Stephen Duck on labour and leisure

In 1730, a Wiltshire agricultural labourer burst upon the London literary scene. For his extraordinary literary talents, Stephen Duck (N705-1756) was celebrated by local aristocracy, crowned by a canny publisher ‘The Thresher Poef (Figure 4.1) and subsequently received the patronage of Queen Caroline. Many poets attempted to tread in Duck’s footsteps and escape indigence by

Stephen Duck (1705—1756), from Duck (1764), reproduced by courtesy of the British Library

FIGURE 4.1 Stephen Duck (1705—1756), from Duck (1764), reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.

verse, creating the 18th-century literary equivalent of the televised talent show. Aspirants were offered a chance in a million to achieve economic freedom on the whims of hereditary aristocrats or commercially appointed pundits.

These poets presented themselves to the educated poetry-reading public as working-class writers. They competed for readers’ attention under the rules of the emergent capitalist economy and consumerism. Their humble origin was central to their branding; they were both exotically other and enticingly ‘locally produced’. Who better to write a poetic treatise on agricultural labour in Virgilian style than an actual agricultural labourer, such as Robert Bloomfield (on whom see pp. 436-7)? Yet John W. Draper was surprised that Duck ‘seems mainly to have modelled his poetic efforts neither on the ballad tradition of his own class nor on the religious-Sentimental tradition of his immediate social betters, but on the Neo-classical formulae of the aristocracy’.18 A page earlier, Draper has characterised this aristocratic neoclassicism derisively: ‘with its symmetrical couplets and sharp-cut rhetoric, the artistic progeny of the Latin classics halflearned at Oxford or Cambridge’.19

Why should Duck write what we might call ‘classicising’ verse? To engage the Augustan British reading public, he needed to respect the contemporary literary and commercial conventions of British poetry. However unfashionable now, such poetry comprises some of the most skilful versification and successful classical translation ever made in the English language. Williams argues that ‘the court and the church and neo-classicism patronised and emasculated’ Duck.20 This expresses the still-dominant view that Duck’s ‘The Thresher’s Labour’ was good, but when ‘he left the thresher’s barn it was downhill all the way’.21 Yet Christmas’s reappraisal of Duck’s Horatian imitations shows that this narrative of decline is unsatisfactory; omitting the remainder of Duck’s oeuvre means ignoring how a working-class poet might absorb literary convention to win ‘a place at the table’ where he could represent his class, while maintaining individuality by inhabiting classical texts through which he would speak.22 Duck was the first labourer who succeeded through verse in improving his circumstances while demonstrating the arbitrariness of class division.

Duck’s story is both inspirational and tragic. After negotiating a meteoric rise to fame, in 1750 he settled as the Pastor of Byfleet, Surrey, where just six years later he drowned himself. But he offers a profound example of workingclass Classics. An agricultural labourer from the age of 14, he nevertheless read as widely as he could. He probably worked overtime to finance his reading habit, but some books were bestowed upon him by early supporters. The Oxford Professor of Poetry, Joseph Spence (see above, p. 48), took a special interest in Duck’s ‘natural genius’, and his list of the books Duck had acquired by 1730 indicates an inquisitive mind. This self-educator’s collection is, as usual, eclectic, but—notwithstanding some satire—inclines towards theology, history and poetry.

In addition to his Bible and a book on arithmetic, Duck possessed an edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he read through three times, it is said, as an educated man might read a classical text, slowly and with a dictionary: ‘He studied Paradise Lost, as we study the Classicks’.23 He revelled in The Spectator, which featured plenteous poetry in extracted form and criticism.24 Duck’s earliest classical favourite was Seneca, whom he read in L’Estrange’s translation Morals: Of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger and Clemency (1679), along with the same Tory-High-Anglican’s edition of Josephus. His first taste of Homer came with Fénelon (see above p. 51). He knew Ovid, presumably through Dryden’s translation, and Dryden’s Virgil. Duck was familiar with around ten plays of Shakespeare; Spence also lists Epictetus, Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, the classically infused satirist Tom Brown (on whom see above, p. 39), and tavernkeeper Ned Ward’s London Spy.25

In 1730, after being brought to the attention of a wealthy landowner, Duck was encouraged to write down his existing poems, including his verse epistle ‘Honour’d Sir’, a formulaic but polished recusatio adorned with classical flourishes.26 He also wrote a new poem about his working life, ‘The Thresher’s Labour’, consisting of 143 heroic couplets. Both poems first appeared in Poems on Several Subjects (1730), which was pirated and released apparently without Duck’s blessing.

‘The Thresher’s Tale’ uses classical material to depict suffering. Lines 33-43 constitute the first known English verses detailing the process of agricultural labour, from a labourer’s perspective:

... more quick we whirl them [threshalls] round,

From the strong planks our Crab-tree Staves rebound, And echoing Barns return the rattling Sound.

Now in the Air our knotty Weapons fly,

And now with equal Force descend from high.

Down one, one up, so well they keep the Time,

The Cyclops’ Hammers could not truer chime,

Nor with more heavy Strokes could Aetna groan,

When Vulcan forged the arms of Thetis’ son.

In briny streams our sweat descends apace,

Drops from our locks, or trickles down our face.27

There is pride here as well as an articulation of the rigours of threshing work,28 and it alludes to Dryden’s translation of Virgil, Georgies IV.251-3:

With lifted Arms they [the Cyclops] order ev’ry Blow,

And chime their sounding Hammers in a Row;

With labour’d Anvils Aetna groans below.29

Duck establishes the favourable comparison of the thresher’s barn with Virgil’s forge, but the chiming hammers and groaning Aetna create the direct allusion to Dryden. This sonorous section of Dryden’s translation has informed Duck’s description of the working threshers. Poetic allusion can be produced by sonic memory.

Duck describes the harvest-time torments of agricultural work. Six days a week, from dawn to dark, the reapers cut the crop under the scrutiny of harsh masters. Even asleep, the reapers endure the sun-drenched field and its ‘perplexing thistles’:

Hard Fate! Our Labours ev’n in sleep don’t cease;

Scarce Hercules e’er felt such Toils as these.30

The comparison of the suffering reaper with Hercules heroises the individual whose subjectivity has been overlooked forever. Duck closes with a final mythological comparand to the labourer’s plight, Sisyphus (see further below, pp. 85-9):

Thus, as the Year’s revolving course goes round,

No respite from our Labour can be found.

Like Sisyphus, our Work is never done;

Continually rolls back the restless Stone.

Now growing Labours still succeed the past,

And growing always new, must always last.31

This 1730 volume also contained a Biblical narrative called ‘Shunamite’ (based on the Book of Kings) and ‘On Poverty’. It was an instant hit, read by the Earl of Macclesfield in the presence of Queen Caroline at Windsor, and it transformed Duck’s fortunes. In 1733 she made him a Yeoman of the Guard and in 1735 the Keeper of the Queen’s Library in ‘Merlin’s Cave’, a hermitage within the grounds of Richmond Lodge.32

Duck’s first authorised collection, Poems on Several Occasions, appeared in 1736. Under the tuition of another supporter, Dr. Alured Clarke (1696-1742), Duck had augmented his ‘natural genius’ with scholarship. Duck had spent much of the intervening six years ‘in endeavouring to learn a Language, of which I was then entirely ignorant’, i.e. Latin.33 This unlocked Horace, whose formal and aural qualities are difficult to appreciate in translation. Clarke also encouraged Duck to use handbooks including Chambers’s Dictionary, Danet’s Dictionary of Antiquities and Bailey’s Etymological Dictionary?* He recommended that Duck should learn Pope’s ‘Essay on Criticism’ by heart, perhaps an ‘attempt to Neoclassicize’ him,35 and study Pope’s Homer, in lieu of a ‘satisfactory translation’.36 But it seems unlikely that Duck, the seasoned self-educator, would allow his curriculum to be entirely shaped by another, and the educational norms of the time would have led him directly to Roman and Greek writers, anyway.

In Poems on Several Occasions, a long verse epistle entitled ‘Every Man in his Own Way’ addresses a friend of Duck by the Latin pseudonym ‘Laelius’.37 In an oblique defence of his right to be a man ofletters, Duck challenges the contemporary chokehold of classicism:

I know your judgement, sense, and taste require,

A bard to sing with spirit, force, and fire;

Compose such numbers as the Ancients writ.

Are Ancients then the only Men of Wit?

Is wit immutable? Is nothing so,

But what was writ Two thousand years ago?

Yet Duck’s six years of study established a connection to the Latin muse. In ‘Penelope to Ulysses’ he skilfully paraphrases Ovid’s Heroides 1 into smooth couplets; he translates an Italian neo-Latin tribute to Milton, and imitates three of Horace’s odes together with one by Claudian.38 In his preface he writes:

I confess myself guilty of a great Presumption in publishing Imitations of Horace, when many eminent Hands have done it much better before me: But when I was only endeavouring to understand him, I found it difficult to conquer a Temptation I had to imitate some of his Thoughts, which mightily pleas’d me.39

Duck was justified in being concerned about potential responses to his Horatian experiments. Learned readers might well have reacted as Samuel Johnson did in 1765 to the shoemaker James Woodhouse’s poetry: ‘A school-boy’s exercise may be a pretty thing for a school-boy; but it is no treat for a man’.40 Yet in this self-deprecation we may also hear a celebration of Duck’s own classical attainment, a glee in his occupation of an elite preserve. His Horatian experiments express the joy of discovery. In ‘Every Man in his own Way’ he speaks of his compulsion to write as an itch: ‘This itch of scribbling clings about my heart’.4'

The poems by Horace and Claudian that Duck imitated revolve around a theme favoured in his Latin reading. Like many 18th-century gentlemen scribblers, he advocates Horace’s idealised moderation and the simple life, but in writing from experience of agricultural labour, he lends a different ring to the ‘golden mean’ philosophy. In imitating Odes 11.16, he praises, like Horace, otium (‘ease’, or freedom from business and the acquisition of fame and/or wealth), but also thrift, peace and contentedness. Money cannot buy peace of mind. He expands the original in the final two stanzas, stemming from II.16.35-7, ‘you wear woolen clothes dyed twice over in African crimson’.42 Duck has,

THY Board tho’ twenty Dishes grace?

Thy Coat as many Yards of Lace?43

I envy not the purple Dye,

Nor all thy gaudy Pomp of Luxury.

Moreover, Duck alters the addressee of the original, whose name is Grosphus, to read ‘Thee’, which seems to represent the landlord class. This wealthy, well-dressed other is contrasted with the authorial ‘I’, identified throughout the book as Duck himself. The following, final stanza reads:

I share some Sparks of PHOEBUS’ Fire,

To warm my Breast, if not inspire;

Too little Wealth to make me proud,

And Sense enough to scorn the envious Crowd.44

Duck omits both the pagan Parcae and the small estate bestowed on Horace, but accepts the spiritum Gratae tenuern Camenae (‘slight puff of inspiration from the Graeco-Roman Muse’), simplifying it to ‘sparks of Phoebus’ fire’.4’ The next line indicates his own new social standing, still not high but with some money, even if‘too little to make him proud’. Duck, like Horace, had transcended the occupational restrictions ofhis native class. But he alters the ‘ill-disposed common herd’ (malignum vulgus) despised by Horace to the less class-specific ‘envious crowd’.

Duck’s imitation of Odes III.16 is addressed to his local patron, Reverend Stanley, Rector of Pewsey:

O STANLEY, Honour of my Muse!

I fear, and justly fear,

To steer the Course Ambition shews,

Or soar beyond my Sphere.

He’s poor, who always after Wealth aspires;

He’s rich, who always curbs his own Desires.

I more admire an humble Seat,

Than all the Pomps, which vex the Great;

And from their gilded Roofs retire,

On Isis’ Banks to tune my Lyre.46

Duck would have known that Horace rose from relatively humble origins, describing his family in Satires 1.6.6 as ignoti (‘unknown’) and himself as ‘born of a freed-man father’. Horace in Ode III.16-17 claims to be horrified by his newfound fame and the anxiety that attends it; Duck fears becoming conspicuous in society, too, but his fear of soaring beyond his sphere is more class-based. Horace, the literary overlord of elevated 18th-century classicism,47 paradoxically provides the formal Trojan horse within which Duck could cross the class divide and pioneer his status, new to Britain, as a working-class man of letters.48

Duck compliments Pope in his imitation of Ode 11.10.17-20: ‘If things are bad now, they will not always be so: at times Apollo wakens the slumbering Muse with his lyre; he does not always keep his bow taught’).49 Duck writes:

Tho’ POPE with Illness oft complains,

POPE is not always rack’d with Pains;

But, warm’d with PHOEBUS’ Fire,

Sometimes he wakes the sleeping String,

Or bids the silent Muses sing,

And charms us with his Lyre.

Duck plays on Apollo’s dual identity as deity of music and prophecy, but also pestilence (as in Iliad I). The alteration of the original flatters his renowned but delicate contemporary by associating him with the god of poetry but also with illnesses. This avoids obsequiousness and projects confidence above his former station.

Duck’s early poetry about his experience as labourer has always been preferred to his ‘neo-classical’ writings in Pope’s shadow. But Duck’s later, classically informed writing has been underestimated. Perhaps this is because a poet, originally a self-professed ‘Country Clown’,50 in challenging class distinctions through cultivating Classics had become a culturally disruptive and influential force’.51 The aesthetic distaste of post-Romantic critics for Augustan idioms of poetry was another factor in his fall from favour. His royal patron Caroline of Ansbach’s death and his own suicide took their toll on Duck’s reputation during his lifetime and after it.

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