A weaver in wartime: a biographical study and the letters of Paisley weaver-poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810)

Ferguson, Jim (2011) A weaver in wartime: a biographical study and the letters of Paisley weaver-poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810). PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b2859150


This thesis is a critical biography of Robert Tannahill (1774-1810). As a work of recovery its aim is to lay out the details of the life and in so doing to make the case for Tannahill as a distinctive figure in Scottish literary history. Part One covers the main events in Tannahill’s life, and analyses his poetry, songs and play, The Soldier’s Return, drawing heavily on his extant correspondence throughout. Part Two of the thesis gives all of Tannahill’s extant correspondence.
The received critical opinion of Tannahill in the nineteenth century was that his true talent lay in the writing of Scottish pastoral songs. In accordance with this perception the other aspects of his work have, generally, been treated as marginal by previous critics. This thesis aims to broaden the critical understanding of Tannahill as a writer working in the first decade of the 1800s by taking into consideration his social and political milieu, the writers he was influenced by and his response to particular events in his life and in the world. I argue that Tannahill was not party political, but had sympathy for Whig causes such as abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. He also opposed cock-fighting and animal cruelty. Key to understanding much of Tannahill’s output was his attitude to the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815). Fear of French invasion of the British Isles was something that exercised Tannahill a good deal. His attitude to war was that it was pointless human folly, but his dislike of all imperialism, including British and French, makes his position complex and the complexity of his response to war is a recurring theme throughout.
Tannahill’s upbringing in Paisley and his position as an artisan weaver had a profound effect on his writing, as did the influence of Robert Burns. Tannahill was fiercely independent, despised literary patronage and inherited wealth and power. There is an attempt to explain and understand how and why Tannahill came to hold these points of view and to point out where they find expression in his work.
Chapter 1 looks at Tannahill’s upbringing and life in Paisley. Chapter 2 deals with the ‘Critical Reception’ of his work from 1815 to the present. Chapter 3 looks in depth at his attitudes to war and the threat of French invasion. Chapter 4 concentrates on Tannahill’s play The Soldier’s Return and considers how it fits into the pastoral tradition. Chapter 5 looks at the content and some formal aspects of his poetry and Chapter 6 deals with the range of his lyrics and songs.

Part Two is a project of retrieval, sub-titled The Letters of Robert Tannahill, it presents in chronological order eighty-two letters, the vast majority of which were written by Tannahill to friends and acquaintances between the years 1802 and 1810. It has been compiled from holograph manuscript sources found in the University of Glasgow Library, the National Library of Scotland, University of Edinburgh Library and Paisley Central Library. In addition, letters previously published in the David Semple edition of Tannhill’s Poems, Songs and Correspondence (1876) have been inserted to give the most comprehensive collection of Tannahill correspondence to date. These letters give a fascinating insight into Tannahill’s life and work. The guiding editorial principle for transcription from holograph has been: to provide as accurately as possible a text free from editorial interference.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information:
Keywords: Robert Tannahill, Biography, Letters, Scottish Poetry, Pastoral, Pastoral poetry, Pastoral drama, Scottish Song, Irish Song, Weavers, Weavers' Poetry, Robert Tannahill and Robert Burns, Napoleonic Wars, Robert Tannahill and John Clare, Robert Tannahill and Thomas Moore, Paisley, Paisley Poets, Renfrewshire, Alexander Wilson, Romanticism, The Soldier's Return, Robert Tannahill and William Motherwell, Critical Reception, Robert Tannahill Politics and Radicalism, Tannahill and Religion, Tannahill and The Scottish Enlightenment, Augustan and Romantic Poetics, James Scadlock, William Finlayson, Robert Allan, William McLaren
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Maley, Professor Willy
Date of Award: 2011
Depositing User: Dr Jim Ferguson
Unique ID: glathesis:2011-2395
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 08 Mar 2011
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:54
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/2395

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