Biography and Bio-bibliography: How I Found Edward Rushton

Biographical details about each individual poet, such as birthplace, occupation, associated locations and emigration patterns, form an important structural/organizing feature of the LCPO database. One might wonder why these entry fields are necessary for a project that specifically focuses on poetry, an aesthetic medium that certain theorists would argue should be removed from any potential authorial impositions on the text and treated objectively. This begs the daunting question regarding art and biography: can they be considered as a complementary relationship, or should they always be regarded as mutually exclusive? Or, in terms of the database: how does the information available in the database help us understand, or even acquaint ourselves, with the poetry it archives?

Thus begins the story of my love affair with Edward Rushton, an overlooked, turn-of-the-century hero of his time. When I initially approached the database, I knew very little about the poets involved, aside from the time frame they published in and their low socio-economic, “working-class” status. Since working on data entry and carrying out research, however, I discovered that learning about these poets’ lives, the socio-historic context they wrote within, and the geographic location where they wrote from, had a huge impact on their artistic production.

Edward Rushton is one such poet whose work is hard to discuss without recognizing his remarkable life: a sailor from age 11, he single-handedly saved a vessel from shipwreck at the age of 16; at work on the slave vessels, he befriended a young slave and taught him to read; he grew so appalled with the treatment of slaves in transit that he protested, and his captain charged him with mutiny; and in an attempt to feed and tend slaves during a breakout of opthalmia, he went blind, something which eventually led him to open a school for the blind in his hometown of Liverpool. An outspoken slave abolitionist, human rights advocate, transatlantic traveler, journalist and poet, Rushton was a turn-of-the-century radical who gave a voice to the marginalized peoples of society through his poetry. His life experiences directly informed his artistic production, as evidenced by his two most famous publications The Dismember’d Empire (1782) and The West Indian Eclogues (1787), which decry the state of slavery as a consequence of British Imperialism’s capitalist agenda.

Relative to the rest of the poets in the database, a fair number of scholars have written about him – an indicator of his influence and popularity while he was alive. His biography, therefore, informs his bibliography: his work aboard slave ships is the axis of events which informed the opinions, radicalism and published work for which he is still remembered today. A poems such as The Dismember’d Empire demonstrates his disillusionment with the notion of Empire, and the critical eye he viewed it through. His work further documents the difficulties of working within the maritime industry, under the occupation and label of ‘sailor’, and charts the terrible conditions involved in such a life as it was related to the growth of British Imperial capitalism. A poem like ‘Will Clewline’ (1801) reflects his experiences aboard the sea vessels of the time, such as multiple trips across the oceans, shipwrecks, close contact with the slave trade, and the pressing escape from a British society on the cusp of urbanization.

My discovery of Edward Rushton provides an example of how the LCPO database can help a scholar or student use biographic information to inform or offer insight into the poetry it aims to promote.