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Significant Scots
William Tennant


TENNANT, WILLIAM, LL.D., Professor of Oriental Languages in St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews.—This most accomplished linguist and excellent poet was born in Anstruther, a royal burgh on the south-eastern coast of Fife, once a town and seaport of great commercial importance in the history of Scotland, but which has now dwindled, in the course of mercantile changes, into a place of little note. He was, however, the fellow-townsman and contemporary of Dr. Chalmers. He was born in the year 1784. His father, who was a small merchant in Anstruther, appears to have been a man in straitened circumstances, while in early infancy the future poet and professor, without any original malformation, lost the use of both his feet, and was obliged for life to move upon crutches. Thus desperate from the beginning was his chance of attaining to excellence and distinction. But within that puny frame was lodged a spirit that could wrestle down such obstacles, and grow stronger from the conflict.

In those days it was the custom in Scotland, that whosoever was thought not fit to be anything else, was judged good enough to be a teacher, and destined accordingly; and thus it too often happened that our parochial seminaries were Bethesda pools, surrounded by the lame, the halt, and paralytic, waiting for the friendly hand of patronage to lift them into office when a vacancy occurred. It was not wonderful, therefore, that the poor lame boy was educated with the view of permanently occupying a schoolmaster’s chair, instead of poussing his fortune by a life of travel and adventure. He was accordingly sent betimes to the schools of his native town, and after he had learned all that they could teach him, he was transferred in 1799 to the university of St. Andrews, with the view of finishing his education. One so fitted to be a linguist by nature, could not fail to make a rapid progress under the prelections of such instructors as Dr. Hunter and Dr. Hill. After having spent two years at the United College, St. Andrews, in the study of the classics, the state of pecuniary affairs at home did not permit him to enjoy the usual curriculum, and he was hastily recalled to Anstruther. In the meantime, however, by the study of two languages, he had acquired the key that could unlock them all, be his circumstances what they might; and of this facility he soon showed himself a ready occupant. Independently of the higher Latin and Greek writers, so seldom mastered at our universities, but with which he became as conversant as with the authors of his own tongue, he ventured upon the study of Hebrew, with no other teachers than a dictionary and grammar, and made such proficiency, that in half a year and three days he read through the whole of the Hebrew Bible. While thus employed in the study of languages at Anstruther, and laying the foundation of his future renown and success, the claims of business called him away to Glasgow in 1803-4, where he was employed as clerk to his brother, a corn-factor in that city; and on the removal of the business to his native town a year after, he continued in the same capacity in Anstruther. While thus exalted upon the high tripod of a counting-house, or haggling with borrel discontented farmers upon the price of aits and barley—an admirable specimen of the "pursuit of knowledge under difficulties"—he was making, by his unaided efforts, and in his moments of leisure, such acquirements as the halls of Oxford or Cambridge would have been proud to have enshrined. Language after language yielded before his onset, whether dead or living, whether barbarous or refined, whether eastern, western, northern, or southern. One startling proof of this desperate indomitable perseverance, as well as peculiar aptitude in acquiring a tongue, was, that in a very few weeks after studying the Gaelic, reckoned the most impracticable of all living languages, he was able to read the whole of the Highland New Testament with ease and fluency.

While William Tennant was thus laudably occupied, a more than ordinary portion of the cares of life interposed to annoy him. The business of a corn-factor, in which his brother was engaged in Anstruther, was unsuccessful, and became involved in such pecuniary responsibilities, that the principal found it advisable to make a hasty retreat, leaving poor William, his substitute, to answer in his stead. This the latter did, not only by enduring incarceration, as if he had been the real debtor, but a large amount of obloquy to boot, from those who went in search of the assets of the business, but could not find them. After the innocent scape-goat had sustained his unmerited share of reproach and imprisonment, he was set free, upon which he retired to his father’s humble dwelling. He was soon to emerge into the world in a new character. To his remarkable powers of application and abstraction, by which he was enabled to acquire so many languages, he added the higher qualities of taste and imagination, so that the study of poetry and the occupation of verse-making had been alternated with his graver pursuits. He now set himself in earnest to attempt authorship as a poet, and the result was "Anster Fair," not only the first, but the best of all the productions he has given to the world. Its chances of fame were at first extremely precarious, for it appeared in 1811 in a humble unpretending form, and from the obscure press of an Anstruther publisher. It was thus accessible to few except the peasants and shopkeepers of Fife, who had no fitting relish for such poetical caviare; so that, after languishing a year unnoticed it might have passed into oblivion, but for one of those simple accidents that sometimes arrest a work of merit in full transit, and restore it to its proper place. Lord Woodhouselee, the accomplished scholar and critic, having seen the little volume, perused it—and to read it, was to admire and appreciate. Anxious to know who the author was—for the poem was published anonymously—and to make his merits known to the world, he applied to Mr. Cockburn, the Anstruther publisher, for information, in the following letter:—

"SIR,—I have lately read, with a very high degree of pleasure, a small poetical performance, which, I observe, bears your name as publisher on the title-page. The author of ‘Anster Fair’ cannot long remain concealed. It contains, in my opinion, unequivocal marks of strong original genius, a vein of humour of an uncommon cast, united with a talent for natural description of the most vivid and characteristic species, and, above all, a true feeling of the sublime—forming altogether one of the most pleasing and singular combinations of the different powers of poetry that I have ever met with. Unless the author has very strong reasons for concealing his name, I must own that I should be much gratified by being informed of it. "ALEX. FRASER TYTLER."

After this, "Anster Fair" began to be read in circles where it could be best appreciated, and a criticism in the "Edinburgh Review," from the discriminating pen of Jeffrey, in 1814, established the character of the poem as one of the most talented and remarkable productions of its kind that had yet appeared. Its merits are thus summed up by the lynx-eyed, accomplished critic: "The great charm of this singular composition consists, no doubt, in the profusion of images and groups 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 Shakspeare—:

-----‘his delights
Are dolphin-like, and show their backs above
The element they move in.’"

Thus far the critic. The groundwork which the poet selected for this diversified and gorgeous superstructure, was as unpromising as it well could be, for it was the dirty and unpicturesque Loan of Anster; the sports were sack-racing, ass-racing, and a yelling competition of bagpipes; and the chief personages of the tale were Maggie Lauder, a nymph of less than doubtful reputation in the songs and legends of Fife, and Rob the Ranter, a swaggering, deboshed bagpiper, of no better character. All this, however, was amplified into a tale of interest, as well as purified and aggrandized by redeeming touches; so that, while Maggie under his hands became a chaste bride, and Rob the pink of rural yeomanry, Puck, almost as kingly as Oberon himself, and his tiny dame, scarcely less fair than Titania, take a part in the revels. And the exuberant wit that sparkles, effervesces, and bubbles o’er the brim—the mirth and fun, that grow fast and furious as the dancing nimble-footed stanzas proceed—for all this, too, we can find a sufficient cause, not only in the temperament of the poet, but the peculiar circumstances under which the poem was produced. For Tennant himself, although a cripple, so that he could not move except upon crutches, was requited for the loss by a buoyancy of spirit, that bore him more lightly through the ills of life than most men. In addition to this, also, it must be remembered that he had been impoverished, imprisoned, and villified; and that "Anster Fair" was the natural rebound of a happy cheerful spirit, that sought and found within itself a bright and merry world of its own, in which it could revel to the full, undisturbed by debts, duns, writs, empty pockets, and sour malignant gossipred. What were John Doe and Richard Roe compared with Rob the Ranter and his bright-haired Maggie, or with Puck and his little Mab fresh from their imprisonment of mustard-pot and pepper-box? These were circumstances that made him write in such a rattling mirthful strain as he never afterwards reached, when every aid of an honoured and prosperous condition stood obedient beside his learned chair.

As for the mechanical structure of the poem, this too was happily suited to the subject, being as completely out of the beaten track as the tale itself. The following is his own account of it in his original preface: "The poem is written in stanzas of octave rhyme, or the ottava rima of the Italians, a measure said to be invented by Boccaccio, and after him employed by Tasso and Ariosto. From these writers it was transferred into English poetry by Fairfax, in his translation of "Jerusalem Delivered," but since his days has been by our poets, perhaps, too little cultivated. The stanza of Fairfax is here shut with the ‘Alexandrine’ of Spenser, that its close may be more full and sounding." It was not the least of Tennant’s poetical achievements, that he restored this long-neglected stanza into full use in English poetry. It was adopted by Lord Byron in his "Beppo" and "Don Juan," and has since been followed by a whole host of imitators, both in the serious and comic strain.

As it was not by poetry, however, that William Tennant meant to live, he set himself in earnest to the humble and laborious, but less precarious occupation of a schoolmaster, for which he had been originally designed. In 1813, he was so fortunate as to be appointed teacher of a school in the parish of Denino, a district situated between Anstruther and St. Andrews, and about five miles from the last-named seat of learning. And it speaks not a little for his contented spirit and moderate wishes, that he accepted a situation yielding only 40 a year, at a time when his poetical reputation had obtained a fair start in the race, while his acquirements as a linguist could scarcely have been matched in Scotland. But for the present he was fully content with a quiet little cottage, and access to the stores of St. Andrews’ college library; and here, without any other teacher than books, he made himself master of the Syriac, Persian, and Arabic languages. From his limited means he also published a second edition of "Anster Fair," much superior in typography and external appearance to the humble little volume that had first issued from the press of Anstruther. After labouring three years at Denino, where he had little literary society of any kind, except that of Hugh Cleghorn, Esq., of Stravithie, and the minister of the parish, Tennant was promoted to the more lucrative situation of schoolmaster of Lasswade, chiefly through the kind offices of Mr. George Thomson, the friend and correspondent of Burns. Besides the superior means which he now possessed of pursuing his beloved studies, his nearness to the capital and his growing reputation brought him into full intercourse with the distinguished literary society with which Edinburgh at this time abounded, so that, both as linguist and poet, his social spirit found ample gratification. At Lasswade he continued to perform the duties of a parish schoolmaster, when a further rise in office awaited him. The newly established and richly endowed institution of Dollar was in want of a teacher of the classical and Oriental languages, and as Tennant’s reputation was now deservedly high, not only for his scholarship, but—what was of far greater importance—his power of making others good scholars as well as himself, he was appointed to this profitable and important charge, in January, 1819. Even yet, however, he had not attained a promotion that was fully adequate to his merits, for in the highest charge which profound and varied scholarship could reach, he would have been found the best fitted to occupy it. The opportunity seemed to occur in 1831, when the chair of Oriental languages in St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews, became vacant, and Tennant offered himself as candidate for the professorship, and had almost succeeded, his claims and those of his rival, Dr. Scott, minister of Corstorphine, having been for some time doubtfully deliberated by the crown authorities. The latter, however, was preferred, and Tennant continued three years longer at Dollar, when, by the death of Dr. Scott, he was, on the strength of his former competition, appointed to the professorship.

In this way the author of "Anster Fair," by a series of steps, ascended from the lowest to one of the highest grades of Scottish academical distinction. But while he was thus struggling onward as a teacher, and at every stage adding to his philological acquirements, he did not lose sight of that poetical character through which he had first risen into notice. Some years, therefore, after his Anstruther production, he produced a new poem, entitled "Papistry Storm’d, or the Dingin’ doun o’ the Cathedral." The subject, as may be guessed, was the demolition of the cathedral of St. Andrews, the metropolitan church of Scotland at the commencement of the Reformation; and in the style of the narrative he endeavoured to imitate the quaint and vigorous manner of Sir David Lyndesay. But it was not easy for a poet of the 19th century to imitate one who impersonated the very fashion and spirit of the 16th; and, therefore, it is no wonder that the attempt was a failure. Had there been a "No Popery" cry, or had the poem been published in the present day, the subject, independently of the intrinsic merits of the work, might have forced it into wide though temporary popularity; but as it was, the age had not yet got reconciled to the demolition of the stately strongholds of Antichrist, and, therefore, his "Dingin’ doun o’ the Cathedral," was as complete a downfall as the eversion it tried to commemorate.

The next poetical attempt of Tennant was a poem of the epic character, which he published in 1822, 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 9th century, when Constantine, the Scottish king, was slain, and the enemy obtained a footing on the coast of Fifeshire, to the great advantage of our fishing villages, and the provision of skate, haddocks, and oysters for the tables of the present generation. But who of our living race could otherwise care for Hungar and his hard-knuckled belligerent Scandinavians, although the poet brought in Odin, the sire of gods and men, and Niord, the god of the winds, to back them? Therefore, although the poem was a very good poem as far as the rules of epic poetry went—even better by half than Sir Richard Blackmore’s "Arthur"—and although the correctness of the Runic mythology was such that an ancient Scald would have translated it into a rune without alteration, the "Thane of Fife" was such an utter failure, that it met with less acceptance than its predecessor. Luckily, only the first part of the poem, consisting of six cantos, was published; the rest, like the story of "Cambuscan Bold," or of "The Wondrous Horse of Brass," remained unsung.

Only a year after the "Thane"(in 1823), Tennant published his "Cardinal Beaton, a Tragedy, in five acts." This dramatic poem few have read, and of that few not half of the number would greatly care to remember it. The subject itself is a noble one, and the character of the cardinal, that "less than a king, yet greater," was amply fitted to develope the very highest of poetic talent. But, unluckily, the poet, instead of exhibiting this bold bad man with the lofty regal and intellectual qualities which he undoubtedly possessed, has stuck to the sordid and sensual vices with which Beaton was chargeable, and has thus converted him into a mere vulgar incubus. In fact, he has made him talk, not in the elevated language of one to whom high designs, by which Europe itself was to be shaken, were familiar, but rather after the fashion of the vulgar sensualist, who, in the phrase of Knox, "was busie at his compts with Mistris Marion Ogilbie." This was not a picture suited to the improved tastes of the day, and therefore the public would none of "Cardinal Beaton."

Undeterred by the failure of this attempt in dramatic poetry, Tennant, in 1825, published "John Baliol," and only added another unit to his failures. His adoption of the "toom tabard" as his hero, seemed to intimate that his own wits were run out, and the poem therefore thred as its namesake had done—it was deposed and sent into oblivion. The public now wondered, and well it might, that the rich promise given in "Anster Fair" had been so poorly redeemed. What had become of that ungovernable wit that had burst its bounds, and overflowed in such profusion? A single stanza of Rob the Ranter was worth fifty Baliols and Beatons to boot. Fortunately for Tennant’s character as a poet, his retirement from the stage was calm and graceful. His last work, which he published in 1845, entitled "Hebrew Dramas, founded on Incidents in Bible History," and consisting of three dramatic compositions, illustrative of characters and events mentioned in the earlier part of the Old Testament, are free of the extravagance and bad taste of his former productions, while they abound in passages of poetical dignity and gracefulness. It will easily be surmised, however, from the foregoing statements, that Tennant would have ranked higher as a poet, had he abandoned poetry altogether after his first fortunate hit. It would seem as if he had either poured out all his poetical genius in this one happy attempt, or dried it up in those verbal studies that occupied him wholly to the last.

As a prose writer, Tennant, like other great masters of languages, never attained any high distinction. It would be too much, indeed, to expect from a man who has acquired a dozen or a score of tongues, that he should possess the same power over the world of thought. Accordingly, although he was a contributor to the "Edinburgh Literary Journal," his articles, which chiefly consisted of a correspondence with the Ettrick Shepherd about a new metrical version of the Psalms, do not exhibit any peculiar excellence. His prose, indeed, is as stiff and artificial as if it were a translation, leaving the reader to suspect that he could have written it every whit as well in Syriac or Hindostanee. It seemed, indeed, as if, in the study of so many languages, he had partly forgot his own.

By a system of rigid economy, which his early condition had probably taught him, Tennant became proprietor of the pleasant villa of Devongrove, near Dollar, where he usually spent the summer months at the close of each college session; and there his library was his world, and its books his chief companions. There, also, his peaceful life passed away, on the 15th of October, 1848, in consequence of a cold of two years’ standing, by which his constitution was exhausted.


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