1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Tennant

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 190-92.



It would be difficult to point to any single year in the history of our literature so rich and varied in production as 1812. To it we owe, together with several lesser triumphs, the Childe Harold of Byron, the Rokeby of Scott, The Isle of Palms of Wilson, The Queen's Wake of James Hogg, the Anster Fair of William Tennant, and the Rejected Addresses of Horace and James Smith.

The introduction to British literature of the Ottava Rima, long familiar to the readers of the serio-comic conventional poetry of Italy, in the pages of Pulci, Casti, Berni, Tassoni, and Ariosto, most certainly appertains — whether for good or evil — to William Tennant, an almost self-taught genius, at the time an obscure clerk in a merchant's store, in the old, quaint, little town of Anstruther in Fife, and at the period of his death a Doctor of Laws, and Professor of Oriental Languages in the University of St. Andrews.

Tennant's other works were a tragedy on Cardinal Beaton — ineffective as a drama, but abounding in passages of high merit and interest; The Thane of Fife; and The Dinging Down of the Cathedral, — the last written in imitation of the antique style, and in the orthography, of the once celebrated Scottish poets, William Dunbar and Sir David Lyndsay. It is wonderful to observe how gaily his Pegasus prances under such a load of grotesque trappings, which, however, were quite unnecessary, and in equivocal taste; that the cleverness exhibited may be said in a great measure to have been thrown away. Tennant's latest poetical collection — the Hebrew Hymns and Eclogues — showed an evident decline of power; were deficient in freshness and variety; and, in as far as fame was concerned, might have been advantageously withheld.

Tennant's first was, beyond all comparison, also his best poem. The merit of Anster Fair consists in its lively effervescence of animal spirits, and in the varied copiousness of its imagery, drawn alike from the gay and the sententious, from the classical and the romantic, from fancy and from observation. There is a good deal of minute painting throughout, evidently after nature, and in several places it rises not only to the dignity and elevation of true poetry, but possesses one image at least which borders on the sublime. It is where, in enumerating the motley parties flocking, from different parts of the country, to the festivities of the fair, we have these lines—

Comes next from Ross-shire and from Sutherland
The horny-knuckled killed Highlandman:
From where, upon the rocky Caithness strand,
Breaks the long wave that at the Pole began.

The following stanzas, descriptive of the personal charms of the heroine, have some of the distinctive beauties just alluded to:—

Her form was as the morning's blithesome star,
That, capped with crimson coronet of beams,
Rides up the dawning orient in her car,
New washed and doubly fulgent from the streams—
The Chaldee shepherd eyes her light afar,
And on his knees, adores her as she gleams:
So shone the stately form of Maggy Lauder,
And so the admiring clouds pay homage and applaud her.

Her face was as the summer cloud, whereon
The dawning sun delights to rest his rays!
Compared with it old Sharon's Vale, o'ergrown
With flaunting roses, had resigned its praise.
For why? Her face with heaven's own roses shone,
Mocking the morn, and witching men to gaze;
And he that gazed with cold unsmitten soul,
That blockhead's heart was ice, thrice baked beneath the Pole.

It was not till five years after the appearance of Anster Fair, that Mr. Hookham Frere put forth his brochure, so full of clever whimsicality and elegant nonchalance, the Prospectus and Specimen of an Intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft of Stowmarket, in Suffolk, Harness and Collar Makers. With less, perhaps, of real poetical imagination than Tennant, Frere exhibited much more dexterity in the use of his weapons: his wit is more refined and his scholarship more dexterous. To say nothing of the Beppo and Don Juan of Byron, and the Ring of Gyges, and Spanish Story of Barry Cornwall, a crowd of imitators have since followed in the same alluring path, but certainly without any one having quite come up to Whistlecraft in his peculiar eccentric excellencies.