Sydney University’s English Department failed me…

… and thousands of others in the 60s – and for all I know this may still be the case – by passing over gem after gem in the great diamond mine of English Literature.  Only today has my toilet reading revealed another example of my deprivation.

Let me explain. I have a habit of reading reference books in the toilet. The little nuggets of information can be ingested as other nuggets go their way in the course of nature. Today my text was The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English ed. Ian Ousby, a handy paperback version of the Cambridge Guide and a truly great toilet read. I have quite possibly read all of it in the bog over the years, but my eye fell today on something new:

Stephen Duck (1705?–1756) was an English poet whose career reflected both the Augustan era’s interest in "naturals" (natural geniuses) and its resistance to classlessness.

Duck was born at born at Charlton, near Pewsey, in Wiltshire, but little is known about his family, whether from Duck himself or from contemporary records, except that they were labourers and very poor. Duck attended a charity school and left at the age of thirteen to begin working in the fields.

Around 1724, he married as his first wife Ann, who died in 1730, and began to attempt to better himself and escape the toil and poverty of agricultural work. He read Milton, Dryden, Prior, and The Spectator, as well as the Holy Bible, according to Joseph Spence. He was "discovered" by Alured Clarke of Winchester Cathedral, and Clarke introduced him to high society. Clarke and Spence (the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and friend of Alexander Pope) promoted Duck as a sincerely pious man of sober wit. Clarke and Spence saw poetry that Duck was writing, but none of this verse was published. Between 1724 and 1730, he and Ann had three children.

In 1730, Duck combined some of the poetic pieces he had been writing and wrote The Thresher’s Labour, a poem that described the difficulty of field work. The poem was celebrated throughout London society, and he soon wrote The Shunammite, which reflected Duck’s piety and religious imagination. The poet was taken to meet Queen Caroline, and, while he was there, word came of the death of his wife, but Clarke kept the news from Duck until after the interview with the Queen. For her part, she was pleased and gave Duck an annuity and a small house.

Duck continued to write and to be seen as both a paradigm of self-improvement and the natural poet. In 1733, Duck was made a Yeoman of the Guard by the queen, and that year he met and married Sarah Big, Caroline’s housekeeper at Kew. In 1735, Caroline made him keeper of the Queen’s library at Merlin’s Cave in Richmond. During this period, Duck wrote many poems, with increasing polish and urbanity. His Poems in 1736 had both Pope and Jonathan Swift as subscribers.

Swift and Pope both made disparaging remarks or outright satires on Duck. In 1731 to 1733, Swift satirized the poverty of Duck’s rhymes several places. However, both men seemed to like Stephen Duck as a person, and both were impressed by his religious sincerity. When Duck was rumored to be a candidate for the,Laureate this distinction between the private man and the quality of the verse made him a worthy target.

When Queen Caroline died in 1737, Duck was left without a patron and without direct inspiration. He wrote eight very long poems after her death. In 1744, Sarah Big Duck died, and Stephen married again, although this wife’s name is unknown. Duck was ordained in 1746 and became chaplain to Henry Cornwall and then to Ligonier’s forces in 1750 before becoming the chaplain of Kew. He went on to serve as the pastor of Byfleet, Surrey, where he was well liked by his congregation.

The exact date of Duck’s death is unknown, as he committed suicide by drowning between 30 March and 2 April 1756.

Since the 1990s, Duck has seen renewed interest among New Historicist and Marxist literary critics. Duck’s case featured in the The New Eighteenth Century (Landry), and this inspired further critical work. The Donna Landry and William Christmas edited issue of Criticism featured two articles on Duck in 2005.

That’s Wikipedia of course.

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There is a 2011 Tumbler blog called F*ck Yeah Stephen Duck. It includes an extract from the poet:

From “The Thresher’s Labor”

The grateful Tribute of these rural Lays,

Which to her Patron’s hand the Muse conveys,

Deign to accept: ‘Tis just the Tribute bring

To him, whose Bounty gives her Life to sing;

To him, whose gen’rous Favors  tune her Voice;

And bid her, midst her Poverty, rejoice.

Inspir’d by these, she dares herself prepare,

To sing the Toils of each revolving Year;

Those endless Toils, which always grow anew,

And the poor Threshers destin’d to pursue:

Ev’n these with Pleasure, can the Muse rehearse.

When you and Gratitude demand her Verse.

That fan also writes:

This is Stephen Duck. He was an 18th century poet who started off as an agricultural laborer. Other writers of his time, such as Pope, Swift and Dryden used to make fun of his rhymes and writing, but he was a pretty nice guy and a lot of people really liked him, including the aforementioned writers. A lot of people forget he exists, but recently he’s gotten a bit of a following. If you go on Google Books, some of his poetry is available to read for free.

There you go. My toilet Duck, you might say.

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