Tales of the
Sketch of the Life and Character of Robert Pollok
THE pen of an affectionate brother has already given to.
the world an elaborate memoir of Robert Pollok. We should consider it alike
indecent and presumptuous to lay rude hands on that interesting tribute of
fraternal regard, or to attempt clothing in other language, those touching
reminiscences of a brother's excellencies in which the author has unconsciously
disclosed his own. The task assigned us may be far more briefly done. While not
inattentive to the order of time, our main endeavour shall be, to select from
the history of his too rapid course, those events which appear to us to have
exerted the most powerful influence in the formation of his character and
development of his genius.
Robert Pollok was born on Friday the 19th day of October 1798, at North Moorhouse, in the parish of Eaglesham, Renfrewshire. His father belonged to that respectable class of small farmers, among whom we so often trace the simple manners and rigid morality that have grown, for ages, from that noble theology which was restored to Scotland at the Reformation. His forefathers appear for centuries before to have been tenants of the soil in this district; and it is interesting
|to notice, in "Tales of the Covenanters" that his ancestors, .on the maternal side, were honoured to suffer in those persecutions which desolated this part of Scotland between 166o and 1688; one having suffered banishment; another having not only been driven into exile, but reduced to slavery, and a third apprehended by a troop of dragoons and shot. A noble pedigree, not without a manifest influence on Pollok's dispositions and tastes! His childhood, spent in simple solitude of these rural scenes, gave indications of that indomitable resoluteness and energy which, later, formed so prominent a feature of his character. But two circumstances in his early youth deserve especial notice, as exerting a permanent and salutary influence in training the intellect and affections of the future poet. One of these was the instructions of a mother, who, amid the cares of a numerous household, and the toils imposed by circumstances which called for industry as well as frugality, found time to imbue the minds of her children with heavenly truth.By her he was taught to read the Bible, and made to memorise the Shorter Catechism, with part of the Psalms. The testimony of many of the excellent of the earth, from the days of Timothy in the first century to those of Richard Cecil in the nineteenth, might well vindicate us from any suspicion of attaching too much importance to the home education which Pollok enjoyed from this woman of "unfeigned piety"; but we have his own grateful testimony recorded long afterwards, when his 'Course of Time' had been given to the world, and his ear had begun to drink in the voice of fame.|
Speaking of the theology of his poem, he remarked to his brother, "It
has my mother's divinity, the divinity that she taught me when I was a boy. I
may have amplified it from what I learned afterwards; but in writing the poem,
I always found that hers formed the groundwork, the point from which I set out.
I always drew on hers first, and I was never at a loss. This shows" he added,
with devout gratitude, "what kind of a divine she was."
Nor in tracing the development of a mind of high poetical susceptibility like Pollok's should we attach small importance to the scenery around Mid-Moorhouse, to which he removed with his parents in his seventh year. The daily communion which he there held with nature formed a large part of his education as a thinker and a poet; and few spots could have been better fitted for a poet's sanctuary. It was his practice, from a very early age, to ascend to the summit of Balagich, the highest mountain in the neighbourhood, and there, seated on the Crow Stone, which marked its loftiest point, he would gaze for hours upon the scene of mingled beauty and wild magnificence that spread itself before him. On the one side there stretched a long range of moorland, with here and there an ancient battlefield or martyr's grave, the view terminated in the east by the far-off Tinto, and on the south by Wardlaw and Cairntable, Cairnsmore of Carsphairn, and Buchan of Galloway, - classic hills along whose sides the lonely Covenanter had often glided, and in whose caves and masses a suffering remnant of the faithful had often sung their midnight psalm. On another side appeared "the green hills of Carrick,"the grassy plains of Kyle and Cunningham" sloping towards the Clyde, and, far beyond, the sublime ridge of Goatfell, the solitary rock of Ailsa, and the blue peaks of Jura rising in dim and misty grandeur to the clouds. And then, turning in another direction, the eye drank in the glories of another scene, the rich pasture lands of Lanark and Renfrew embosoming vast cities, and strewed with scattered villages; and, rising now gradually and now abruptly in the farther distance, the hoary and rugged summits of the Grampian range, that from creation's dawn till now, had stood the grim and giant sentinels of the world beyond, - Ben Lomond, Ben Cruachan, Ben Voirlich, Ben Ledi, Ben Venue.
From the age of seven to that of seventeen, Pollok spent some of his happiest hours in the contemplation of scenes like these, deriving from them impressions of grandeur and images of beauty; cherishing in his bosom the instincts of freedom, and fanning a devotion which was yet to find meet utterance in words that men would not willingly let die. Foster has devoted one of those fine essays of meditative philosophy, by which he has at once enriched the English literature and instructed the English mind, to illustrate the influence of scenery upon thought and character. The poetry of Alfred Tennyson might be adduced to confirm his principles. And Pollok long afterwards, owned the same influence in the following characteristic lines descriptive of his communion with nature and with himself :-
|"Nor is the hour of lonely walk forgot,
In the wide desert, where the view was large.
Pleasant were many scenes, but most to me
The solitude of vast extent, untouched
By hand of art, where Nature sowed herself,
And reaped her crops; whose garments were the clouds;
Whose minstrels, brooks; whose lamps, the moon and stars;
Whose organ-choir, the voice of many waters;
Whose banquets, morning dews; whose heroes, storms;
Whose warriors, mighty winds; whose lovers, flowers;
Whose orators, the thunderbolts of God;
Whose palaces, the everlasting hills;
Whose ceiling, heaven's unfathomable blue;
And from whose rocky turrets, battled high,
Prospect immense spread out on all sides round,
Lost now between the welkin and the main,
Now walled with hills that slept above the storm.
|Most fit was such a place for musing men,
Happiest, sometimes, when musing without aim.
It was, indeed, a wondrous sort of bliss
The lonely bard enjoyed, when forth he walked,
Unpurposed; stood, and knew not why; sat down,
And knew not where; arose, and knew not when;
Had eyes, and saw not; ears, and nothing heard;
And sought - sought neither heaven nor earth - sought nought
Nor meant to think; but ran, meantime, through vast
Of visionary things, fairer than aught
That was; and saw the distant tops of thoughts,
Which men of common stature never saw,
Greater than aught the largest words could hold,
Or give idea of, to those who read."
While the elements of poetry were thus gathering within
him, a little incident occurred, which, however unimportant it might seem in
the lives of most men, must be regarded as marking an important era in the
mental history of Robert Pollok, which it is the chief design of these remarks
to trace. While residing in the house of an intelligent relative, two books
fell into his hands, which introduced him to his first acquaintance with
British poets. One of these was Pope's Essay on Man, which charmed him
with the exquisite harmony of its versification, and led him to make some
attempts in rhyme. It could not be said of him, however, as of Pope, that he
"lisped in numbers, for the numbers came" and it soon became evident that rhyme
was not destined to be the vehicle of his thoughts. But, soon after, another
book fell into his hands, which exerted a far mightier influence over his
character, not merely informing him in regard to the structure of poetry but
unveiling to him its essence, and haunting him with thoughts which at length
stirred within him, if not an equal, at least a kindred flame. This was
Milton's Paradise Lost.
"He found a copy of it one day,"says his brother, "among some old books on the upper shelf of a wall-press in the kitchen, where it had lain neglected for years. Though he had never seen Paradise Lost before, he had often heard of it, and he began to read it immediately. He was captivated with it at the very first; and, after that, as long as he stayed at Horsehill, he took it up whenever he had the least opportunity, and read with great eagerness. When he was leaving the place, his uncle seeing him so fond of the book, gave it to him in a present, and from that time Milton became his favourite author, and, I may say, next to the Bible, his chief companion. Henceforward he read more or less of him almost every day, and used often to repeat aloud, in bed, immediately before rising in the morning, what was his favourite passage in Paradise Lost - the apostrophe to Light in the beginning of the Third Book."From this hour Pollok became the subject of a new impulse. The vow of self-consecration to poetry was taken not the less solemnly, that as yet it was unbreathed to mortal ear. The strains of the bard of Paradise found congenial echoes in his inmost soul, and in the spirit of that young Themistocles who could not sleep in sight of the field of Marathon and the trophies of Miltiades, he began to "measure his soul severely" with bards of honourable name, and "search for theme deserving of immortal verse."
At the age of nineteen we find Pollok entering as a student at the University of Glasgow. Some years before, he had solemnly dedicated himself to the work of the Christian ministry, in connection with the United Secession Church. That Church has, from the commencement, wisely required of all aspirants to the pastoral office in her communion, a lengthened preparatory course of attendance at one of our Scottish universities, before entering on the systematic study of sacred literature and divinity in her theological halls. And to pass from the disturbed and undisciplined studies of Moorhouse to the University was, on the part of Pollok, not merely to discharge a duty but to gratify a passion. To be an ambassador of grace to guilty men was an office which he had been taught to regard as casting dignity on the noblest human powers; and now he had taken the first formal step in that path of sacred ambition. But more than this, his love of knowledge and of mental excellence had become intense, and, from the first, he evidently set himself in good earnest to the mastering of those various branches of literature and philosophy which each session of his curriculum opened before him. The rapid progress of his mind at this period is visible in the numerous specimens of thought and composition which his brother's affection has preserved. It would be wrong, however, to imagine that the range of his thought was limited to the beaten path of academic study - his intellect was omnivorous - it "glanced from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; there was not only variety but eccentricity in its course; and we trace him now consciously, and oftener unconsciously, gathering around him the materials and images for that work which he had already vowed, in his inmost bosom, to attempt and to achieve.
At the close of the session of 1822, Pollok finished his course of study at the University of Glasgow, and left behind him that venerable seminary, bearing with him a degree in Master of Arts, and other more decided marks of distinction.
In the autumn of the same year we find him entering on the study of theology in the Hall of the Secession Church, under the tuition of Dr. Dick, a professor whose finely balanced powers fitted him not merely to occupy but to adorn his office; combining, as he did, in most rare conjunction, independence of judgment, without the silly affectation of originality or novelty; solid learning, without pedantic display; dignity, without reserve; and in whose academic instructions theology was beheld, not in the ungainly dress of the schools but in the beautiful and seemly garments of an elegant literature,
| "Not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo's lute."
It was in the earlier part of Pollok's career as a student
of theology that the Tales of the Covenanters were produced. The immediate
circumstance that prompted their publication must not be unnoticed in a sketch
of his character. He was in straitened circumstances; and yet, at the age he
had now reached, he could no longer brook the thought of being dependent on a
parent who had laboured up to his ability, yea and beyond his ability, to
secure for him and his brother the privileges of a college life. What was to be
done? He would write a tale - a series of tales. And where could a fitter theme
than the days of the Covenant be found for one whose earliest associations were
interwoven with stories of martyr and moss-trooper? whose enthusiasm had led
him, in his earlier days, to institute an annual pilgrimage of all the youth of
the district to Lochgoin, where John Howie penned the Scots Worthies, and where
a flag, a drum, and a pair of drumsticks, with Captain Paton's sword and Bible,
- strange associates, but all the fitter emblems of the times, - are still
preserved as venerable relics of the days when the Church registered her second
martyrology, and a second time won her birthright.
The Tales were published, and realised a sum sufficient to relieve the immediate wants of Pollok. It has been said that they are hasty productions. No doubt they are; but it has been well answered, that they are the hasty productions of a man of genius; and, especially in their descriptive parts, we can trace the germs of some of the finest passages in The Course of Time. For our own part we acknowledge, that, in their prevading piety, in their fine moral tendency, in the generous sympathy with suffering and love of liberty which they express and excite, they go to enhance our estimate of Pollok. And dark will be the day for Scotland when the page that records the days of the Covenant is turned from by its people with affected grimace. Never is that page truly understood until it is seen as recording, not merely the struggle of parties but of principles, principles for the successful vindication of which the best blood of Scotland was not too dearly shed. The real contest of that hour was not between opposing forms of religion, but between the mere form and the life. And how shameless the injustice and ingratitude of those who laugh at men goaded almost to madness by persecution, because they did not study all the proprieties of language, or display all the elegance and etiquette of courts! And how narrow and intolerant the spirit which would blame the martyrs and confessors of the seventeenth century, because they did not possess all the light and liberality of the nineteenth!
But we now reach the most important era in the life of Pollok, when with a mind braced by studious nights and laborious days, girded by vows not rashly taken, and by the study of ancient bards of honourable name, with a heart sublimed and purified by the faith of the truth, and no stranger to the hard lessons of adversity, he set himself to that work which was to enrich the English literature, to give at once expression and impulse to the deep-toned piety of his native country, and to earn for himself an early immortality. There are not wanting indications that he had, more than once, been in some danger of being seduced to those frivolous themes which were the fashion of the hour, and of wandering from that holy mount on which Milton and the ancient prophets sat. But these temptations, like the ill-omened birds that crossed the path of the seer, rather passed before his mind than rested on it, and, when at length he did consecrate his genius to a worthy theme, it was with no lingering look to those more crowded regions where poetry submits to be shorn of its strength, and to make sport before the Philistines, when it might have roused slumbering nations to life, and sounded a note that would have been heard through all time.
The mental struggle, terminating in entire devotedness, has been described by himself in a passage of uncommon moral interest, as well as poetic merit, and which has been justly regarded as not merely describing his struggle with temptation, and his victory over it, but tracing the outlines of that inward moral revolution, without which a man cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. It will remind the reader of some of those exquisite passages of autobiography which abound in the pages of 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 pass'd, 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 be 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 made 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 sigh
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 sank, 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 superfluousiy, 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! who can tell what days, what nights he spent,
Of tideless, waveless, sailless, shoreless wo!
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.
It was in this spirit of devout self-consecration that
Pollok entered on the composition of The Course of Time, in the
beginning of December 1824, and at the age of twenty-seven. The first hint of
his poem, we learn from some interesting reminiscences by his brother, was
suggested by Byron's lines to Darkness, which he took up one evening in a
moment of great mental desolation. While perusing those lines, he was led to
think of the Resurrection as a theme on which something new might be written.
He proceeded, and on the same night finished a thousand verses, intending that
the subject of the poem should be the Resurrection. Meanwhile, thoughts and
images crowded upon his mind, which it would have been unnatural to introduce
under such a theme; when all at once the whole plan of his work rose before
him, with the completeness and the vividness of a prophet's vision. "One
night," says his brother, "when he was sitting alone in Moorhouse' old room,
letting his mind wander back and forward over things at large, in a moment, as
if by an immediate inspiration, the idea of the poem struck him, and the plan
of it, as it flow stands, stretched out before him; so that at one glance he
saw through it from end to end, like an avenue, with the Resurrection as only
part of the scene. He never felt, be said, as he did then; and he shook from
head to foot, overpowered with feeling; knowing that to pursue the subject was
to have no middle way between great success and great failure.
From this time, in selecting and arranging materials, he saw through the plan so well that he knew to what book, as he expressed it, the thoughts belonged whenever they set up their heads.
From this time till the finishing of his poem, his whole soul was on fire with his subject. In the old room at Moorhouse, on the sublime path between Moorhouse and Eaglesham, when hastening to join the worshippers on the "hallowed morn,"on the lofty summits of Balagich, and, oftenest of all, when he communed with his own heart upon his bed and was silent, he was struggling with his great argument, and seeking to give to the images of truth that moved before his spirit, "immortal shape and form" Thoughts rushed upon his mind as if, like the widow's cruse, it had been supplied by miracle, and only the weariness and faintness of his body seemed to clog the movements of a spirit that, at this period, spurned repose.
In some poets, such as Pope, we trace the progress of the composition, from the first rude and inharmonious sketch, to the perfect verse; but in Pollok some of his finest passages were thrown off at once; they were not laboriously beaten into shape, but, coming forth fused and molten, in a moment took their appropriate and permanent form.
There is one fact connected with this composition which we have peculiar pleasure in recording. His brother informs us that "he kept the Bible constantly beside him, and read in different places of it, according to the nature of what he was composing; so that his mind, it may be said, was all along regulated by the Bible. Finally, he prayed to God daily, morning and evening, for direction and assistance in the work" The Course of Time is thus literally the fruit of prayer; the inspiration that dictated it was implored on bended knees; and those beautiful lines of his invocation are not a mere compliance with the fashion of poets, but the genuine "cardiphonia, " - the deep utterance of the heart.
|Hold my right hand, Almighty! and me teach
To strike the lyre, but seldom struck, to notes
Harmonious with the morning stars, and pure
As those by sainted bards and angels sung,
|Which wake the echoes of Eternity;
That fools may hear and tremble, and the wise,
Instructed, listen of ages yet to come.
In the beginning of July 1826, Pollok brought the writing
of his great poem to a close. Nineteen months had thus elapsed from the time of
his commencing the composition; but enfeebled health and other influences had
created considerable pauses; and we have his own authority for believing, that
the time in which he was actually engaged in versification did not exceed eight
The intense and protracted mental exertion imposed by the composition of such a work, in so short a space of time - an exertion, compared with which he found the study of the most difficult Greek and Roman classics to be an amusement, and which, night after night, brought him to the borders of fever - may well be imagined to have told unfavourably on a constitution which had already been shaken by disease. The chariot-wheels had indeed caught fire through the rapidity of their own motion, the consequence of which was, that, by the time the poem was concluded, he appeared emaciated and pale, and distressing fears were awakened, that in writing The Course of Time he had been intwining a splendid wreath to be laid upon an early grave. The labours and anxieties connected with obtaining a publisher and carrying his poem through the press, served to give the disease a deeper seat in his constitution, and to bring out more unfavourable symptoms.
The consequence was, that when, in the spring of 1827, having been admitted a licentiate of the Secession Church, he delivered his first public discourse in one of the chapels of his own denomination in Edinburgh, the practised eye of Dr. Belfrage of Slateford, a minister and physician of the same religious body, detected in his feeble appearance, and countenance alternately flushed and wan, the inroads of pulmonary disease. This was followed, on the part of the kind physician, by an invitation to Slateford Manse, a lovely retreat, situated a few miles from Edinburgh, at the base of the Pentland Hills, where Pollok, in addition to the luxury of retirement, could enjoy the double advantage of Dr Belfrage's Christian friendship and medical skill. The invitation was gratefully accepted, and from this sweet spot we find Pollok soon after writing to his venerable father at Moorhouse, in terms of high satisfaction both with his host and withthe scene. "I am still at Slateford,"says he; "my health is improving; but Dr. Belfrage insists that two or three weeks more of medical treatment are necessary, and he refuses to let me leave him. I am therefore a prisoner, but it is in a paradise; for everything here looks as if our world had never fallen."
The growing voice of fame now began to reach him from all quarters of the kingdom. Reviews of highest authority sounded the praise of the young poet, who, all at once, unpatronised and unprophesied, had ascended to mid-heaven. From the very throne of criticism, laurels were flung upon his path, and men of high authority, whose praise was fame, sought out the young poet in his retreat to cheer him in his onward course. Among these attentions, none gratified him so much as the visits of the venerable Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling, then in his eighty - fourth year. "I felt his attention,"says he, in a letter to his father, "to be as if some literary patriarch had risen from the grave to bless me and do me honour."
Still the insidious malady was secretly advancing, and its progress was at once increased and betrayed by an alarming illness which seized him in the month of June, and greatly diminished his strength. It now became evident to Dr. Belfrage, and other medical advisers of first eminence, that removal to a foreign climate was indispensable, and even this was tremblingly recommended, as affording but faint hope that his sun would not go down at noonday.
Italy was proposed, and especially the salubrious air of Pisa, in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In this proposal Pollok cheerfully acquiesced: and it is with a kind of sad interest that we behold the dying poet, under the influence of that false hope with which consumption dazzles her victims, indulging day-dreams of returning health, to be devoted to yet higher achievements in literature, when he returned laden with the classic stores, and refreshed by the bright remembrances of Italy.
Generous friends now hastened to provide a fund sufficient for the respectable maintenance of the poet in a foreign clime. Among these, honourable mention must be made of Sir John Sinclair, Dr. John Brown, Dr. Belfrage, and Sir John Pine, afterwards Lord Mayor of London, whose prompt and thoughtful regard, not exhausted in a few distant and splendid acts, displayed all the tender earnestness of parental solicitude.
A short experimental voyage to Aberdeen and a sad farewell to Moorhouse, in which, under the influence of dark forebodings scarcely owned and yet impossible to be repressed, every eye but his own was suffused with tears, and every voice but his own faltered with emotion, was followed by a speedy departure for London, whence it was intended that he should now sail, with all dispatch, for Italy. Arrived in London, places were taken, in a ship bound for Leghorn, for himself and a kind sister, who was chosen to be the companion of his exile.
But it was destined that he should never see the Italian shores. The ship not sailing on the appointed day, he was visited by a distinguished physician in the interval, who, perceiving that all hope of recovery was now gone, soothingly but firmly discouraged his leaving his native country. A residence in the south-west of England was recommended, and the neighbourhood of Southampton ultimately fixed upon. There, after a journey of two days, most fatiguing to his fevered and emaciated frame, we find him arriving on Saturday, 1st September; in a few weeks more to "shake hands with death, and smile that he was free."
He took up his abode in a neat cottage at Shirley Common, about a mile from Southampton. The mild air of that rich and lovely region helped to soothe his chafed spirit. In a spacious garden adjoining the cottage, where the air was so calm that "you could hear the apples falling from the trees one after another,"he delighted to walk with his sister, and feel at times the gentle breezes borne to him from the neighbouring sea, and laden with autumnal incense; and then sitting down, at intervals, on a cushion which he had brought with him from London, he would hear his sister read to him from the Bible, which had now become his only book.
But his weakness rapidly increasing, he was soon compelled to abandon this congenial exercise, and to confine himself entirely to bed. His faithful sister, whose deep affection had so long made her "hope against hope,"now found it necessary to apprise him of the solemn prospect that "the earthly house of his tabernacle was soon to be dissolved" This was done with all the tender skill of a woman and a sister, and was received by him in a manner worthy of the author of The Course of Time. His mind was solemnised, but not saddened; and if, in the thought of soon entering on eternity, he knew no raptures, neither did he know any fears. Once, and only for a moment, did a shade of doubt obscure his hopes, but it passed away, leaving him gazing upon the unclouded truth. There have been men of genius who have rushed into the arms of death mortified by the world's ingratitude or neglect; but Pollok, with the voice of the world's praise swelling and deepening around him, willingly heard the summons which called him up to a nobler immortality.
Writing to his father, of whom he had frequently spoken during his illness with great veneration, he thus expressed himself: "My sister is often much distressed, but we pray for one another, and take comfort in the gracious promises of God. I hope I am prepared for the issue of this trouble, whether life or death."
His growing weakness brought on frequent seasons of drowsiness, the intervals between which were employed by his sister, at his own request, in reading to him from the Scriptures, especially from the Book of Psalms and the Gospel of John, which he greatly relished. In this manner several of his last days and nights were spent, when at length, on the morning of Tuesday, September 18, 1827, he gently breathed his last, and entered into the joy of his Lord.
His mortal remains were interred on the following Friday in the churchyard of Millbrook, a quiet spot remote from the din of cities and near to the sea. He was buried according to the forms of the Church of England, the Rev. Mr. Molesworth reading the burial service by the side of his grave. An elegant obelisk of granite, reared by those admirers of his genius who had sought to prolong his life, marks the last earthly resting-place of this highly-gifted man, and bears, with the dates of his birth and death, the following simple inscription
THE GRAVE OF
ROBERT POLLOK, A.M.,
AUTHOR OF "THE COURSE OF TIME."
HIS IMMORTAL POEM
Thus ended, at the early age of twenty-nine, the earthly
course of Robert Pollok - a course too short for hope, but not too short for
immortality. There have been small critics who, since his death, have sought,
with captious arrogance, to depreciate his poem by petty and nibbling
fault-finding; and even one great man, in an hour of conversational ease, let
fall a remark which, when taken at its real value, was more fitted to injure
his own fame than Pollok's. But that poem is not to be lightly estimated which,
in the rapidity and extent of its circulation, has found no equal in modern
times; parts of which, such men as John Wilson declared, would compare to
advantage with any thing in British literature, and which the venerable James
Montgomery, with the generous admiration of a kindred spirit, has pronounced to
be one of the most extraordinary productions of the age.
Had we any fears, indeed, for the permanent popularity of The Course of Time they would be occasioned rather by the exuberant and undistinguishing admiration of that somewhat numerous class who, not content with obtaining a high place for it in British literature, would claim for it the first, and would encircle the name of Robert Pollok with the unapproachable splendour of him who sang -
|"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe.
But that Robert Pollok should sit on equal throne with
John Milton, is a demand whose rash presumption is apt to provoke a vindictive
dethroning of him, even from his proper eminence. Far wiser was the estimate
which Pollok himself was wont to form of Milton, when he spoke of him, compared
with other bards, as an "archangel in poetry, standing aloft like the star-
neighbouring Teneriffe among the little islands that float on the Atlantic
That there were features of close resemblance in the genius of the two poets - that there are passages in The Course of Time which Milton would not have disdained to own, - and that these passages warrant the belief that had Pollok lived to hold communion with those choice spirits, to which the fame of his poem had obtained him honourable passport, he would have soared with higher and more sustained flight, hovering around the very summits of the mount of song, is what even the most grudging and reluctant criticism may not shrink from conceding. But our business is with what Pollok actually achieved; and we conceive that nothing but the blindest partiality would place him in equal rank with him whose work was the fruit of ripened powers sternly disciplined by long years of thought, enriched by foreign travel, and tuned by foreign song, and who, when at length he did strike his harp, made all literature and all climes do tribute to his verse, evoked a new harmony from the English tongue, now vied with the proudest names of Greek and Roman fame, and outstripped them, and now sitting on the mount with Hebrew prophets, seemed to share their inspiration, and to feel the trembling consciousness that that celestial hand was upon him which erst had "touched Isaiah's hallowed lips with fire."
Other points of comparison apart, how much of the merit of Paradise Lost consists in the characters that move before us, from beginning to end, of that matchless epic; Adam and Eve while yet unfallen,
|"Godlike erect, with native honour clad
In native majesty
For contemplation he, and valour formed;
For softness she, and sweet attractive grace;
- and, above all, that wondrous conception, without parallel in epic poetry, and yet so inimitably sustained throughout the whole poem, of the fallen archangel, whose
|"form had not yet lost
All her original brightness, nor appear'd
Less than Archangel ruin'd, and th' excess
Of glory obscured."
But there are no characters in The Course of Time,
except allegorical ones, and even its narrative resembles rather the successive
pictures of a panorama, slowly moving before us to music, than the progress of
events leading on to some great result, which angels bend from their thrones to
witness, and on which hang the fate of worlds.
While we have thus sought to qualify a too exuberant praise, how much remains to justify, the fame which has already placed upon our poet's brow a crown set with many gems?
Where, in all poetry, shall we meet with a passage of more high and varied excellence than the character of Byron? The almost fiendish pride, the almost angelic power, the conscious misery retiring within itself in sullen scorn, the affected contempt of his fellows, yet, in the very utterance of that contempt, betraying that he would grieve to be forgotten, - all this is described with such perfection of moral anatomy, with such well-chosen imagery, with such regretful sadness, with such sustained power, that had it alone been preserved, it would have established a claim for Pollok upon the homage of all posterity. In the description of the various tribes and nations of the millennium, he reminds us of some of the noblest passages in Milton; while, in many parts of his Resurrection scene, his own soul seems stirred by the sound of that trump which is to shake both earth and heaven.
In nothing does he more excel than in stripping man of every outward appendage and ornament, and presenting him "of all but moral character bereaved. His love of nature is great, only excelled by his love for the Bible - "that holy book On every leaf bedewed with drops of love Divine, from which God had taught him the divine secret of extracting the bitterness from the cup of life, and of relishing its innocent joys, without resting in them.
He has been compared to Kirke White, but he soared on a far stronger pinion, his eye took in a far wider range, and he could look far longer with unscaled vision on the sun.
He has been likened to Young; but what is there in common between the two, save that they have both written large poems, and both on religious subjects? There is often a false taste and a littleness in Young, of which Pollok is incapable. Witness his description of the last day, which he cannot introduce without two courtly lines to "great Anna,"when his whole soul should have been trembling at the final conflagration in which all human thrones and gorgeous palaces are to be dissolved, leaving not a rack behind. The one excels in epigrammatic point and abruptness; the other loves to play with his subject, and to dilate on it; besides, there is, not unfrequently, a gloom about the Night Thoughts that brings the churchyard before us, rather than the church, while the light of the full-orbed gospel which has fallen upon Pollok's own soul, pervades his poem, and sheds its radiance upon the grave.
Throughout his work he appears before us as one dealing with realities. There is an intense love of truth, a profound sympathy with man's miseries, a faith and hope awakened by drinking at the pure fount of revelation, and which make him anticipate, with eye undimmed by present mystery and sorrow, the ultimate return of that "little orb Attended by one moon, her lamp by night, to the fair sisterhood of unfallen worlds.
He seems to feel throughout, not merely the fine frenzy of the poet's fire, but the awful burden of the prophet's mission, and in the profound devotion of many parts we feel as if holding converse with a spirit on which has fallen
|"The sanctifying dew
Coming unseen, unseen departing thence;
Anew creating anew, and yet not heard;
Compelling, yet not felt!"
His work was not "raised by the heat of youth or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her seven sisters, but by devout prayers to that Eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom He pleases."
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