1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Rushton

James Wilson, "The Life of Thomas Blacklock" Biography of the Blind (1838) 150-57.



There is no history so useful to man, as the history of man; hence it is that Biography is considered, not only one of the most pleasing sources of amusement to which we can turn, but it also contains some of the best lessons of moral instruction the human mind can contemplate. In perusing the pages of Plutarch, how are we struck with the rich fund of intellectual knowledge, contained in the volumes of that inimitable author. But why confine ourselves to the pages of antiquity? The histories of all ages, and of every country, particularly that of our own, furnish many bright examples worthy our special imitation. It is peculiarly pleasing to observe, how many individuals in the middle and lower ranks of life, without the advantages of early education, have raised themselves to a distinguished place in society, by the cultivation of their literary talents. Among these was Edward Rushton, of Liverpool, who, though he did not attain to the higher departments of literature, was remarkable for the clearness and perspicuity of his style, and for employing his pen in the cause of humanity and of truth.

Rushton was born on the eleventh of November, 1755, in Liverpool. His education, which he received at a free school, terminated with his ninth year. At ten, he read Anson's voyage, and resolving to he a sailor, by the time he entered his eleventh year, he was a "sea-boy on the high and giddy mast." Before seventeen, whilst yet in his apprenticeship, he was promoted to be second mate of the vessel, which a short time before he had entered as cabin boy.

He continued as second officer of the vessel until the term of his apprenticeship was expired. At this period the offer of a superior situation induced him to proceed to the coast of Africa, on a slaving voyage. When he beheld the horrors of this disgraceful traffic, he expressed his sentiments in very strong and pointed language, with that boldness and integrity which characterized his every action; and, though in a subordinate situation, he went so far, that it was thought necessary to threaten him with the irons if he did not desist.

On this voyage, whilst he was at Dominica, he was attacked by a violent inflammation in the eyes, which in three weeks totally destroyed his left eye, and the right one was entirely covered by an opacity of the cornea. This misfortune was occasioned by his exertion in assisting to relieve the necessities of his sable brethren, among whom an infectious fever had broken out.

Thus, in his nineteenth year, he was deprived of one of the greatest blessings of nature. How much he felt this privation, he has beautifully expressed in the following little poem.

ODE ON BLINDNESS.
Ah! think, if June's delicious rays
The eye of sorrow can illume,
Or wild December's beamless days
Can fling o'er all a transient gloom;
Ah! think, if skies, obscure or bright,
Can thus depress or cheer the mind:
Ah! think 'midst clouds of utter night,
What mournful moments wait the blind!

And who shall tell his cause for woe?
To love the wife he ne'er must see,
To be a sire, yet not to know
The silent babe that climbs his knee!
To have his feelings daily torn
With pain, the passing meal to find;
To live distress'd, and die forlorn—
Are ills that oft await the blind!

When to the breezy upland led
At noon, or blushing eve, or morn,
He hears the red-breast o'er his head,
While round him breathes the scented thorn.
But Oh! instead of Nature's face,
Hills, dales, and woods, and streams combin'd,
Instead of tints, and forms, and grace,
Night's blackest mantle shrouds the blind.

If rosy youth, bereft of sight,
'Midst countless thousands pines noblest,
As the gay flower withdrawn from light,
Bows to the earth where all must rest;
Ah! think, when life's declining hours
To chilling penury are consign'd,
And pain has palsied all his powers,—
Ah! think what woes await the blind.

In 1776, attended by his father, he visited London, and, amongst other eminent men, consulted the celebrated Baron Wentzell, oculist to the king, who declared him incurable. In this hopeless situation, poor Rushton returned to Liverpool, and resided with his father, with whom he continued but a short period, as the violent temper of his step mother compelled him to leave the house, and maintain himself on four shillings per week. An old aunt gave him lodgings, and for seven years he existed on this miserable, and considering the circumstances of his father, this shameful allowance. Whilst subsisting on this sum, he managed to pay a boy two pence or three pence per week, for reading to him an hour or two in the evening.

From this state he was removed to one much more comfortable. His father placed him with one of his sisters in a tavern, where he lived for about two years. While in this situation he married, and finding, his pecuniary resources rather diminishing than increasing, he gave up the business. He then entered into an engagement as editor of a newspaper called the "Herald," which, for some time, he conducted with much pleasure and little profit, until finding it impossible to express himself in that independent and liberal manner which his reason and his conscience dictated, he gave up his situation and had to begin the world once more.

With a family of five children and very limited means, Rushton hesitated before he fixed on any particular course of life. He thought of several plans, but none seemed more agreeable to his taste than the business of a bookseller, which his habits and pursuits combined to render more eligible than any other which presented itself to his thoughts. With the sum of thirty guineas, he commenced bookselling, and his excellent wife, to whose exertions he was greatly indebted laboured incessantly; with attention and frugality the business succeeded, and Rushton felt himself more easy in his circumstances.

As his feelings were ever alive to the sufferings of his fellow creatures, it was the same to him by what name they were called, or to what country they belonged; whether they were scorched by an Indian, or by an African sun! If he conceived they were injured or oppressed, he was ready always to vindicate their wrongs, with all that zeal and ability with which providence had endowed him. It was this love for mankind that induced him, in 1797, to write a letter to Washington, then president of the United States, on the subject of negro slavery; to whom it was transmitted in July, and a few weeks afterwards was returned under cover, without one syllable in reply. As children who are crammed with sweetmeats have no relish for plain and wholesome food, so men in power, who are seldom addressed but in the sweet tone of adulation, are apt to be disgusted with the plain and salutary language of truth; to offend was not the intention of the writer, yet the president was evidently irritated. To those who are acquainted with the philanthropic exertions of Rushton, which may be said to have characterized him from his youth, and to those who have read thus far in his history, every demonstration of the amiable feelings which he retained to the last period of his existence, will I trust be acceptable. And, it must be farther observed in favour of Rushton, that the letter now in question was not the result of any party feeling towards the American people. His political principles were those of a staunch republican; he venerated the name of Washington, and not only considered him one of the greatest but one of the best men that ever appeared in the world! He also knew at the same time, that he was but a human being, like himself, liable to err, and that Washington did err, is a truth that none of his friends can deny; all his biographers acknowledge that he kept three hundred poor Africans in chains, and it was this inconsistency that called forth Rushton's remarks. Sometime afterwards he also wrote to Thomas Paine, on the same subject, but that pretended friend to mankind, turned a deaf ear to his remonstrance.

His life for some years after was but little varied, and he continued successively to publish poetical pieces. Among his productions which appeared about this time, was the beautiful poem of "Mary le More," with several others on the same subject. In the latter part of his life, Rushton did not write much, but those poems which he did produce are excellent. "The fire of English liberty," "Jemmy Armstrong," and "Stanzas addressed to Robert Southey," are all strongly in favour of those principles which, with fire unabated, he preserved till the last moment of his mental existence. During the few last years of his life, he was occasionally troubled with the gout, and his health visibly declined; but under all his afflictions he preserved his usual cheerfulness and gaiety till the last, and died on the 22nd of November, 1814, aged 58.

The works of Rushton are not numerous, but they are truly valuable for their moral excellence. I have already observed that Rushton was not a first rate genius, but, as a man, he did honour to the age and country in which he lived.

Rushton's poetical pieces were not originally intended for publication, but being read and admired by his friends, they appeared first in the periodical journals of the day, and were afterwards collected together and published in one volume, in London, 1814. These, with his letters to General Washington and Thomas Paine, on the subject of negro slavery, are the only productions of his which were given to the public.

As a poet Edward Rushton possessed considerable merit, and throughout all his poetry the reader is charmed with the display of a rich and glowing imagination, pouring forth its manly conceptions in an animated manner, undisfigured by any affectation in sentiment or language. In description, I think the author is peculiarly happy; he is a spirited delineator, as well as a faithful observer of nature, and scenes which he probably witnessed in early life, have furnished him with a rich store of marine and tropical imagery.

I think the following lines on the death of a friend possess some merit.

The thrush, from the icicled bough,
Gives his song to the winterly gale,
And the violet, 'midst half melted snow,
Diffuses its sweets through the vale—
And thus while the minstrel I mourn,
Mid the blasts of adversity pin'd,
While he drooped all obscure and forlorn,
He poured his wild sweets on the wind!

The first two stanzas of "The Lass of Liverpool" present a variety of rich and lively images:

Where cocoas lift their tufted heads,
And orange blossoms scent the breeze,
Her charms the wild Mulatto spreads,
And moves with soft and wanton ease.
And I have seen her 'witching wiles,
And I have kept my bosom cool,
For how could I forget thy smiles,
Oh lovely lass of Liverpool?

The softest tints the conch displays,
The cheek of her I love outvies;
And the sea breeze midst burning rays,
Is not more cheering than her eyes.
Dark as the pettrel is her hair,
And Sam, who calls me love-sick fool,
Ne'er saw a tropic bird more fair,
Than my sweet lass of Liverpool.

AUTHORITIES: Monthly Review — Belfast Magazine — Liverpool Mercury.