Although now largely overlooked, the “Thresher Poet” Stephen Duck was an 18th-century celebrity. Critics and scholars have been generally dismissive of the quality of his verse, yet he enjoyed the patronage of Queen Caroline from his introduction at court in 1730 until her death in 1737, and was rumored to have been considered for the laureateship.
Duck spent his early years as a poor agricultural labourer, receiving a rudimentary education until the age of 14 when he left school to work in the fields. According to “An account of the author” written by his friend and supporter Joseph Spence, he “had a certain Longing after Knowledge; and when he reflected within himself on his Want of Education, he began to be particularly uneasy.” Duck would work extended hours in the fields to earn extra money which he spent on books. Once he had the books, he finished his work as quickly as possible, “that he might get Half an Hour to read a Spectator, without injuring his Master.” Together with a friend who had lived in London and amassed a small library, Duck would read, re-read, and discuss the few dozen volumes that were available to him. Spence, describing this early period in the poet’s life, records their collection as follows:
“Perhaps you would be willing to know what Books their little Library consisted of. I need not mention those of Arithmetick again, nor his Bible: Milton, the Spectators, and Seneca, were his first Favourites; Telemachus, with another Piece by the same Hand, and Addison’s Defence of Christianity, his next. They had an English Dictionary, and a Sort of English Grammar, an Ovid of long standing with them, and a Bysshe’s Art of Poetry of latter Acquisition: Seneca’s Morals made the Name of l’Estrange dear to them; and, as I imagine, might occasion their getting his Josephus in Folio, which was the largest Purchace in their Collection: They had one Volume of Shakespeare, with Seven of his Plays in it. Beside theses, Stephen had read three or four other Plays; some of Epictetus, Waller, Dryden’s Virgil, Prior, Hudibras, Tom Brown, and the London Spy. You may see I am a faithfull Historian, by giving you the Bad with the Good.”
Duck was particularly drawn to Milton’s Paradise Lost, reading it over “twice or thrice with a Dictionary, before he could understand the Language of it thoroughly… [H]e has got English just as we get Latin. He study’d Paradise Lost, as others study the Classics.” Inspired to try and imitate Milton’s verse, began to compose a few poems, most of which he claims to have thrown onto the fire, considering them to be of little or no literary merit. When rumors began to circulate about a poor thresher who could write couplets, a young gentleman of Oxford requested of him a letter in verse. The result, Duck’s first composition of more than a few disconnected lines, is preserved as “To a Gentleman, who requested a Copy of Verses from the Author.”
The letter’s favourable reception inspired Duck to continue his efforts, which were published in up to ten pirated editions between 1730 and 1733 under the title, Poems on Several Subjects. These early editions attracted attention on a much wider scale and earned him an audience in the court of Queen Caroline. Duck was well received by the queen, who rewarded him with an annuity of £30 or £50, a house, and, in 1735, a position as keeper of the queen’s library in Merlin’s Cave, a Gothic building in Richmond Gardens. He was introduced to literary giants such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, both of whom subscribed to his 1736 volume of poems. Although they had nothing good to say about his poetry, Swift and Pope both spoke highly of Duck as a humble, genial, and virtuous man.
Today, scholars are beginning to revisit Stephen Duck’s literary contributions. In her chapter in A Companion to Literature from Milton to Blake, Bridget Keegan suggests several areas of study where Duck’s work is of value, such as documenting the everyday lives of 18th century working-class people; or the concept of “genius” in the 18th century literary landscape. She argues that Duck’s success may be seen to pave the way for the rise of the Romantic movement and other self-educated poets such as Robert Bloomfield, Robert Burns and John Clare.
With its mock-heroic language and inversion of traditional pastoral imagery, Duck’s poem, “The Thresher’s Labour” anticipates the themes of destruction and corrupt greed in Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village.” As the first writer in what would become a class of “peasant-poets,” Duck also inspired many contemporary imitations and responses from other working-class authors, including Robert Tatersal (The Bricklayer’s Miscellany) and John Bancks (The Weaver’s Miscellany). Perhaps the most famous of these responses is The Woman’s Labour by Mary Collier. Offended by Duck’s portrayal of female agricultural workers as lazy chatterboxes, she composed a rebuttal in verse, cataloguing her own struggles as a washer-woman in London. Despite their literary sparring, however, Collier acknowledged her admiration for Duck and composed an Elegy on his death many years later.
Sadly, Stephen Duck’s story does not end well. After Queen Caroline’s death in 1837, he found himself without a patron as his celebrity waned. Rather than continue his literary career, he devoted himself to scholarship and took holy orders in 1746. He served as a military chaplain from 1747 to 1751, then briefly as preacher to Kew chapel. In January 1752 he was appointed to the rectory of Byfleet, Surrey where he proved a hard working and popular parish priest, but between 30 March and 2 April 1756 committed suicide by drowning at Reading.