Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tennant, William
TENNANT, WILLIAM (1784–1848), linguist and poet, son of Alexander Tennant, merchant and farmer, and his wife, Ann Watson, was born in Anstruther Easter, Fifeshire, on 15 May 1784. He lost the power of both feet in childhood, and used crutches through life. After receiving his elementary education in Anstruther burgh school, he studied at St. Andrews University for two years (1799–1801). On settling at home in 1801 Tennant steadily pursued his literary studies. For a time he acted as clerk to his brother, a corn factor, first in Glasgow and then at Anstruther. Owing to a crisis in business the brother disappeared, and Tennant suffered a short period of vicarious incarceration at the instance of the creditors. He began the study of Hebrew about this time, while continuing to increase his classical attainments. His father's house had all along been a centre of literary activity—visitors of the better class in town had met there on occasional evenings for mutual improvement and recreation—and Tennant's literary aspirations had been early stirred. In 1813 he formed, along with Captain Charles Gray [q. v.] and others, the ‘Anstruther Musomanik Society,’ the members of which, according to their code of admission, assembled to enjoy ‘the corruscations [sic] of their own festive minds.’ Their main business was to spin rhymes, and some of them span merrily and well. Honorary members of proved poetic worth were admitted, Sir Walter Scott assuring the members, on receipt of his diploma in 1815, of his gratification at the incident, and his best wishes for their healthy indulgence in ‘weel-timed daffing’ (Conolly, Life and Writings of William Tennant, p. 213).
In 1813 Tennant was appointed parish schoolmaster of Dunino, five miles from St. Andrews. Here he not only matured his Hebrew scholarship, but gained a knowledge of Arabic, Syriac, and Persian. In 1816, through the influence of Burns's friend George Thomson [q. v.] and others, Tennant became schoolmaster at Lasswade, Midlothian, where his literary note gained for him the intimate acquaintance of Lord Woodhouselee and Jeffrey. In 1819 he was elected teacher of classical and oriental languages in Dollar academy, Clackmannanshire, and held the post with distinction till 1834, when Jeffrey, then lord-advocate for Scotland, appointed him professor of Hebrew and oriental languages in St. Mary's College, St. Andrews. He retired, owing to ill-health, in 1848. He died, unmarried, at Devon Grove on 14 Oct. 1848, and he was buried at Anstruther, where an obelisk monument with Latin inscription was raised to his memory.
While at the university Tennant made some respectable verse translations; and a Scottish ballad, ‘the Anster Concert,’ 1811, is an early proof of uncommon observation and descriptive vigour. In ‘Anster Fair,’ published anonymously in 1812, Tennant instantly achieved greatness. Based on the diverting ballad of ‘Maggie Lauder’ (doubtfully assigned to Francis Sempill), it is an exceedingly clever delineation of provincial merry-making. It is written in the octave stanza of Fairfax's ‘Tasso,’ ‘shut,’ as the author explains in his short preface, ‘with the alexandrine of Spenser, that its close may be more full and sounding.’ For this stanza, without Tennant's device of the alexandrine, Byron gained a name in his ‘Beppo,’ and he gave it permanent distinction in ‘Don Juan.’ A reissue in 1814 won from Jeffrey, in November of that year, an encomium in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ Six editions of the poem appeared in the author's lifetime, and a ‘people's edition’ was issued in 1849. In 1822 Tennant published the ‘Thane of Fife,’ based on the Danish invasion of the ninth century. In 1823 appeared ‘Cardinal Beaton,’ a tragedy in five acts, and in 1825 ‘John Baliol,’ an historical drama. Nowise dramatic, these works, except in occasional passages, have but little poetic distinction. In 1827, in his ‘Papistry Storm'd, or the dingin' doon o' the Cathedral’ (i.e. the destruction of St. Andrews Cathedral at the time of the Reformation), Tennant affected, with fair success but too persistently, the method and style of Sir David Lyndsay. To the ‘Scottish Christian Herald’ of 1836–37 he contributed five ‘Hebrew Idylls.’ In 1840 he published a 'Syriac and Chaldee Grammar,' a trustworthy and popular text-book. His 'Hebrew Dramas,' founded on incidents in Bible history Jephthah's daughter, Esther, destruction of Sodom appeared in 1840. Not without a degree of freshness and vigour, these are somewhat lacking in sustained interest. About 1830 Tennant became a contributor to the 'Edinburgh Literary Journal,' furnishing prose translations from Greek and German, and discussing with Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, the propriety of issuing a new metrical version of the Psalms. This correspondence was subsequently issued in a heterogeneous bookseller's collection, entitled 'Pamphlets,' 1830. Tennant edited in 1819 the 'Poems' of Allan Ramsay, with prefatory biography.
[Conolly's Life of William Tennant, and the same writer's Eminent Men of Fife and Fifiana; Chambers's edit, of Anster Fair, 1849; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Moir's Lectures on Poetical Lit.; Blackwood's Mag. i. 383, xii. 382, xiv. 421; Wilson's Noctes Ambrosianæ, i. 101; Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents, vol. ii. chap. vii.; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. v. 232, 312, 357.]