Pollok, Robert (DNB00)

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POLLOK, ROBERT (1798–1827), poet, son of a small farmer, and seventh of a family of eight, was born at North Moorhouse, in the parish of Eaglesham, Renfrewshire, on 19 Oct. 1798. In 1805 the family settled at Mid Moorhouse, about a quarter of a mile from their previous residence, and this is the Moorhouse of Pollok's letters. He received his elementary education at South Longlee, a neighbouring farm, and at Mearns parish school, Renfrewshire, where, by excessive indulgence in athletic exercise, he permanently weakened his health. In the spring of 1815 he tried cabinet-making under his brother-in-law, but relinquished the trade after constructing four chairs. Pollok worked on his father's farm till the autumn of 1815, when he and his elder brother, David, decided to become secession ministers, and were prepared for the university at the parish school of Fenwick, Ayrshire. Pollok's general reading had already embraced the works of various standard English poets, and he began poetical composition, specially affecting blank verse.

In 1817 Pollok went to Glasgow University, where he graduated M.A. in 1822. He was a good student, gaining distinction in logic and moral philosophy. He read widely; composed many verses; founded a college literary society; began a commonplace book; and gave evidence of an acute critical gift in a letter, entitled ‘A Discussion on Compositional Thinking’ (Life, by his brother, p. 76).

From 1822 to 1827 he studied theology, both at the United Secession Hall and at Glasgow University. In spite of bad health, he devoted his leisure to literature, and began in 1825 the work which developed into the ‘Course of Time.’ It was prompted by Byron's ‘Darkness,’ which he found in a miscellany. John Blackwood, supported by the opinion of Professor Wilson and David Macbeth Moir [q. v.] (Delta), published the poem in the spring of 1827.

After two years of preparation at Dunfermline, Pollok received his qualification as a probationer under the United Association Synod on 2 May 1827. He preached once in Edinburgh, and three times at Slateford, in the neighbourhood, but his health disallowed any permanent engagement. Dr. Belfrage of Slateford befriended him, consulted Dr. Abercrombie and other eminent physicians in his interest, and agreed with them that he should visit Italy. Among his many visitors at Slateford was Henry Mackenzie [q. v.], author of the ‘Man of Feeling,’ then eighty-four years of age. At length he made with his sister, Mrs. Gilmour, the voyage from Leith to London, where the doctors pronounced him unfit for further travel. His sister settled with him at Shirley Common, near Southampton, where he died 18 Sept. 1827. He was buried in the neighbouring churchyard of Millbrook, and a granite obelisk over his grave bears the inscription, ‘His immortal Poem is his monument.’ His portrait, painted by Sir Daniel Macnee, P.R.S.A., is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

‘The Course of Time,’ Edinburgh, 1827, 8vo, is Pollok's one permanent contribution to literature. It is in ten books, the blank verse in which it is written recalling Cowper and Young, whose harmonies Pollok regarded as the language of the gods. Concerned with the destiny of man, the poem is conceived on a stupendous scale, which baffled the writer's artistic resources. Never absolutely feeble, it tends to prolixity and discursiveness, but is relieved by passages of sustained brilliancy. It reached its fourth edition in 1828, and its twenty-fifth in 1867. An edition, with illustrations by Birket Foster and Mr. John Tenniel, appeared in 1857 (London, 8vo), and the seventy-eighth thousand appeared at Edinburgh in 1868.

Of Pollok's other experiments in verse, published in the ‘Life’ by his brother, the most remarkable is his contemplative ‘Thoughts on Man,’ in chap. vi. The three tales, written in 1824–5, ‘Helen of the Glen,’ ‘Ralph Gemmell,’ and ‘The Persecuted Family,’ treating of the covenanters, were published anonymously, in a time of stress, for what they would bring, and Pollok never acknowledged them. After his death the publishers issued them with his name. His wide reading and discrimination are displayed in his comprehensive ‘Survey of Christian Literature.’

[Life of Robert Pollok, by his brother, David Pollok; Memoir prefixed to 23rd edit. of the Course of Time; Blackwood's Magazine, July 1827; Noctes Ambrosianæ, vols. ii. iv.; Recreations of Christopher North, i. 224; Moir's Lectures on Poetical Literature, p. 238; Chambers's Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen.]

T. B.