An Introduction to the "Transatlantic Poets"
One of the defining features of the Labouring-Class Poet tradition is the sense of community shared between these poets. Because they were so conscious of their sense of ‘place’, both in society and geographically, common bonds formed between those from similar areas. One of the first things the LCPO Database makes apparent is these specific links: it helps scholars to group the poets from Paisley together, those from Bristol, those from Tyneside. While some categories used for grouping are broader – the ‘Welsh poets’ casts a wider scope than the ‘Paisley poets’, for example – these groupings are typically defined by geography. It makes sense that geography is such a defining, finite factor for poets of low-income and restricted social mobility, and for an era that had yet to feel the full effects of modernity, and its consequent urban migration and travel opportunities.
However, when perusing the database, another type of poet emerges: one who, despite the difficulty of travel at the time, somehow managed to cross the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or even made multiple overseas trips. It is surprising that many of these labouring poets emigrated to the Americas, or to Australia and New Zealand. Many of them were more mobile than the average American worker today, which is a considerable feat considering many of their restraints.
We tentatively called these travellers “Transatlantic Poets.” From the myriad journeys of this eclectic collection of travellers, we can find three clear patterns. The first group are a product of what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker refer to as “the circular transmission of human experience” (2) that marked “the origins and development of English Atlantic capitalism in the early seventeenth century” (15). Due to burgeoning imperialism and colonialism in England at the time, slaves were a hot commodity, and many of the labouring-class poets who travelled were slaves themselves who remained such until their death. Olaudah Equiano is the most famous example, although he eventually bought his own freedom and used his unique position to draw attention and provide a voice for the slave abolitionist movement in the 1780s. His ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ is his most famous work, but he was also an established poet with such pieces as ‘Reflections On the State of My Mind’. These ‘slave poets’ of the Transatlantic group travelled from the African continent to the United Kingdom, where they were often bartered for and traded, or to the West Indies and Americas to work on sugar and cotton plantations (Equiano went as far as the Arctic on one particular voyage). Edward Rushton and Alexander Wilson, however, provide examples of the more common journey taken by our Transatlantic poets, which originates in the United Kingdom and ends in the Americas.
Rushton’s story informs another subset of the ‘Transatlantic poets’. A former slave ship worker, he openly wrote about his distaste for the slave trade and wrote many pro-abolitionist pieces, most famously The West Indian Eclogues, a long series of narrative poems he published in 1787. His work aboard slave ships enabled him to travel to the Americas, however, and without this he wouldn’t have produced much of the radical work he is remembered for today. Rushton is just one of many different maritime labourers, who worked either on slave ships or as sailors or employees of the large fleet sent across the Atlantic for all manner of trade. With the success of British Imperialism in the New Americas, there was no shortage of opportunity for young men to earn a place aboard any vessel bound for across the pond.
The third subset of ‘Transatlantic poets’ is exemplified by Alexander Wilson, an émigré to America. Originally a weaver from Paisley, Wilson scraped together enough means to board a ferry and move his family to Philadelphia in order to pursue better opportunities, such as teaching. Once there, he befriended the naturalist William Bartram. Their acquaintance encouraged him to follow his love of the wilderness, and in particular to empirically study the behavior, habitats and physical characteristics of birds. Wilson took his passion seriously, alongside painting and poetry, and travelled widely across North America to produce a comprehensive guide to American Ornithology. He is one of many who emigrated overseas in order to escape the limitations of his background, and hopefully provide better opportunities for his family.
A look into the groupings of this fascinating collection of poets points to their diversity. Rather than viewing the entire Labouring-Class oeuvre as a singular tradition of easily-definable poets working within the spheres of 18th and 19thCentury Britain, here we have an example of the richness of their individual lives, their added social burdens (especially in the case of the ‘slave poets’), their desire to move beyond their means, and the catalysts that enabled them to discover their voices. These poets lived in the thick of imperialist England in such a way that they were subject to whatever the powers of government and capitalist industry had in store for them. Equiano’s autobiography, Rushton’s abolitionist poetry, and Wilson’s depictions of Scottish working-class life clearly and powerfully respond to the workings, effects and influences of these authorities, and provide a testament to how even laborers still had power – or opportunity – to escape or break beyond the limits set out by these authorities.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings: Revised Edition. ed. V Caretta. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003).
The Equiano Project. www.equiano.org
Goodridge, John (ed.) Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets. Vols. 1- 3. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2003).
Linebaugh, Peter and Rediker, Marcus. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
Rushton, Edward. The Dismember’d Empire. (Liverpool: 1782).
Wilson, Alexander. The poetical works of Alexander Wilson. (Belfast: John Henderson, 1844).