1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Tennant

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:501-02.



In 1812 appeared a singular mock heroic poem, Anster Fair, written in the ottava rima stanza, since made so popular by Byron in his Beppo and Don Juan. The subject was the marriage of Maggie Lauder, the famous heroine of Scottish song, but the author wrote not for the multitude familiar with Maggie's rustic glory. He aimed at pleasing the admirers of that refined conventional poetry, half serious and sentimental, and half ludicrous and satirical, which was cultivated by Berni, Ariosto, and the lighter poets of Italy. There was classic imagery on familiar subjects — supernatural machinery (as in the Rape of the Lock) blended with the ordinary details of domestic life, and with lively and fanciful description. An exuberance of animal spirits seemed to carry the author over the most perilous ascents, and his wit and fancy were rarely at fault. Such a pleasant sparkling volume, in a style then unhackneyed, was sure of success. Anster Fair sold rapidly, and has since been often republished. The author, WILLIAM TENNANT, is a native of Anstruther, or Anster, who, whilst filling the situation of clerk in a mercantile establishment, studied ancient and modern literature, and taught himself Hebrew. His attainments were rewarded in 1813 with an appointment as parish schoolmaster, to which was attached a salary of £40 per annum — a reward not unlike that conferred on Mr. Abraham Adams in Joseph Andrews, who being a scholar and man of virtue, was "provided with a handsome income of £23 a-year, which, however, he could not make a great figure with, because he lived in a dear country, and was a little encumbered with a wife and six children." The author of Anster Fair has since been appointed to a more eligible and becoming situation — teacher of classical and oriental languages in Dollar Institution, and, more recently, a professor in St. Mary's college, St. Andrews. He has published some other poetical works — a tragedy on the story of Cardinal Beaton, and two poems, the Thane of Fife, and the Dinging Down of the Cathedral. It was said of Sir David Wilkie that he took most of the figures in his pictures from living characters in the county of Fife, familiar to him in his youth: it is more certain that Mr. Tennant's poems are all on native subjects in the same district. Indeed, their strict locality has been against their popularity; but Anster Fair is the most diversified and richly humorous of them all, and besides being an animated, witty, and agreeable poem, it has the merit of being the first work of the kind in our language. The Monks and Giants of Mr. Frere (published under the assumed name of Whistlecraft), from which Byron avowedly drew his Beppo, did not appear till some time after Mr. Tennant's poem. Of the higher and more poetical parts of Anster Fair, we subjoin a specimen.