where it is explained that they had been divorced and condemned to solitary confinement, till they should be able to bring about the events which had been that day accomplished. — The great charm of this singular composition consists, no doubt, in the profusion of images and groupes which it thrusts upon the fancy, and the crowd and hurry and animation with which they are all jostled and driven along; but this, though a very rare merit in any modern production, is entitled perhaps to less distinction than the perpetual sallies and outbreakings of a rich and poetical imagination, by which the homely themes on which the author is professedly employed, are constantly ennobled or contrasted, and in which the ardour of a mind evidently fitted for higher tasks is somewhat capriciously expended. It is this frequent kindling of the diviner spirit this tendency to rise above the trivial subject among which he has chosen to disport himself, and this power of connecting grand or beautiful conceptions with the representation of vulgar objects or ludicrous occurrences, that first recommended this poem to our notice, and still seem to us to entitle it to more general notoriety. The author is occupied, no doubt, in general, with low matters, and bent upon homely mirth; — but his genius soars up every now and then in spite of him; — and "his delights" — to use a quaint expression of Shakspeare,

—His delights
Are dolphin like, and shew their backs above
The element they move in.

J—y.

W. Tennant has published since, the Thane of Fife, a poem; Cardinal Beatoun, a tragedy, etc.