Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by William Minto
William Tennant (17841848)
[Tennant, born at Anstruther, Fifeshire, in 1786, was in early life a schoolmaster, and later on Professor of Oriental Languages at St. Andrews. Anster Fair, by which he is known to poetry, was written in 1811 and published in 1812. The Thane of Fife, a long narrative poem, published in 1822, was a failure, and the same may be said of his Hebrew Dramas and his tragedies of Cardinal Bethune and John Balliol. He died in 1848.]
THE AUTHOR of Anster Fair is an extraordinary instance of a single-poem poet. When Byron translated the first Canto of Pulcis Morgante Maggiore, he spoke of the Italian poet as the founder of a new style of poetry lately sprung up in England, explaining that he alluded to that of the ingenious Whistlecraft. Tennant, however, anticipated the ingenious Whistlecraft in the introduction of this new style into the English poetry of the nineteenth century. He was the first to use with masterly effect the style which Byron associated for all time with Don Juan. After taking rank at an early age among the masters of mock-heroic, he abandoned this field, essayed the true-heroic, and failed, but never returned to his first love.
Whether Tennants poetic vein was exhausted, or crushed beneath his weight of learning, or simply abandoned as out of keeping with his grave and reverend professorial character, we have no means of knowing. The abundance and freshness of the vein almost negatives the hypothesis of exhaustion. Even when read after Don Juan, Anster Fair must excite admiration by the flexibility and rapid freedom of its verse. There is no trace of poverty in the ornaments embroidered on the fantastically cut garment; the artist runs riot in the wealth of his fantastic imagination, spending prodigally as if from an inexhaustible purse. Tennant has told us himself that it was in laughing over Peebles to the Play the humorous extravaganza ascribed to James I of Scotland, that the first thought of Anster Fair occurred to him, and his diction shows that he was a delighted student of Spenser and Shakespeare. It was probably from these native sources and not from the Italian masters that he drew his inspiration. His discipleship to Spenser is proclaimed in the Alexandrine with which he closes his eight-rhyme stanza. But he was no mere imitator and copyist; home-grown popular legends and popular sports supplied him with his materials, and he handled them boldly in his own fashion, transporting them into a many-coloured atmosphere of humorous imagination. The specimen here quoted will give some idea of his powers of imaginative description.