Why was Rushton Forgotten?

Paul Baines is Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, and editor of The Collected Writings of Edward Rushton 1756-1814, Liverpool University Press. He explores here why the reputation of his poetry faded after Rushton’s death.

Rushton’s 1806 volume of Poems was widely, and in general, positively reviewed, in line with what was then his national and international reputation. At least eight journals carried notices of the book. It was a full decade after his death before Poems, and Other Writings, would appear. When it did, it was largely treated as a reprint of the earlier volume, which it wasn’t: the editors had dropped a dozen poems and added a number of others, including the very powerful anti-slavery song The Coromantees, alongside the Expostulatory Letter to George Washington and three of the West-Indian Eclogues. In the meantime, Rushton’s memory had to some extent been eclipsed by writers we now consider to represent the ‘Romantic’ movement, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. The ‘second generation’ of Romantic writers all died between the year of Rushton’s death and his posthumous edition: Keats in 1821, Shelley in 1822, and Byron in 1824, the last only a month before Rushton’s book appeared. Byron in particular generated a huge personal mythology of the glamorously cursed heroic poet, leaving lesser figures in the shade.

As the canon of Romantic writing became established under the Victorians, Rushton faded further still. Though a Romantic-era writer, and aligned with its radical aspects, he was not a ‘Romantic’ writer in the sense most valued by later critics. Though the writing does not lack feeling, the feeling was outward facing: Rushton did not explore any Wordsworthian well of inner sensibility. The personality the writing projects was in part convivial and social and in (larger) part angry about injustice; there is very little of the quiescent solitariness most valued later. As the positions he espoused – abolition of slavery, greater political equality, civic philanthropy – came to be generally accepted, so the verse lost its topical urgency. Nobody in Britain much wanted to be reminded of the history of the slave trade. A kind of strangely polite Rushton did emerge: a surprising number of the maritime ballads were supplied with lush piano accompaniments or set to new tunes for sentimental recitation in the Victorian parlour, quite stripped of their original charitable point and strident rhetorical force. Rushton even appeared in a well-known anthology, Ballads and Songs of Lancashire, Ancient and Modern; the selection was almost all of the seafaring ballads. In time, even that memory, of the indomitable British sailor in the era of sail, was driven from consciousness by the new concerns of an industrialised maritime commerce.

Writer John Graham Davies looks at possible reasons for the eclipse of Rushton, the campaigner.

In 1885 a volume of nostalgic memories was published above the name ‘An Old Stager’, entitled Liverpool a Few years Since. In it, there is the following description of Rushton:

“And there is noble Old Rushton, who had a head upon his shoulders with something in it, and a heart swelling with the milk of human kindness. Shall we ever look upon his like again? Selfishness was not in his nature. He felt for the woes of his fellow creatures, without respect to colour, climate, creed, or country. His sympathies were universal. All honour and respect to his memory!”

There is of course no reference here to Rushton causes which remain ‘difficult’ – the French revolution, Ireland – but nevertheless it is clear that at the time of his death Rushton was held in high esteem, particularly over the cause of abolition. So why did he become, a hundred years later, a forgotten figure? It may be that as the century drew to its close the cult of Wilberforce, which was encouraged by a biography written by his sons, and which underplayed the role of others in the abolition movement, most notably of Thomas Clarkson, was gradually overwhelming other reputations. Rushton was neither a parliamentarian or wealthy, nor did he live in the capital. He was also disabled, and his reputation was perhaps tainted, in the eyes of the powerful at least, by his less acceptable egalitarian causes. History often celebrates the radical, once it is safe to do so – witness the transformation, in the eyes of the establishment, of Nelson Mandela. For some kinds of radicalism, the judgement of history moves slowly.

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