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Significant Scots
Robert Pollok

POLLOK, ROBERT, author of the "Course of Time," a poem, was born in 1799, of respectable parents, at Muirhouse, in the parish of Eaglesham, Renfrewshire. After acquiring the rudiments of a classical education in the country, he passed through a regular course of literary and philosophical study at the university of Glasgow. Having sustained the ordinary previous presbyterial examinations, he was admitted to the divinity hall, under the superintendence of the late reverend Dr Dick of Glasgow, who at that time was sole professor of theology in the united secession church. On finishing his course of five years' study under this accomplished tutor, he was, by the united associate presbytery of Edinburgh, licensed to preach the gospel, in the spring of 1827. The only time he ever preached was in the former chapel of Dr John Brown, in Rose Street, Edinburgh.

A short time before receiving license to preach, he had prepared his poem, the "Course of Time," which extends to ten books, in blank verse, and describes the mortal and immortal destiny of man, in language the nearest, perhaps to that of Milton, which has ever been employed by a later bard. It has rarely happened that one so young has completed any work so extensive as this, much less one so successful; and we may be allowed to surmise, that the man who could form and execute such a design, at such a period of life, must have possessed not only an intellect of the first order of power, but a character of the first order of strength. On the recommendation of the late celebrated John Wilson, professor of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, the "Course of Time" was published by Mr Blackwood, early in 1827. Of the earlier attempts of Mr Pollok in prose and verse, little is known. He wrote three tales relative to the sufferings of the persecuted presbyterians of the reign of Charles II., which were published anonymously in his lifetime, and have since been reprinted with his name. They are manifestly juvenile and hasty productions; but they are the juvenile and hasty productions of a man of genius. The labour of preparing his poem for publication, and carrying it through the press, appears to have fatally impaired a constitution originally vigorous. Soon after his license, symptoms of pulmonary disease having become distinctly apparent, he spent the greater part of the summer of that year with the reverend Dr Belfrage of Slateford, under whose hospitable roof he en-joyed every advantage which medical skill, called forth into active exertion by cordial friendship, could furnish.

As the disease seemed obviously gaining ground, it was suggested by Dr Abercromby, and other eminent physicians, that a removal to a more genial climate, during the approaching winter, was the only probable means of protracting a life so full of promise. It was therefore resolved on, that he should, with as little delay as possible, set out for Italy; and the means for prosecuting such a journey were readily supplied by the admirers of his genius.

In the commencement of autumn he left Edinburgh, accompanied by a sister, and travelled by a steam vessel to London. During the short time he remained in that city, he resided at Camberwell, with the late John Pirie, Esq., afterwards Lord Mayor of London, to whom he had been introduced by a common friend, and who, with characteristic generosity, made every exertion to contribute to his comfort; and ceased not to take a deep interest in his happiness, till he was called on to commit his remains to the grave.

After arrangements had been made for his voyage to Italy, his medical advisers in London, fearing that he would never reach that country, recommended his immediate removal to the south-west of England, and the neighbourhood of Southampton was fixed on as a suitable situation. Having arrived there, he took up his residence on Shirley-Common. His disease continued to make progress, and in the course of a few weeks he fell a victim to its power, on the 15th of September, 1827. "He died," says his biographer, "in the faith of the gospel, and in the hope of eternal life."

He is buried in the church-yard of Millbrook, the parish in which Shirley-Common lies. Those admirers of his genius who would fain have prolonged his life, have perpetuated their regard for him, by erecting an obelisk of Peterhead granite over his grave, bearing, with the dates of his birth and death, the following simple inscription:-


Such is a "faithful chronicle" of the principal external events in the short life of Robert Pollok. Of the most important inward revolution of which man's little world is susceptible, that change, without which a man "cannot enter the kingdom of God," he has given the following most impressive account in the "Course of Time." It is one of the most interesting fragments of autobiography we have ever met with, and compensates, in some measure, for the meagreness of the present sketch; which, imperfect as it is, seems all that circumstances will permit to be gathered together respecting Pollok. The extract, though perhaps rather too long for such a purpose, will also serve as a specimen of the poetry produced by the subject of our memoir. It will remind many readers of some passages of a similar kind, of exquisite beauty, in Cowper.

ONE of this mood I do remember well
We name him not, what now are earthly names?
In humble dwelling born, retired, remote;
In rural quietude, 'mong hills, and streams,
And melancholy deserts, where the sun
Saw, as he passed, a shepherd only, here
And there, watching his little flock, or heard
The ploughman talking to his steers; his hopes,
His morning hopes, awoke before him, smiling,
Among the dews and holy mountain airs;
And fancy coloured them with every hue
Of heavenly loveliness. But soon his dreams
Of childhood fled away, those rainbow dreams
So innocent and fair, that withered Age,
Even at the grave, cleared up his dusty eye,
And passing all between, looked fondly back
To see them once again, ere he departed:
These fled away, and anxious thought, that wished
To go, yet whither knew not well to go,
Possessed his soul, and held it still awhile.
He listened, and heard from far the voice of fame,
Heard and was charmed: and deep and sudden vow
Of resolution wade to be renowned;
And deeper vowed again to keep his vow.
His parents saw, his parents whom God made
Of kindest heart, saw, and indulged his hope.
The ancient page he turned, read much, thought much,
And with old bards of honourable name
Measured his soul severely; and looked up
To fame, ambitious of no second place.
Hope grew from inward faith, and promised fair.
And out before him opened many a path
Ascending, where the laurel highest waved
Her branch of endless green. He stood admiring;
But stood, admired, not long. The harp he seized,
The harp he loved, loved better than his life,
The harp which uttered deepest notes, and held
The ear of thought a captive to its song.
He searched and meditated much, and whiles,
With rapturous hand, in secret, touched the lyre,
Aiming at glorious strains; and searched again
For theme deserving of immortal verse;
Chose now, and now refused, unsatisfied;
Pleased, then displeased, and hesitating still.

Thus stood his mind, when round him came a cloud,
Slowly and heavily it came, a cloud
Of ills we mention not: enough to say
'Twas cold, and dead, impenetrable gloom.
He saw its dark approach, and saw his hopes,
One after one, put out, as nearer still
It drew his soul; but fainted not at first,
Fainted not soon. He knew the lot of man
Was trouble, and prepared to bear the worst;
Endure whate'er should come, without a sight
Endure, and drink, even to the very dregs,
The bitterest cup that time could measure out;
And, having done, look up, and ask for more.

He called philosophy, and with his heart
Reasoned. He called religion too, but called
Reluctantly, and therefore was not heard.
Ashamed to be o'ermatched by earthly woes,
He sought, and sought with eye that dimmed apace,
To find some avenue to light, some place
On which to rest a hope; but sought in vain.
Darker and darker still the darkness grew.
At length he sunk, and Disappointment stood
His only comforter, and mournfully
Told all was past. His interest in life,
In being, ceased: and now he seemed to feel,
And shuddered as he felt, his powers of mind
Decaying in the spring-time of his day.
The vigorous, weak became; the clear, obscure;
Memory gave up her charge; Decision reeled;
And from her flight, Fancy returned; returned
Because she found no nourishment abroad.
The blue heavens withered; and the moon, and sun,
And all the stars, and the green earth, and morn
And evening, withered; and the eyes, and smiles,
And faces of all men and women, withered,
Withered to him; and all the universe,
Like something which had been, appeared, but now
Was dead and mouldering fast away. He tried
No more to hope; wished to forget his vow,
Wished to forget his harp; then ceased to wish.
That was his last; enjoyment now was done.
He had no hope; no wish, and scarce a fear
Of being sensible, and sensible
Of loss, he as some atom seemed, which God
Had made superfluously, and needed not
To build creation with; but back again
To nothing threw, and left it in the void,
With everlasting sense that once it was.
Oh I who can tell what days, what nights he spent,
Of tideless, waveless, saltless, shoreless woe!
And who can tell how many, glorious once,
To others and themselves of promise full,
Conducted to this pass of human thought,
This wilderness of intellectual death,
Wasted and pined, and vanished from the earth,
Leaving no vestige of memorial there.

It was not so with him. When thus he lay,
Forlorn of heart; withered and desolate,
As leaf of Autumn, which the wolfish winds,
Selecting from its falling sisters, chase,
Far from its native grove, to lifeless wastes,
And leave it there alone, to be forgotten
Eternally, God passed in mercy by-
His praise be ever new!-and on him breathed,
And bade him live, and put into his hands
A holy harp, into his lips a song,
That rolled its numbers down the tide of Time,
Ambitious now but little to be praised,
Of men alone; ambitious most to be
Approved of God, the Judge of all; and have
His name recorded in the book of life.

The "Course of Time" was only beginning to attract attention at the time when its author's ear was about to be closed, alike to the voice of censure and praise. Almost immediately after his death, it became extensively read throughout the British empire, especially among the numerous and respectable classes of dissenters. It has, accordingly, passed through a considerable number of editions, and now appears likely to keep its place among the standard poems in our language. A portrait of the author was obtained by the reverend Dr John Brown, of Edinburgh, before his departure for London, and has been engraved. It conveys the impression of deep and grave intelligence, such as might have been expected from the author of the "Course of Time."

Pollock and Ayton
By Rosaline Masson for the Famous Scots Series (1898) (pdf)

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