1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Tennant

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Tennant, Anster Fair; Edinburgh Review 24 (November 1814) 174-82.



We consider this volume not only as eminently original, but as belonging to a class of composition hitherto but little known in the literature of this country — to that species, we mean, of gay or fantastic poetry which plays through the works of Pulci and Ariosto, and animates the compositions of many interior 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 license 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 if 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.

We are by no means certain that the present attempt will unsettle that opinion; and are very far from thinking, either that its success has been perfect, or that the author has been fortunate in the choice of a subject, or in all of the details of his execution. The attempt, however, is bold and vigorous; and indicates both talents and enterprise that may hereafter be more worthily employed. Hitherto, it is proper to mention, they have been exerted under circumstances the most unpropitious; for Mr. Tennant is a kind of prodigy as well as Mr. Hogg — and his book would be entitled to notice as a curiosity, even if its pretensions were much smaller than they are on the score of its literary merit.

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 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, as we understand, 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 schoolmaster in one of the most dreary and thinly peopled parishes in the same county, — 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 such verses as now lie before us. Without any reference to the condition of their author, we have already said, that they are remarkable for spirit and originality; — considered in connexion with his history, we think they are altogether surprising.

The subject, which we do not think very fortunately chosen, is borrowed from some antient 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 glittering 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 poems 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 subjects 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 Shakespeare,

— his delights
Are dophin-like, and show their backs above
The element they move in.

We may begin our quotations with a few extracts from the copious account of the groupes that came trooping to the bridal games — though its chief merit consists in that copiousness and variety which cannot well be exemplified in any specimen we can now afford to transcribe.

Comes next from Ross-shire, and from Sutherland,
The horny-knuckled kilted Highlandman:
From where upon the rocky Caithness strand
Breaks the long wave that at the Pole began,
And where Lochfyne from her prolific sand
Her herrings gives to feed each bord'ring clan,
Arrive the brogue-shod men of gen'rous eye,
Plaided, and breechless all, with Esau's hairy thigh.

And every husbandman round Largo-law
Hath scrap'd his huge-wheel'd dung-cart fair and clean,
Wherein, on sacks stuff'd full of oaten straw,
Sits the Goodwife, Tam, Katey, Jock, and Jean.
In flow'rs and ribbands drest, the horses draw
Stoutly their creaking cumbersome machine,
As on his cart-head sits, the Goodman proud,
And cheerily cracks his whip, and whistles clear and loud.
Then from her coal-pits Dysart vomits forth
Her subterranean Men of colour dun,
Poor human mouldwarps! doom'd to scrape in earth,
Cimmerian people, strangers to the sun!
Gloomy as soot, with faces grim and swarth,
They march, most sourly leering every one. p. 47. 48.
Next, from the well-air'd ancient town of Crail,
Go out her craftsmen with tumultuous din,
Her wind-bleach'd fishers, sturdy-limb'd and halt,
Her in-kneed tailors, garrulous and thin;
And some are flush'd with horns of pithy ale,
And some are fierce with drams of smuggled gin,
And market-maids, and apron'd wives, that bring
Their gingerbread in baskets to the FAIR;
And cadgers with their creels, that hang by string
From their lean horse-ribs, rubbing off the hair;
And crook-legg'd cripples, that on crutches swing
Their shabby persons with a noble air. p. 50.
Nor only was the land with crowds opprest,
That trample forward to th' expected FAIR:
The harass'd ocean had no peace or rest,
So many keels her foamy bosom tear;
For, into view, now sailing from the west,
With streamers idling in the bluish air,
Appear the painted pleasure-boats superb.
And red-prow'd fisher-boats afar are spied
In south-east, tilting o'er the jasper main,
Whose wing-like oars, dispread on either side,
Now swoop on sea, now rise in sky again. p. 60, 61.

There are at least thirty pages of this kind of description — nor is the account of the occupation of the assembled multitude on the eve of the solemnity less animated or strongly coloured.

Others upon the green, in open air,
Enact the best of Davie Lindsay's plays;
While ballad-singing women do not spare
Their throats, to give good utt'rance to their lays;
And many a leather-lung'd co-chanting pair
Of wood-legg'd sailors, children's laugh and gaze,
Lift to the courts of Jove their voices loud,
Y-hymning their mishaps, to please the heedless crowd.
Meanwhile the sun, fatigued (as well he may)
With shining on a night till seven o'clock,
Beams on each chimney-head a farewell ray,
Illuming into golden shaft its smoke;
And now in sea, far west from Oronsay,
Is dipp'd his chariot-wheel's refulgent spoke,
And now a section of his face appears,
And diving, now he ducks clean down o'er head and ears.
Anon uprises, with blithe bagpipe's sound,
And shriller din of flying fiddlestick,
On the green loan and meadow-crofts around
A town of tents, with blankets roofed quick:
A thousand stakes are rooted in the ground;
A thousand hammers clank and clatter thick;
A thousand fiddles squeak and squeal it yare;
A thousand stormy drones out-gasp in groans their air.
And such a turbulence of gen'ral mirth
Rises from ANSTER loan upon the sky,
That from his throne Jove starts, and down on earth
Looks, wond'ring what may be the jollity.
Meantime the Moon, yet leaning on the stream,
With fluid silver bathes the welkin chill,
That now Earth's half-ball, on the side of night,
Swims in an argent sea of beautiful moonlight. p. 67-69.

The bright opening of the eventful day is described in a strain of purer poetry — which slides, however, very naturally into the gossiping tone that is most natural to the subject.

Round through the vast circumference of sky
Scarce can the eye one speck of cloud behold,
Save in the East some fleeces bright of dye,
That hem the rim of heav'n with woolly gold,
Whereon are happy angels wont to lie
Lolling, in amaranthine flow'rs enroll'd,
That they may spy the precious light of God,
Flung from the blessed East o'er the fair Earth abroad.
The fair Earth laughs through all her boundless range,
Heaving her green hills high to greet the beam;
City and village, steeple, cot, and grange,
Gilt as with Nature's purest leaf-gold seem;
The heaths and upland muirs, and fallows, change
Their barren brown into a ruddy gleam,
And, on ten thousand dew-bent leaves and sprays,
Twinkle ten thousand suns, and fling their petty rays.
Up from their nests and fields of tender corn
Full merrily the little skylarks spring,
And on their dew-bedabbled pinions borne,
Mount to the heav'n's blue key-stone flickering,
They turn their plume-soft bosoms to the morn,
And hail the genial light, and cheerly sing;
Echo the gladsome hills and valleys round,
As all the bells of Fife ring loud and swell the sound.
For when the first up-sloping ray was flung
On ANSTER steeple's swallow-harb'ring top,
Its bell and all the bells around were rung
Sonorous, jangling loud without a stop;
For toilingly each bitter beadle swung,
Ev'n till he smoked with sweat, his greasy rope,
And almost broke his bell-wheel, ush'ring in
The morn of ANSTER FAIR, with far-resounding din.
And, from our steeple's pinnacle out-spread,
The town's long colours flare and flap on high,
Whose anchor, blazon'd fair in green and red,
Curls, pliant to each breeze that whistles by;
Whilst, on the boltsprit, stern, and topmast head
Of brig and sloop that in the harbour lie,
Streams the red gaudery of flags in air. p. 76-78.

We have not courage to venture on any detailed description of the games themselves — though they are delineated with singular spirit and originality. The following little sketch of the starting of the victor in the ass race, will be sufficient to satisfy the reader, that, even in the most dangerous parts of his subject, the author never stoops to mere vulgar jocularity, and always redeems himself by some actual felicity of diction or conception.

See how his bright whip, brandish'd round his head,
Flickers like streamer in the northern skies;
See how his ass on earth with nimble tread
Half-flying rides, in air half-riding flies,
As if a pair of ostrich wings, outspread,
To help him on, had sprouted from his thighs.
The pole is gain'd; his ass's head he turns
Southward, to tread the trodden ground again;
Sparkles like flint the cuddy's hoof, and burns,
Seeming to leave a smoke upon the plain;
His bitted mouth the foam impatient churns;
Sweeps his broad tail behind him like a train. &c. p. 100.

The bag-piping is also recorded in strains not less sonorous. The effect of the victor's performance is to throw the whole assembly into a wild delirium of dancing — a catastrophe borrowed from the Oberon of Wieland — and yet described with an original vein of extravagance and humour.

And hoar-hair'd men and wives, whose marrow Age
Hath from their hollow bones suck'd out and drunk,
Canary in unconscionable rage,
Nor feel their sinews wither'd now and shrunk.
Pell-mell in random couples they engage,
And boisterously wag feet, arms, and trunk,
And cripples from beneath their shoulders fling
Their despicable crutches far away,
Then, yoked with those of stouter limbs, up-spring
In hobbling merriment, uncouthly gay.
But such a whirling and a din there was
Of bodies and of feet, that heel'd the ground,
As when the Maelstrom in his craggy jaws
Engluts the Norway waves with hideous sound.
In vain the black sea-monster plies his paws
'Gainst the strong eddy that impels him round:
Rack'd and convulsed, th' ingorging surges roar,
And fret their frothy wrath, and reel from shore to shore.
So reel the mob, and with their feet up-cast
From the tramp'd soil a dry and dusty cloud,
That shades the huddling hurly-burly vast
From the warm sun as with an earthy shroud;
Else, had the warm sun spied them wriggling fast,
He sure had laugh'd at such bewitched crowd,
For never, since heaven's baldric first he trod,
Tripp'd was such country dance beneath his fiery road. p. 149-51.

After the whole solemnities are finished, the breaking up of the vast assemblage is thus described.

Which heard, the congregated folk upbroke
With loud disruption their diffusion vast,
And, split and shoaling of in many a flock,
With homeward squeeze they turbulently past.
Beneath their feet the pillar'd earth did rock,
As up to Jove a dusty cloud they cast,
That blear'd the bright eyes of night's glimmering queen,
And choked the brilliant stars, and dimm'd their twinkling sheen.
And such the clutter was, when shoal from shoal
With violent impulse was torn and riven,
As when the vaulting ice that floors the pole,
Touch'd by the fiery shafts of warming heaven,
Splits into fractured isles, that crash and roll
Diverse, athwart the molten ocean driven. p. 202, 203.

When the bridal party are assembled at supper, the gallant victor thinks fit to disclose, that he had been moved to this enterprize by the suggestion of a little female fairy, who appeared on his supper table, and promised him her assistance. He first saw a white and fragrant vapour ascend, in columns from his dishes.

I sat and gazed — not long; when, strange to say,
Forth from that reeky pillar's paly base
Started at once a little female fay,
Giggling and blithely, laughing in my face.
Her height was as the lily, that in May
Lifts to the sun her head's envermeil'd grace,
The gown in which her elfship was array'd,
Like to the peacock's painted feather shined,
And on the tablecloth redundant spread
Its lustrous train for half a foot behind;
Over her breast her purple-striped plaid
Lay floating loose and thin as woven wind;
And gorgeous was her head-dress as the hue
Of Iris-flower, that spreads her velvet petals blue.
Deck'd was her neck's circumference with row
Of diamonds, strung on thread in costly band,
Small pearly berries that are wont to grow
Upon the bushes of old Fairyland;
And in each diamond's orb so fair in show,
My candle's image burning seem'd to stand,
That her white slender neck was all in gleam,
Doubly impearled thus with light's reflected beam. p. 216, 217.

The story is no sooner ended, than a flash of silvery light emblazes the hall, and the two glittering beings appear on he table, in the midst of the fragrant vapour. Their first attention is to each other. They rush like parted lovers into a fond embrace.

And, as two doves of plumy varnish'd throat
Sit billing in their dovecot's nested hole,
Their liquid wee lips twitter'd kisses hot,
In fond commutuality of soul. p. 226.

Puck then tells the whole story of their cruel separation by the malice of a gloomy enchanter, and of the spells which had connected their reunion with the marriage of the happy pair, whom they had just brought together; and finally takes his leave of the good company, and the merry monarch who graced it with presence, in this characteristic manner.

"And now, my Lord, O King! we must away
To taste the sweets of new-found liberty,
To ride astraddle on the lunar ray,
In airy gallop to the top of sky,
And lave our limber limbs, and plash and play
Amid the milk that dims the galaxy.
Farewell! May joys be rain'd on each of you!
Adieu, thou bridegroom sweet! Thou bonny bride, adieu!"
This having said, he on his shiny hair,
Did gracefully his silver hat replace,
And seizing by the hand his lady fair,
Awhile look'd smerking, winking, in her face;
Then, swift as spark from fire or beam from star,
That unsubstantial, slim, frail, fairy-brace,
From table heaving of their phantasms small,
Sheer through the window flew of MAGGIE'S dining-hall.
Sheer through the window fleetly flew the twain,
Mocking the eye that tried to follow them;
Yet, strange to add! nor wood nor glassy pane
Was injured of the fay-pierced window-frame.
Amazement ran in every beating vein
Of bride, and groom, and king, and lord and dame,
As they beheld the coupled goblins fly
Through window-shut and glass abroad into the sky. 238-9.

Perhaps we have detained our English readers too long with our two tuneful countrymen. They have neither of them, we confess, the pathos and simplicity of Burns, or the energy and splendour of Scott; but they appear to us to be persons of promise; and, at all events, to be singly worth a whole cageful of ordinary songsters from the colleges and cities of the South. We leave them now to their fate; and if they do not turn out well, we engage to be more cautious in giving out words of good augury for the future.