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The Scottish Nation

TENNANT, WILLIAM, author of ‘Anster Fair,’ an accomplished linguist and poet, was the son of a merchant in a small way in Anstruther, a royal burgh near the east neuk of Fife, which was also the birthplace of Dr. Chalmers. He was born in 1784, and received the elementary part of his education at the burgh school. Although born without any personal malformation, he lost the use of his feet in his early childhood, so that through life he was compelled to use crutches. As he was utterly incapable of any physical exertions for his own livelihood, he had but the prospect before him of becoming a country school-master of dominie. He was accordingly, in 1799, entered as a student in the united college of St. Andrews, where he had his townsman, Dr. Chalmers, as a fellow-student, and where he remained two sessions. The circumstances of his father prevented him from continuing longer at college, but on his return home he devoted himself assiduously to his studies. Having a great aptitude for learning, he soon made himself master of the ancient and modern languages, and then applied himself to the acquirement of the eastern tongues.

In May 1801, he became clerk to his brother, a corn-merchant first in Glasgow, and afterwards in Anstruther. That gentleman’s affairs having become embarrassed, the creditors, in the absence of the principal, seized upon his humble clerk, and immured him in prison. Not depressed, however, by this unfortunate circumstance, he set about composing his principal poem, ‘Anster Fair,’ the introductory stanzas of which were committed to writing while he was in durance. It was finished in his father’s house in 1811, and published anonymously the following year by Mr. Cockburn, bookseller, Anstruther. He had previously, about 1805, published some small ballads, chiefly on local subjects, the circulation of which was entirely confined to his native town. The subject of his ‘Anster Fair’ was the courtship and marriage of “Maggie Lauder,” the famous heroine of Scottish song, and the humours of the fair of Anstruther are depicted in a gay and lively strain, with a wit and fancy, and an ease of poetic expression peculiarly the author’s own. Mr. Tennant indeed possessed a rich native humour, with considerable powers of good-natured satire, an animated and lively facility of painting local character, scenes, and customs, and a poetical genius of a high order, rarely united in one person. The poem, with all its merits, from appearing in an obscure country town, did not at first attract much attention beyond the limits of Anstruther, but a copy of it having reached Edinburgh, in the month of August following its publication, Lord Woodlhouselee, celebrated as a scholar and critic, addressed a letter to the publisher, expressing his opinion that it contained “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 he had ever met with.” In November 1814, on the publication of a new and revised edition of the poem, Mr. Jeffrey made it the subject of an article in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ in which he gave it high praise. It is written in the ottava rima, which Lord Byron rendered popular in his Beppo and Don Juan, and has been frequently reprinted.

In the autumn of 1813, Mr. Tennant was appointed parish teacher at Denino, about four miles from St. Andrews, at a salary of forth pounds a-year. He added to his income by taking boarders. While he resided at this place he had the advantage of access to the library of the university of St. Andrews. He was thus enabled to perfect himself in the knowledge of Hebrew, and to become versed in the Arabic, Syriac, and Persian languages. A society which he had originated in Anstruther, called the “Musomanik,” and which was composed of all the “dabblers in rhyme,” and “admirers of fun and good-fellowship,” in the eastern corner of the county, published a small volume in 1814, entitled ‘Boute-Rimes; or Poetical Pastimes of a few Hobblers round the base of Parnassus,’ which contains a number of short pieces by its recorder, Mr. Tennant. This society continued to hold its meetings till 1817, when, by the dispersion of its leading members, its celebrations were suspended.

In 1816, Mr. Tennant, chiefly through the recommendation of Mr. George Thomson, the friend and correspondent of Burns, was transferred to the more lucrative situation of parish schoolmaster of Lasswade near Edinburgh. He remained there, enjoying the society of the literary men of the metropolis, till January 1819, when he was elected teacher of classical and oriental languages in Dollar academy. In 1831, on a vacancy occurring in the chair of oriental languages in St. Mary’s college, St. Andrews, he offered himself as a candidate, but was unsuccessful, Dr. Scott, minister of Corstorphine, being preferred. On the death of Dr. Scott, however, in the beginning of 1835, he was appointed by the crown to the vacant professorship. He had been for some years a member of the Royal Society of London, and in December 1847 the senatus of Marischal college, Aberdeen, conferred on him the degree of doctor of laws.

In 1827, Mr. Tennant published, at Edinburgh, in one volume 12mo, a sort of serio-comic poem, in the manner of Sir David Lindsay, entitled ‘Papistry Stormed, or the Dinging doun o’ the Cathedral,’ being a description of the destruction of the Cathedral of St. Andrews during the time of the Reformation in Scotland. This was a clever though less successful piece than his ‘Anster Fair;’ yet in it he has sung in quaintest dialect, and with all the facetious strength, fluency, and vivacity, which he attributes to the vernacular idiom of Scotland,

--- “The steir, strabush, and strife,
Whan, bickerin’ frae the towns o’ Fife,
Great bangs of bodies, thick and rife,
Gaed to Sanct Androis town,
And, wi’ John Calvin I’ their heads,
And hammers I’ their hands, and spades,
Enraged at idols, mass, and beads,
Dang the Cathedral doon.”

In 1822, he published, in one volume, the first part of a poem entitled the ‘Thane of Fife,’ describing the invasion of the Danes about the middle of the ninth century, when, according to Buchanan, Constantine, one of the Scottish kings, was slain in a battle near the town of Crail. This poem fell far short of the genius displayed in ‘Anster Fair.’ The introduction of supernatural machinery into it entirely spoiled it, and in consequence the remaining part of it never appeared.

Mr. Tennant’s next production, ‘Cardinal Beaton,’ a drama in five acts, published in 1823, was the least meritorious of all his publications. ‘John Baliol, ‘ another drama in five acts, published by him in 1825, is equally deficient in dramatic power and historical accuracy. To the ‘Edinburgh Literary Journal,’ a periodical which made its appearance about 1828, he contributed some prose translations of portions of Greek and German writers on subjects which suited his fancy, and some speculations of his own with regard to the nature and origin of languages. In its pages he engaged in a literary correspondence with James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, in regard to a proposed new metrical version of the Psalms, Tennant advocating the necessity of a new version, while Hogg insisted on the excellence of the translation at present in use. The correspondence was afterwards separately printed in a pamphlet.

In 1839, Mr. Tennant published in quarto, an epitaph on David Barclay, gravedigger in Anstruther Easter, in eight different languages, two of them being languages of the east; and in 1840, a ‘Synopsis of Syriac and Chaldiac Grammar,’ for the use of his students. In 1845 appeared three ‘Hebrew Dramas’ from his pen, founded on incidents in Bible history. The volume contained, also, a poem ‘On Envy,’ which is a very favourable specimen of his poetical powers. In 1846 appeared, anonymously, a burlesque poem, entitled ‘Muckomachy, or the Midden Fecht,’ describing a dispute between two ladies in the east neuk of Fife, which was universally attributed to Professor Tennant. He wrote a number of small poems, chiefly translations from the German poets, which were published with an edition of his ‘Anster Fair’ at Edinburgh in 1838.

As a prose writer he did not excel. In 1841 he printed an introductory address to his students, which, like all his lectures, was composed with great care. In private life he is described as having been of a retired and inoffensive disposition. He possessed extraordinary perseverance, and a wonderful facility in acquiring languages; as an instance of which, he has been heard to declare, that, in a very few weeks, he mastered the Gaelic so as to be able ad aperturam to read and translate the New Testament in that language; and it is said his first reading of the Hebrew Bible was accomplished in half-a-year and three days, with no assistance but the grammar and dictionary. He was never married.

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