Mary Collier

When Queen Caroline gave royal patronage to Duck, ‘twenty artisans and labourers turned poets and starved’, or so quipped Horace Walpole to Hannah More.’2 There was indeed a wave of labourer poets following Duck, when ‘the status of labourer served as a form of symbolic capital in the literary marketplace’ after Duck’s propulsion to fame and (modest) fortune.53 They achieved differing degrees of success. But, as a group, ‘these poets faced stiff opposition from authors of the gentlemanly classes who often voiced their concerns in the periodical press’.54 Many aspirant hearts were broken. The attraction of substituting pens for tools was still considered pervasive when Byron published his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1810):

Oh! since increased refinement deigns to smile

On Britain’s sons, and bless our genial isle,

Let poesy go forth, pervade the whole,

Alike the rustic, and the mechanic soul!

Ye tuneful cobblers! still your notes prolong,

Compose at once a slipper and a song;

So shall the fair your handywork peruse,

Your sonnets sure shall please - perhaps your shoes.’5

May Moorland weavers boast Pindaric skill,

And tailors’ lays be longer than their bill!’6

Full collections of poetry were however published by the Spitalfields weaver, John Bancks (1709-1751); the footman, Robert Dodsley (1704-1764); and Robert Tatersal, a London Bricklayer (poetically active 1734-1735).57 Bancks and Dodsley, after publishing relatively successful poetic miscellanies, carved out positions in the (again relatively) lucrative bookselling trade and ‘represent important individual examples of plebeian social ascent achieved within a burgeoning literary economy, without the royal patronage Duck received*.58 They exude classicism, imitate Horace, and deserve further inquiry.

A buoyant reply to Duck came from The Washerwoman Poet of Petersfield, Mary Collier (1688-1762), whose The Woman’s Labour: An Epistle to Mr Stephen Duck was published in 1739. She criticises Duck’s ungenerous portrayal of women in ‘Thresher’s Labour*. One hundred and seventy-nine years before the Old Age Pensions Act 1908, she writes that she is an invalided and poverty-stricken elderly woman confined, after a life spent scrubbing linen and brewing, to a garret in Alton.’9 She recalls that Duck’s poems

brought me to a strong propensity to call an Army of Amazons to vindicate the injured sex: therefore I answered him to please my own humour, little thinking to make it public; it lay by me for several years, and by now and then repeating a few lines to amuse myself, and entertain my company, it got Air.60

Like Duck’s references to Sisyphus and Hercules, Collier’s desire to invoke an ‘Army of Amazons’ betrays a cultural knowledge beyond that commonly associated with women who had received scarcely a year of formal education. Moreover, she responds, perhaps mockingly, to Duck’s classical references. She repudiates his suggestion that men work harder at harvest time by stating that women, after working the hay, also go home to housework, cooking and needlework.61

Her first classical allusion is to Jupiter and Danae, probably inspired by Ovid’s Ars Amatoria III, in which the poet requests the Amazon, Penthesilea, to contend in love affairs, alongside hordes of females, effectively against men:

Jove once descending from the clouds, did drop In showers of gold on lovely Danae’s lap;

The sweet tongu’d poets, in those gen’rous days,

Unto our Shrine still offer’d up their lays:

But now, alas! that Golden Age is past,

We are the objects of your Scorn at last.

But women, regrets Collier, are today no longer respected:

And you, great Duck, upon whose happy brow

The muses seem to fix their garland now,

In your late Poem boldly did declare

Alcides’ labours can’t with yours compare;62

Hercules had made regular appearances in the first two books of the Ars Amatoria, which are addressed to men. This text was enormously popular, and translations had been frequently reissued in the early 18th century.63 Sadly, there is a question mark over the authenticity of Collier’s poem.64 But the author, whoever s/he was, out-Ducks Duck’s whimsical classical references, concluding,

While you to Sisyphus yourself compare,

With Danaus’ daughters we may claim a share;

For while he labours hard against the hill,

Bottomless tubs of water they must fill.65

By alluding to a more obscure myth of female perpetual labour, that of the Danaids (also to be found in Ars Amatoria III), the author trumps Duck’s Sisyphus.

Collier is scathing about the poor remuneration offered to women, concluding, as Christmas points out, with a picture of ‘a propertyless group of rural labourers in conflict with the owners of the land which they work’:66

So the industrious Bees do hourly strive

To bring their Loads of Honey to the Hive;

Their sordid Owners always reap the Gains, And poorly recompense their Toil and Pains.67

Collier may allude to the contemporary debate about the economy of luxury provoked by Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, consisting of a 1705 poem, ‘The Grumbling Hive’ and a prose commentary published together with it in 1714. The work is informed by numerous sources including Lucian, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca, Columella, Pliny, Aelian and especially Aristotle and Aesop.68 Mandeville argued that luxury created employment and motored wealth acquisition, but E.P. Thompson argues that ‘Collier shows us the underside of luxury, in the laundry and the kitchens’.6’ Duck had also expressed cautious criticism of the landlords exploiting the threshers’ labour.70

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >