1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Rushton

William Shepherd, Memoir in Edward Rushon, Poems (1824) v-xxvii.



Though the author of the following memoir is decidedly of opinion, that the intrinsic merit of the Poems contained in this little volume, fully justifies the favour of the Public, which has called for their re-publication, he is at the same time persuaded that they will derive an additional interest from a faithful narrative of the unpromising circumstances in which they were produced. He trusts, also, that the reader will not rise unimproved from the contemplation of the portraiture of a man of native talent and unbending mind, struggling with difficulties and conquering them, — cultivating his intellectual powers in the midst of penury, rendered more hopeless by the loss of sight, — by his prudent industry rising above his distresses, and gradually advancing to a competency in his worldly circumstances, with which he was contented.

Edward Rushton was born at Liverpool on the 13th of November, 1756. His father, Thomas Rushton, had been originally brought up to the business of a hair dresser; in which, having saved a little money, he doubtless, in his own opinion, and in that of his neighbours, rose a degree in the order of society, by becoming a dealer in spirits. That he was a man of some cultivation of mind is evinced by a Poem entitled Party Dissected, or Plain Truth by a Plain Dealer, which he published in the year 1770. This poem contains some good lines and some nervous passages; but, like the works of most uneducated writers, It is extremely irregular, and deficient in exact taste. As the title indicates, its subject is political, — and it is written in a high tone of Toryism, loyally ascribing the discontents of the time to envy, hatred, malice, and uncharitableness; and ridiculing in a vein of happy satire, the inveterate propensity of English handicraftsmen, to suspend their several employments for the more interesting occupation of settling affairs of state.

When his son Edward had attained his sixth year, he procured for him admittance into that department of the Free School of Liverpool, where the education of youth is limited to English reading, writing, and arithmetic. In these branches of knowledge the juvenile pupil made a steady and satisfactory progress. Among other books which at this early period of his life attracted his attention, was Anson's Voyage, The perusal of this interesting volume led him to think of the sea service as the means of his immediate support, and to look to the command of a vessel as the ultimate object of his future hopes. And for this service he seemed to be well qualified, by the indications of a vigorous bodily frame, and by the active energies of his mind. He was accordingly bound apprentice, when between ten and eleven years of age, to Messrs. Watt and Gregson, who were at that time respectable merchants in the town of Liverpool. When he had attained the early age of sixteen, a remarkable opportunity occurred for his evincing his superior skill in seamanship, and the cool intrepidity of his spirit. On its approach to the harbour of Liverpool, the ship on board of which he served was, overtaken by a violent tempest, and became apparently unmanageable. The captain and the crew gave themselves up as lost, and, wandering about the deck in despair, suffered the vessel to drive before the wind. In the midst of the consequent confusion, the young apprentice seized the helm, and called the men to their duty. In times of difficulty, superiority of intellect almost always meets with obedience. The sailors resumed their efforts, and, under the direction of Rushton, the ship was saved. For this spirited conduct he received the thanks of the captain and the crew; he was advanced to the situation of second mate, and, at the expiration of his apprenticeship it was noted, with due applause, as an endorsement on his indentures.

At this period, the African trade was the chief source of the wealth of Liverpool; and so much was the general mind of that town familiarized to the process of that abominable traffic, that people of the greatest respectability, and even of the most amiable character, felt no more remorse at the idea of buying and selling thousands of their fellow men, than the butcher experiences at the idea of slaughtering his cattle. It ought not, then, to be regarded as matter of surprise or of reproach, that our youthful seaman was induced, by the prospect of bettering his fortune, to quit the West Indiaman in which he had learnt the rudiments of his profession, to go, in quality of Mate, on a slaying voyage to the Coast of Guinea.

But Rushton was naturally kind hearted. He could not witness the distresses of human beings without feeling strong emotions of compassion; and the following incident had prepared his mind to regard with pity the sufrerings of the negro race. In one of his voyages to the West Indies, he had contracted an acquaintance with a black man of the name of Quamina, whom he kindly taught to read. On some occasion he was dispatched to the shore with a boat's crew, of which Quamina was one. On its return to the ship, the boat was upset in the surf, and the sailors were soon swept by the billows from the keel, to which, in the first confusion, they had all adhered. In this extremity Rushton swam towards a small water cask, which he saw floating at a distance. Quamina had gained this point of safety before him; and when the generous negro saw that his friend was too much exhausted to reach the cask, he pushed it towards him — bade him good bye — and sunk, to rise no more. This anecdote Mr. Rushton has often related in the hearing of the author of this memoir; and never without dropping a grateful tear to the memory of Quamina.

With a mind thus predisposed in favour of the despised sons of Africa, it will easily be believed, that when Rushton witnessed the horrors of their captivity on board a slave vessel, he was moved to compassion, and that he bitterly regretted his having engaged himself in his present odious employment. These emotions were heightened into indignation, on his witnessing some brutal treatment to which the captives under his hourly observation were gratuitously subjected by the caprice and cruelty of his superiors. His remonstrances on this occasion were so pointed and so unreserved, that the captain accused him of mutiny, and threatened to put him in irons.

Happy had it been for Mr. Rushton if this threat had been put into execution. The restraint of imprisonment would have saved him from one of the heaviest calamities which can befal a human being, — a calamity which tinged many of his future years with melancholy. When the vessel in which he sailed was on its passage to Dominica, almost the whole of its wretched cargo were seized with the opthalmia. In these circumstances, the other officers, whose peculiar duty it was to attend to them, durst not venture into the hold; and they were left in a state of neglect and destitution. But Rushton listened to the call of humanity. He went daily amongst them, and administered to them all the relief in his power. To himself the consequences were dreadful. He was soon attacked by a violent inflammation in his eyes, on the subsiding of which, at the termination of three weeks, it was found that his left eye was totally destroyed; and that the right was entirely covered with an opacity of the cornea.

On his return home, his father took him up to London, in order to obtain the advice of the most skilful surgical practitioners on his deplorable case. Among others he consulted the celebrated Baron Wenzel, oculist to the King: but neither the Baron, nor any of his brethren of the profession, could render him the least service; and Mr. Rushton returned to Liverpool in a state of hopeless blindness — his bodily energies virtually annihilated — and his mental progress obstructed — knowledge being to him "at one entrance quite shut out."

His father's conduct, in sparing no expense in his attempt to procure, by medical aid, an alleviation of his calamity, evinced that he was then actuated by the kindness of parental feelings. But in giving even a sketch of Mr. Rushton's life, it is the painful duty of his biographer to state, that this kindness did not continue long. Mr. Rushton's mother being dead, his father had married a second wife, a woman of considerable talent, but of a most violent temper. She looked with the eye of a step mother on the children of the first marriage; and though the younger Mr. Rushton was treated by her with some degree of consideration, an interference on his part to prevent the ill treatment of one of his sisters, so strongly excited the indignation of his father, that, helpless as he was, he banished him from his house, and doomed him to subsist as he could, on the miserable allowance of four shillings a week.

To point out by enlargement the wretchedness of this situation were to insult the feelings of the reader. It was surely calculated to overwhelm a man of an ordinary mind. But Rushton was not a man of an ordinary mind. He was endued with a spirit which prompted him to grapple with difficulties, and to encounter the storms of life without dismay. In his extremity, the kindness of an aunt had accommodated him with an apartment; but the scantiness of her means disabled her from rendering him any other assistance. He was, therefore, compelled to provide himself with food by the allowance allotted to him by his father, which was, moreover, diminished by three-pence per week, which he gave to a boy as wages for reading to him an hour or two every evening. The aid of this humble servant, and of the few friends who occasionally supplied his office, enabled Mr. Rushton to beguile the weary length of seven years, during which he was thus condemned to penury and destitution. But to indicate that he thus beguiled the weariness of his darksome days, is not doing justice to his merits. He converted the apparent misery of his circumstances to considerable mental profit. The course of reading which he adopted was in the highest degree judicious. He availed himself of this period of leisure to become well acquainted with the works of Addison, Steele, Johnson, and the other celebrated English essayists. His love of his late profession led him to listen with eagerness and intelligence to the reading of voyages and travels; and he familiarized himself with history, especially with the history of his country. From his father he inherited a fondness for the Muse, which he gratified by the perusal of the works of our best poets, the striking passages of which he stored up in a most retentive memory. Dramatic compositions, too, engaged his lively attention. In these he took an extensive range. The plays of Shakspeare were "familiar to his lips as household words." But, in consequence, perhaps, of his labouring under the same calamity as Milton, that author was his favourite; and he was assiduous in making himself master, not only of his immortal poems, but also of his prose works, which it is the fashion of the present day too much to neglect. In the mean time he spent his numerous solitary hours, in meditating on what had been read to him, and in speculations in which a philosophic mind is fond of indulging. He also occasionally amused himself with poetical compositions, which, being handed about in manuscript, and now and then finding their way into a newspaper, gradually brought him into notice, and became the means of his extending his acquaintance with men of cultivated minds. Encouraged by their approbation of his fugitive pieces, in the year 1782, he ventured to appear as an author. To a man of Mr. Rushton's warm feelings and range of intellect, the politics of the day, and especially the rise and progress of the American revolutionary war, could not be a matter of indifference. In politics, he then followed as his guide the great Lord Chatham. With him, he "rejoiced that America had resisted;" — with him he deprecated the independence of the colonies, as sure to bring on the speedy ruin of the mother country. These ideas he embodied in a poem entitled, "The Dismembered Empire," which contains some good poetry, and evinces much patriotic feeling. Events have happily falsified the gloomy predictions of the poet, and of the illustrious statesman from whom his opinions on this subject were derived.

Mr. Rushton's growing celebrity, and his tranquil submission to the harshness of his destiny, at length softened the rigour of his father, and convinced him of the propriety of his doing something for his son's more comfortable support. But the plan which he adopted for this purpose evinced little feeling and little judgment. He advanced money to establish him and one of his sisters in a tavern in Liverpool. The occupation of tavern keeping was not congenial to Mr. Rushton's taste; and his calamity precluded him from being of much utility in regulating the economy of his little establishment. About this time, too, the African Slave trade became a subject of public attention and of parliamentary inquiry; and Mr. Rushton was too independent in spirit to suppress his sentiments concerning that nefarious traffic. At that time, to speak irreverently of the king, or even to deny the existence of a God, were, in the town of Liverpool, venial offences, when compared with the atrocity of condemning the sale and purchase of human flesh. In defiance, however, of popular clamour, Mr. Rushton was unreserved in stating his opinions on this subject; and in the year 1787 he gave full publicity to them, in a series of poems, entitled West India Eclogues, which he dedicated to the venerable Dr. Porteus, then bishop of Chester, who, had lately testified his sentiments on the condition of the poor Africans, in a Sermon on the Civilization, Improvement, and Conversion of the Negro Slaves. These Eclogues may be classed amongst the most finished of Mr. Rushton's compositions. The descriptions which they contain of natural scenery are correct, appropriate, and striking. In diction, they are simple, but elegant; and in incident and dramatic effect they are highly interesting.

When the philanthropic Mr. Clarkson visited Liverpool, for the purpose of collecting evidence on the subject of the details of the Slave trade, he had frequent interviews with Mr. Rushton, from whom he derived much correct information, and useful directions as to the quarters in which he might pursue his inquiries. Mr. Rushton's merits in this respect Mr. Clarkson has acknowledged, in a manner which was very gratifying to his feelings, by giving his name to a tributary stream, in his fanciful chart of the abolition of the Slave trade.

It may easily be believed, that a tavern keeper, who was using his exertions to aid in putting all end to a traffic, upon which the commonality of Liverpool were industriously taught that their subsistence depended, could not be very popular, and that his tavern was not very much frequented. After trying this experiment for gaining a livelihood much longer than might have been expected, Mr. Rushton at length relinquished it, and purchased a share in a weekly newspaper called The Liverpool Herald, of which he undertook the editorship. This employment was congenial to his taste. It also opened a field for the display of his talents; and under his guidance the paper was conducted in a most respectable manner. But the prospects of emolument, with which he now gratified his fancy, soon vanished. It became his duty, as a public journalist, to record an act of atrocity, perpetrated in the port of Liverpool, by a Press Gang, which he did, in the language of just indignation. This excited the resentment of the Lieutenant of the gang, who called in great wrath at the office of the Herald, and with loud threats demanded an apology. Mr. Rushton was too steady to the cause of truth and justice to make the least concession; and as the short way of stifling a statement of facts by a prosecution for libel was not then so generally known to our military and naval guardians as it is in these wore enlightened days, the Lieutenant retired to vent his spleen in unavailing curses. This event, however, alarmed the fears of Mr. Rushton's partner, and brought on a discussion as to the principles on which the paper was hereafter to be conducted, which was so unsatisfactory to Mr. Rushton, that he withdrew from the concern.

Mr. Rushton was now once more thrown upon the world; and the gloom of his prospects was deepened by his anxiety for others, who were dependent on his exertions for their subsistence. He was a husband and a father, having married whilst he kept the tavern. On revolving many plans for his future maintenance, he fixed upon the business of a bookseller, for which his habits and his pursuits certainly rendered him well qualified.

Mr. Rushton's inclination to enter upon this line of business was powerfully seconded by the encouraging advice which he received from a few friends of an inquisitive turn of mind, who had formed themselves into a society for literary and philosophical discussion, of which he was a member. One of his contributions to this society, preserved by his family in manuscript, evinces, the extent of his reading and the acuteness of his reasoning powers. It is a treatise, in which he combats, with considerable ingenuity, the opinion of Buffon, Clarkson, and others, who attribute the varieties which occur in the colour of the human species, to the effects of climate, food, and habits of life. But the most interesting circumstance relative to this society is the fact, that at one of its meetings Mr. Rushton originated the idea of making some provision for the wants of the indigent blind, which, being improved by due consideration, and adopted and matured by a number of generous and enlightened individuals, at length produced the Liverpool Blind Asylum, which may be truly characterized as one of the most useful public institutions of which the kingdom can boast. Mr. Rushton's views at first extended no farther than to the establishment of a benefit club, to be aided by charitable donations, for the support of the indigent blind. In recommendation of this plan, early in the year 1790, at the suggestion of the society, he dictated two impressive letters, which were pretty widely circulated in manuscript amongst individuals, who, it was supposed, would be likely to give it their countenance and assistance. The idea of a benefit club having been communicated by Mr. Rushton to Mr. Christie, an intimate friend of his, who, though labouring under the calamity of blindness, had qualified himself to obtain a handsome livelihood by teaching music, that gentleman suggested the important improvement of imparting to young persons, who were visited by the same misfortune, those instructions from which he had himself derived so much advantage. This project Mr. Rushton developed in a third letter, dated Sept. 22nd, 1790, which was addressed to Mr. Alanson, an eminent surgeon of the town of Liverpool, and also put into circulation under the signature of Mr. Christie. Copies of the two first letters having been communicated to the Rev. Henry Dannett, curate, of St. John's, that gentleman expressed himself warmly in favour of the design proposed in them, and requested to have a conference on the subject with Mr. Rushton, who accordingly waited on him, and put into his hands Mr. Christie's further suggestions. These met Mr. Dannett's full approbation. He undertook the cause with exemplary zeal; and be it recorded to his immortal honour, that it was mainly in consequence of his exertions that the institution was commenced on a small scale, from which, by judicious management and the liberality of the public, it has risen to its present magnitude and importance.

Mr. Rushton, having opened a bookseller's shop in Paradise street, soon obtained a share of custom, which happily convinced him of the judiciousness of his choice of an occupation. His business was not, indeed, very extensive, nor was his establishment any thing like a splendid one. But he made profits. His early habits of economy were still exemplified in his domestic arrangements. His views were well seconded by the industry and strict attention of his wife. The training of his children agreeably occupied much of his time. The grim spectre of want no longer crossed his view. He became comparatively easy in his circumstances; he was cheerful and happy.

His little bark, however, was nearly overset by the political storms which were excited through this country by the French Revolution. By his writings Mr. Rushton had, previously to that event, signalized himself as a friend to liberty, and an enemy to oppression. He could not, then, behold unmoved, the spectacle of five and twenty millions of people bursting their fetters, and vindicating, against domestic intrigue and foreign their claim to freedom. And what his heart strongly felt, he uttered in conversational discussion with impassioned eloquence. At the period, therefore, when those who impunged the proceedings of administration at, the commencement of the war with France were proscribed, as not to be tolerated in society, Mr. Rushton had the perilous honour of being what was called "a marked man." The timid advocates of liberal principles soon found that whosoever were seen in his shop were "marked men" also. The traffickers in human flesh kept his heresies on the subject of their trade fresh in their remembrance, and eagerly availed themselves of the opportunity of instigating against him the cry of spurious loyalty. The consequences of this ban and proscription may easily be anticipated. His business declined as his family encreased; and his prospects of the future became cacti day more alarming.

The author of this memoir witnessed, with respectful admiration, the firm demeanour of Mr. Rushton, whilst in these trying circumstances, he was suffering the pains of political persecution without participating in its glories. It was his lot at this time to be the confidential medium of offering to him a liberal accommodation from the purse of a generous individual. A similar offer had previously been made to him by another kind and wealthy friend. Both these offers he respectfully declined, being determined, he said, to encounter the diminution of his gains by still more rigorous economy, and to wait the event in patience. Of this determination he never repented. In the worst of times he retained some steady and valuable connexions. The irritation of the public feeling was by degrees allayed, and was indeed, at length diverted from the friends of freedom, against the ministers, who supported an unsuccessful war by yearly encreasing taxation. The turning tide of opinion brought back many of Mr. Rushton's customers, with the accession of new ones. Some little projects for the improvement of his circumstances were successful. For the remainder of his life, he acquired from his business the means of living in comfort, though not in opulence; and the resources of his own mind enabled him to cultivate the intellects of his children, and to give them the advantage of an useful and solid education.

In speculative politics Mr. Rushton had imbibed, from the study of the works of his favourite Milton, a leaning to republican principles; and, when he found that his country had not, as he had apprehended would he the case, been ruined by the concession of independence to the United States, he watched with curiosity and interest the operation of a republican form of government on the continent of North America. Here, though he found much to applaud, he could not but deem it a sad instance of inconsistency, that a nation which had struggled so long, and had made so many sacrifices, in the assertion of its own freedom, should tolerate the slavery of negroes in its own dominions. But above all, he thought it lamentable that Washington, the great champion of independence, should hold several hundreds of his fellow men in bondage. On this subject, in the year 1797, he addressed to the General a letter of remonstrance. This letter is ably written, and its principles are irrefragable. It is, however, more strong than courteous — more convincing than conciliatory: and the Ex-President of the American republic testified his displeasure at its contents, by returning it to the writer in a blank cover. As this circumstance became a subject of conversation and animadversion, Mr. Rushton published the letter, in order to enable those who might be interested in the matter to judge between the General and himself.

From time to time, after his settlement in Liverpool, Mr. Rushton had composed a variety of fugitive pieces of poetry, some of which had been printed in newspapers and periodical publications, whilst others slept in his portfolio, or were communicated to his friends in manuscript. From these he was frequently advised by some individuals whose personal attachment to him was the only reason of his questioning their judgment as to the poetical merit of his compositions, to make a selection, which they assured him would furnish matter for a small volume. After some hesitation, he listened to their suggestions, and in the year 1806 published the volume, the second impression of which, with additions, is now submitted to the reader.

The ensuing year presents an era in Mr. Rushton's life, distinguished by an event equally grateful and astonishing — the restoration of his sight. In the autumn of 1805 he had received various accounts of successful practice, which led him to entertain a high opinion of the skill of Mr. Gibson, of Manchester, as an oculist. He was himself well acquainted with the anatomy of the eye, and still occasionally cherished a lingering hope that his case was not in itself desperate. He therefore, after long deliberation, went over to Manchester, and was highly pleased to find that Mr. Gibson's opinion was favourable. The issue of the proposed experiment was of course very uncertain, and he was duly warned that the process of treatment would be extremely painful. But from the idea of pain he was the last person in the world to shrink. When he had ascertained to his own satisfaction the grounds of Mr. Gibson's expectations of success, he put himself unreservedly into his hands. The process was indeed tedious and painful. Five times was it necessary for him to submit to the scalpel; but at length his patience under acute sufferings was amply rewarded. After the long interval of thirty years, light revisited his eyes. His feelings on this occasion may be imagined; but no one can describe them but himself. And he did describe them, in lines addressed to his skilful benefactor, which do equal honour to his genius and his heart. His sight, indeed, was somewhat misty; but it was so far restored, that he could accurately distinguish colours, and the lineaments of the human countenance. He could even discern and discriminate distant objects. He could walk the streets without a guide; and, by the aid of a glass, could read tolerably sized print. According to his own remark, a person passing from perfect sight to the degree of vision which he then possessed, would have deemed it a misfortune, but to himself, who passed to it from total darkness, it appeared to be heaven.

The remainder of his life was little varied by incident. In the new gratification of reading, he spent his leisure hours usefully and pleasantly. Being more qualified than in former years to enjoy the pleasures of society, he enlarged a little the circle of his acquaintance, and his days passed on in happiness; which was, however, in the year 1811, painfully interrupted by the death of his wife, who had been a kind and faithful partner of his various fortunes, — and of a daughter, who was admired and esteemed by all who knew her. These afflictive events he survived about three years. His death was occasioned by a rash attempt to get rid of a fit of illness by means of an empirical medicine.

Notwithstanding his habitual temperance, and his general abstinence from all fermented liquors, he was occasionally visited by severe attacks of the gout, to dispel which he had for three or four years previously to his death been in the habit of taking the "Eau Medicinale." On the approach of a fit in the month of November, 1814, he had, as usual, recourse to this dangerous medicine, which, contrary to its usual course of operation, brought on violent sickness. So severe was the shock which his constitution received, that the morning after he had taken the draught, his son, as he stood by his bed-side, expressed some fears respecting its effects: but Mr. Rushton was unshaken in his belief in its salutary powers, and immediately rose, to convince his son that his apprehensions were groundless. But he was so weak, that when he attempted to walk, he reeled, and, if his son had not caught him, would have fallen. From this period he languished, with occasional alteration of symptoms, till, at half-past two in the morning of Tuesday the twenty-second of November, a suffusion on the brain took place, his right side was paralyzed, and his breathing became heavy and laborious. The usual remedies, resorted to in extreme cases, were applied in vain, and at five o'clock in the afternoon he died without a struggle, and, apparently, without pain.

From the foregoing sketch of the life of Edward Rushton, the reader will have observed that he was a man of enlightened intellect, and of uncommon mental energy. Estimating action and character by the scale of principle, he regulated his own conduct by the maxims of the strictest integrity. In the midst of poverty he was proud and independent in spirit. The idea of independence, indeed, he perhaps carried somewhat too far, in occasionally declining, though with due respect, the offered courtesies of kindness and hospitality, on the part of friends who were superior to him in station and fortune. But Edward Rushton was an assertor of freedom; and he had observed, with pain and indignation, that many who assumed that title, availed themselves of it to prey upon the bounty of the rich and generous advocates of liberal principles. He determined to adopt a far different line of conduct — to gain respect and to merit encouragement by laborious industry in a stated employment, and by foregoing all indulgencies which might unwarrantably trench upon his little means. From the mendicant and pensioned patriot, living a wandering and desultory life of alternate distress and luxury, he turned his view, with just admiration, to Andrew Marvel in his garret. But, though severe to himself, he was kind to others. As a husband and a parent he was truly exemplary; and to deserving characters who were poorer than himself, he was, to the full extent of his abilities, hospitable and liberal. To oppression of every kind he was a determined enemy. As a politician, however, he was rather a speculator than an actor. His principles in politics were, in his maturer years, republican, and of, course, were rather the subject of private discussion than of assertion in public debate. Hence, dwelling in his own mind on the abstractions of theory, he took little or no part in the struggles of the parties of the day. On these subjects, he perhaps conceded too little to expediency. Perhaps he was sometimes too rigorous in his judgment of political measures and of political characters. But let it not be imagined that such men as Edward Rushton are useless to society. Mankind in general are much too quick sighted in spying out occasions, on which they imagine that the rule of right must not be interpreted too strictly. In these cases, even the profligate politician may be held in check by that censorship of the public, which always grounds its verdict on the opinion of enlightened individuals. If there did not exist in the various classes of the community men of high toned mind, who fearlessly and inexorably apply to public actions the test of principle, the general body of a great people would speedily be corrupted by low intrigue, and the pride of freedom would degenerate to the reptile meanness of slavery.