The Thresher's Labour (1730) and The Woman's Labour (1739) form such a self-evidently interesting and accessible pair of poems for comparative study that in recent years they have become a familiar double-act in eighteenth-century studies, both as a topic in undergraduate courses and as an element in the scholarly recovery of a self-taught, laboring-class tradition in eighteenth-century poetry. Stephen Duck's poem had often been touched on by literary historians as an eighteenth-century curiosity, as had his rags-to-riches though ultimately tragic life story, which was the subject of a respectable academic biography (Davis 1926). Mary Collier's poem, reprinted in the 1760s and the 1820s, was again rediscovered in the wake of 1960s feminism. The two poems were yoked together in two editions in the 1980s (Ferguson 1985; Thompson and Sugden 1989: the latter is quoted in the present essay), and they have been discussed in comparative terms ever since.
There are good reasons for this. The debate on women's work in which the two poets engage, Duck's seeming desire literally to silence women workers and Collier's resistance to this, and the documentary accounts of laboring lives that both poems offer, are invaluable to anyone interested in the period. At the same time, although there had been earlier laboring-class verses, these two poems seem to signal the arrival of a recognizable new literary phenomenon, the so-called "peasant poet," often writing about his or her own life of labor. If the two poems are read alongside contextualizing materials, such as Joseph Spence's contemporary account of Duck or Mary Collier's brief autobiography of 1762, they offer intriguing insights into the workings of literary patronage and the struggle for publication in the eighteenth century. The poems seem perfectly pitched to cater to our modern interest in class and gender as topics for literary-historical contemplation.
But this apparently exemplary pairing of texts in the new canon is not entirely without pitfalls. For one thing, it may give the false impression that Collier's is the only, or the only significant, response to Duck's poem. In fact, a number of other poems addressed to Duck were published in the 1730s, some drawing on the conventions established by The Thresher's Labour. A good example is Robert Tatersal's "The Bricklayers Labours," published in 1734. Tatersal was memorably described by Rayner Unwin in his 1954 history of the English "peasant poets" as having had the approach of a "cynical and unsuccessful racketeer," muscling in on Duck's success, but this seems grossly unfair. Tatersal's poem actually offers an interesting and rare insight into a working life, and is by no means contemptible as verse. "The Bricklayers Labours" is the only first-hand account I have found of an eighteenth-century building site, and for this reason alone is uniquely valuable. Tatersal describes a noisy, gin-fueled hell-hole, easily a match for Duck's dusty threshing barn or Collier's washday back kitchen. (He also, like Mary Collier, captures well the chilly uncertainties of winter work.) The poem is as rich in descriptive detail as Duck's or Collier's, as we see in this passage, where Tatersal describes setting off for work at six o'clock in the morning:
With Sheep-skin Apron girt about my Waste, Down Stairs I go to visit my Repast; Which rarely doth consist of more than these, A Quartern Loaf, and half a Pound of Cheese; Then in a Linnen Bag, on purpose made, My Day's Allowance o're my Shoulder's laid: And first, to keep the Fog from coming in, I whet my Whistle with a Dram of Gin; So thus equip'd, my Trowel in my Hand, I haste to Work, and join the ragged Band: And now each one his different Post assign'd, And three to three in Ranks compleatly join'd; When Bricks and Mortar eccho's from on high, Mortar and Bricks, the common, constant Cry; Each sturdy Slave their different Labours share, Some Brickmen call'd, and some for Mortar are: With sultry Sweat and blow without Allay, Travel the Standard up and down all Day.
(Tatersal, "The Bricklayers Labours," ll. 13-30)
This is fascinating both from a social-historical perspective, for the detail it offers, and in terms of its overarching literary trope. What seems to be going on here in literary terms is the preparation for an epic battle, as the bricklayer puts on his protective battledress of a sheepskin apron, fortifies himself with gin, and arms himself with a trowel. This last is an effective weapon, as Tatersal has already reminded us in a poem placed earlier in the volume, which imagines a mock battle between his trowel and Stephen Duck's threshing flail:
A Flail, a Trowel, Weapons very good, If fitly us'd and rightly understood;
But close engag'd, beware the useless Flail; The Trowel then can terribly prevail.
("To Stephen Duck, The famous Threshing Poet," ll. 23—6)
On the building site Tatersal's "Ranks" form up in threes, like a parading army. Even the "Standard" — the hoist that lifts the bricks and mortar — might offer the military image of a "standard" flag raised aloft. If the publication of The Thresher's Labour had given license to individuals like Tatersal to offer close verse-descriptions of their work, it had also, following Duck's innovative reversal of certain pastoral expectations, encouraged them to be bold in their use of poetic genres and techniques.
Tatersal's mock-epic "ragged" band of laborers was no doubt inspired by Duck's corn-reapers who, armed with scythes, "Strain ev'ry Nerve, and Blow for Blow we give. / All strive to vanquish, tho' the Victor gains / No other Glory, but the greatest Pains" (The Thresher's Labour, ll. 117—19). He responds to Duck's mock-heroic representation of fieldwork with a similar view from the building site, and a friendly challenge to a laboring-class poets' "flyting" match, to be fought as a duel using the tools of their trades. The footman and former apprentice weaver Robert Dodsley, by contrast, shrewdly aligns himself in his "Epistle to Stephen Duck" as a fellow fledgling-poet, "just naked from the Shell" (l. 112). Together he and Duck will "Hop round the basis of Parnassus' Hill" (l. 115); and there is an interesting echo of The Thresher's Labour:
The tim'rous Young, just ventur'd from the Nest, First in low Bushes hop, and often rest; From Twig to Twig their tender Wings they try, Yet only flutter when they seem to fly.
(ll. 102—5, in A Muse in Livery: or, the Footman's Miscellany, 1732)
The phrase "Twig to Twig" comes from Duck's notorious simile comparing chattering women workers with a flock of sparrows:
Thus have I seen on a bright Summer's Day, On some green Brake a Flock of Sparrows play; From Twig to Twig, from Bush to Bush they fly, And with continu'd Chirping fill the Sky
We shall see that Mary Collier engages with this passage from Duck on two occasions. While hers is undoubtedly the boldest of the group of poems by laboring-class poets who emerged in the 1730s, it should be seen in the context of these other responses to Duck.
Reading Duck and Collier in isolation from their contemporaries may also lead to oversimplified or reductive readings of the two texts, particularly as regards the debate over women workers embodied in them. Both poems are generally understood to be documentary — indeed, the more "literary" Duck becomes, the more blame he seems to have received from modern critics, for supposed inauthenticity. But without a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which the two poets engage with literary materials, and of the expectations associated with labor poetry in the early eighteenth century, much depth of field is lost. Duck's swipe at women workers for talking too much and working too little, for example, is read as being straightforwardly and perhaps predictably chauvinistic; Mary Collier's angry response is correspondingly seen as setting things aright. But the truth is both more complex and more interesting than this. Duck's anti-feminist statement emerges from his sense of a need for literary embellishment — poetic techniques and precedents that could be adapted to describe his own world. This is a sense he shared with many of the other laboring-class poets of the period, including Collier. What was the correct model for describing one's daily labors, a topic that had never received credible first-hand treatment before? Just as Tatersal would look to military epic and mock-heroic styles to describe his building site, so Duck had looked to classical georgic and epic forms, and to Milton. On the morning of the second day of the hay harvest, in Duck's poem, the "Master" arrives with a group of working women, "arm'd with Rake and Prong" (l. 164) to turn the hay. The poet's theme throughout his description of them is their talk, which he derisively describes as "prattling," "confus'd," "tattling," and so on. He wishes that "their Hands" were "as active as their Tongues" (l. 169), says that they sit around talking when their meal break is finished, and affects to be baffled by the fact that they all seem to talk at once and so cannot be understood by bystanders. At length he silences them, by directing a shower of rain on to the field, at which "Their noisy Prattle all at once is done, / And to the Hedge they all for Shelter run" (ll. 189-90).
At this point the modern reader may turn to Mary Collier's "reply" (conveniently printed a few pages away in the recent editions), and take solace in her refusal to be so silenced:
But if you'd have what you have wrote believ'd, I find that you to hear us talk are griev'd. In this, I hope, you do not speak your mind, For none but Turks, that I could ever find, Have Mutes to serve them, or did e'er deny Their Slaves, at Work, to chat it merrily. Since you have Liberty to speak your mind, And are to talk, as well as we, inclin'd, Why should you thus repine, because that we, Like you, enjoy that pleasing Liberty? What! would you Lord it quite, and take away The only Privilege our Sex enjoy?
(Collier, The Woman's Labour, ll. 63-74)
This is a spirited and effective response, with its rhetorical gesturing to English "Liberty" in chauvinistic contrast to the supposedly unenlightened and tyrannical "Turks," and its sardonic appeal for kinder treatment of the "Slaves" that modern women have become. But if we read on in the Duck poem, we can see that his silencing of the women field-workers has its own rhetorical momentum: it leads directly into what is clearly a carefully planned mock-epic simile, in the passage about the sparrows:
Thus have I seen on a bright Summer's day, On some green brake a Flock of Sparrows play. From twig to twig, from bush to bush they fly, And with continu'd chirping fill the Sky, But on a sudden, if a Storm appears, Their chirping noise no longer dins your ears; They fly for shelter to the thickest bush, Their silent sit, and all at once is hush.
Here we see the real purpose of the exercise: a piece of natural observation about the birds falling silent in the rain has prompted Duck to try his hand at an extended simile, the result no doubt of his nights spent reading Milton's Paradise Lost, Edward Bysshe's compendium of extracts, The Art of English Poetry (1702), and Addison's Spectator. The latter would have reassured him that "the Ancients," in their similes, "provided there was a likeness . . . did not much trouble themselves about the decency of the comparison" (no. 160, September 3, 1711). Mary Collier's comment that "on our abject State you throw your Scorn, / And Women wrong, your Verses to adorn" (ll. 41—2) recognizes that a primary purpose of Duck's scene of women in the hayfield is stylistic. He is concerned with working two familiar literary devices into the scene: an epic or mock-epic simile, and a thunderstorm, the latter a familiar georgic device. He is economical with his imagery, and so he gives his resentment of the women's talking a threefold literary purpose: as an element of his anti-pastoral machinery, as the occasion for the thunderstorm which will silence them, and as the focus for his epic simile. Collier's anger at Duck is thus accurately focused on the "Scorn" implicit in his making literary capital out of his unjust views of women's social and working practices.
The two poems exist, then, not only in an intense intertextual dialogue, offering competing but overlapping views of labor, but also as important elements in a broader dialogue about poetry and labor, in an emerging tradition of laboring-class poetry. This tradition arose both from the literary aspirations of laboring-class writers and from the literary and social conditions of the time. Stephen Duck was the product of a dame-school education, supplemented by a small store of books supplied by a friend who worked in London. Although he had begun to write poetry spontaneously, The Thresher's Labour was actually the product of a specific suggestion by his first patron, the local clergyman Mr. Stanley, and from Stanley's wife, that he write a poem "on his own situation." Mary Collier, taught to read and write by her impoverished parents until, as she says, "my Mother dying, I lost my Education," was fired up by reading Duck's poems, which she says she "soon got by heart" (1762, pp. [iii], iv). Her brief autobiography also suggests that The Woman's Labour may have been composed mentally and written down later. Certainly, feats of mental composition and poetic memorizing are common among the laboring-class poets in this period. (Robert Bloomfield, for example, composed the 1,500 lines of The Farmer's Boy  in his head.) They testify to the lack of access to writing and reading materials, and the resourcefulness of the laboring-class poets in their determination to force an entry into literary culture. To write about one's "own situation" was a natural starting point for both poets, though we can see that, in different ways for Duck and Collier, neither poem was driven purely by a desire for autobiographical self-expression. The Thresher's Labour was commissioned, or at least encouraged and suggested by a patron; The Woman's Labour came out of a literary response, and a desire to put right a factual wrong, as Collier explains in the autobiographical "Remarks of the Author's Life" which preface the 1762 edition of her works. When she was a washerwoman in Petersfield, "Duck's Poems came abroad, which I soon got by heart, fancying he had been too Severe on the Female Sex in his Thresher's Labour brought me to a Strong propensity to call an Army of Amazons to vindicate the injured Sex: Therefore I answer'd him to please my own humour" (1762: iv).
Like Duck and Tatersal, Mary Collier has her "Army," though unlike the male poets she invokes the spirit of classical heroism not to do the work, but to give strength to her response to Duck. It is an intense, satirical, literary response, and Collier's recognition of the literariness of this poetical exchange of views is a constant in her response to him, from her wonderfully facetious mock-panegyric opening address to him in The Woman's Labour as "great Duck" ("Immortal Bard! thou fav'rite of the Nine!") to the clever homage to his style that concludes the moving "Elegy" she wrote on hearing of his death by drowning, many years later:
The want of wit thy pleasure turn'd to pain, Thy Life a Burthen, and thy Death a Stain: So have I Seen in a fair Summers Morn, Bright Phrebus's Beams the Hills and Dales adorn, With Flow'rs and Shrubs their fragrant Sweets display, And Warbling Birds foretell a Chearfull Day: When on a Sudden some dark Clouds arise, Obscures the Sun and overspreads the Skies; The Birds are Silent, plants contract their bloom, The Glorious Day ends in a dismal gloom.
(Collier, "Elegy upon Stephen Duck" [pub. 1762], ll. 25-34)
In this somberly ironic reprise to her "flyting" of Duck in The Woman's Labour, Collier (as Donna Landry has noted) reworks precisely the simile and the passage in The Thresher's Labour which had caused all the trouble in the first place, in which he compared the chattering women falling silent in a rain-shower to a flock of sparrows.
If we are adequately to compare The Thresher's Labour and The Woman's Labour, then, we must look attentively at their literariness: their intertextual literary contexts and literary modes, the circumstances from which they emerged. The development of laboring-class poetry in the eighteenth century was as much about literary form, how to devise and adapt suitable genres and to draw on literary precedents, as it was about recording the details of one's life. E. P. Thompson's introduction to the two poems emphasizes the almost unbridgeable divide between high and low culture in the 1730s, but suggests that genius might leap the gap. A good example of such "genius," notwithstanding the self-declared modesty of its author's poetic ability, was Stephen Duck's apparently unprecedented reversal of pastoral expectations in his unfolding of the rural year and the farming calendar. The Thresher's Labour is not, of course, the first anti-pastoral, but it is highly unusual in turning the farming year, routinely offered in georgic and pastoral poetry as a positive or at least consolatory image of man's successful interventions in a post-lapsarian world, into an unmistakable reminder of the legacy of the fall. These contradictory views of human social development — the rise of civilization and the loss of Eden — are usually held in balance in the eighteenth-century georgic tradition, in poems like Thomson's Seasons (1726-30), where they coexist fairly harmoniously [see ch. 14, "James Thomson, The Seasons"]. By focusing intently on the hardship of the working year, Duck draws on but undermines a powerful literary convention. He concentrates on the difficulty of his working life, and the inadequacy of compensations and rewards that are available to him. He uses familiar literary materials to do so, but adapts them to his own situation. For example, he uses the view of the shepherd's life as leisurely and harmonious, taken from "golden age" pastorals such as those of Pope (1709), to make a dramatic contrast with life in a gloomy threshing barn:
Nor yet the tedious Labour to beguile, And make the passing Minutes sweetly smile, Can we, like Shepherds, tell a merry Tale? The voice is lost, drown'd by the noisy Flail. But we may think — alas! what pleasing thing Here to the Mind can the dull Fancy bring? The Eye beholds no pleasant object here; No cheerful sound diverts the list'ning Ear. The Shepherd well may tune his voice to sing, Inspir'd by all the beauties of the Spring: No Fountains murmur here, no Lambkins play, No Linets warble, and no Fields look gay. 'Tis all a dull and melancholy Scene, Fit only to provoke the Muses' Spleen.
In more ways than one, Stephen Duck set the foundations for the way in which laboring-class poets would address the subject of labor itself — the condition and activity that dominated their lives. Many poets sought ways specifically to dramatize their own complex positions in relation to labor, using poetry as both a means to describe the prison of physical labor and, simultaneously, a way of possibly escaping from it. Duck alludes on several occasions to the imagery of leisured pastoral, of rural labor as filtered through classical pastoralism. But, as his later neighbor and acquaintance Alexander Pope had once written in his "Discourse on Pastoral Poetry" (written 1704, published 1717), pastoral poets were "not to describe our shepherds as shepherds at this day really are." Pastoral poetry was "an image of what they call the Golden age," and it is a telling gesture for Duck to specify that his principal labor, threshing, rules out the singing and storytelling of shepherds - though whether these hypothetical leisured shepherds are intended to be the real ones in Duck's countryside, or the imaginary ones of pastoral poetry, is left unsaid.
Duck similarly uses the pastoral convention of the harvest festival, familiar as the key feature of rural idyll in poems as varied as Herrick's "The Hock-Cart" and Thomson's "Summer." But unlike Herrick or Thomson, Duck dramatically reveals what he calls the "cheat," undermining the triumphalism of the literary harvest scene by leading us straight on to the next morning after the feast when, hung-over and exhausted, the laborers must begin the interminable task all over again:
But the next Morning soon reveals the Cheat, When the same toils we must again repeat, To the same Barns again must back return, To labour there for room for next year's corn.
The principal literary tools of The Thresher's Labour and The Woman's Labour -respectively, this dramatically reversed form of the pastoral—georgic annual cycle of agriculture, and a satiric rejoinder in what E. P. Thompson describes as "the old folk-mode of the 'argument of the sexes' " — enable Duck and Collier to develop complex and ironic ways of describing their work. Duck wryly acknowledges that the pastoral dream is unsupportable for the poor thresher trapped in the "dull and melancholy" threshing barn, but finds some scope for the heroic mode in the highly skilled teamwork of reaping. His reapers go to work like soldiers marching to war. Across the shoulders of each hangs the scythe, the "Weapon destin'd to unclothe the Field" (l. 108). The birds, the only onlookers at this early hour, "salute" them in a dawn chorus. On arrival, they size up the arena for their competitive sport:
And now the Field design'd our Strength to try Appears, and meets at last our longing eye; The Grass and Ground each chearfully surveys, Willing to see which way th'Advantage lays. As the best man, each claims the foremost place, And our first work seems but a sportive Race.
With rapid force our well-whet Blades we drive, Strain every nerve, and blow for blow we give: Tho' but this Eminence the foremost gains, Only t'excel the rest in Toil and Pains.
We saw that Tatersal would also use elements of mock-heroic militarism in describing his daily work routines, perhaps inspired by Duck's reapers marching to their Pyrrhic victory, "t'excel the rest in Toil and Pains." Mary Collier, in contrast, pointedly ignores this male display, perhaps recognizing her female raking/gleaning group as its implied audience (and thus teasingly perpetuating the inattentiveness which may be another reason why Duck's reapers so dislike the women's social talk). Her own work is described in rather different terms, though it shares Duck's pride in achievement, and is driven (in the winter months) by an overseer even worse than Duck's angry, greedy "Master."
The principal difference between the types of work described by Duck and Collier is that Duck appears to be a regular employee, a day laborer, whereas Collier earns a living through a series of seasonal jobs. Where Duck is ordered hither and thither (usually to the threshing barn) by the "Master," Collier must seek out new work for herself, taking it wherever she can and proudly coping with each task, however "mean" (l. 90) it may be. In describing her summer work — the work that brings her into contact with Duck's world of male harvesters — she emphasizes the essential sociability that characterizes the women's approach to work. This enables her to respond to Duck not by denying that women like to talk in the fields (which they do), but by asserting their right to do so. She also describes the way in which the women supplement the wages of harvesting by gleaning corn, a practice whose status in the eighteenth century was in transition from being a customary right to being a charitable gift:
When Harvest comes, into the Field we go,
And help to reap the Wheat as well as you,
Or else we go the ears of Corn to glean,
No Labour scorning, be it e'er so mean,
But in the Work we freely bear a part,
And what we can, perform with all our Heart.
To get a living we so willing are,
Our tender Babes into the Field we bear,
And wrap them in our cloaths to keep them warm,
While round about we gather up the Corn,
And often unto them our course we bend,
To keep them safe, that nothing them offend.
Our Children that are able, bear a share
In gleaning Corn, such is our frugal care.
When Night comes on, unto our home we go,
Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too;
Weary, alas! but 'tis not worth our while
Once to complain, or rest at ev'ry Stile.
As Donna Landry notes, an important feature of the poem is that it shows the "double shift" of women's work. The tender seriousness with which the childcare is managed in the gleaning field, and in this passage (written, notably, by a woman who was herself childless), offers an eloquent rebuke to Duck for his accusations about chattering and laziness. The infants must be kept warm and safe, while the older and stronger ones must help in the harsh work of scraping up ears of corn, "such is our frugal care." And at the end of the day each woman must carry all this home: reason enough for the scornful swipe at Duck here, whose male laborers (burdened by mere weariness) "walk but slow, and rest at every Stile" (The Thresher's Labour, l. 152). With a baby, perhaps, on one hip and a sack of gleaned corn on the other, " ' tis not worth our while / Once to complain, or rest at ev'ry Stile" (the last phrase pointedly italicized).
Collier's description of her winter "charring" work provides a counterpoint to Duck's main winter activity of threshing. Both offer a picture of alienated labor, for example by showing the effects of dirt in their jobs. Duck shows how threshing peas subverts the familiar paternalistic "cottage door" scene of return, so beloved of eighteenth-century painters:
When sooty Pease we thresh, you scarce can know Our native colour, as from Work we go; The sweat, and dust, and suffocating smoke, Make us so much like Ethiopians look, We scare our Wives, when Evening brings us home, And frighted Infants think the Bug-bear come.
Collier's reply artfully tells of how the work of cleaning pots and pans similarly subverts the women's self-image, wrecking their "tender hands" and burying the lost "Perfections" of their beauty in "Dirt and Filth":
Alas! our Labours never know an end: On brass and iron we our Strength must spend, Our tender hands and fingers scratch and tear; All this and more, with Patience we must bear. Colour'd with Dirt and Filth we now appear; Your threshing sooty Peas will not come near. All the Perfections Woman once could boast Are quite obscur'd, and altogether lost.
In both cases these quasi-industrial workplace scenes are completed by intrusive overseers, and again the style of presentation is distinctively different. Duck's overseer is an angry farmer, the "Master," who rants at their laziness at threshing and wastefulness in the harvest:
He counts the Bushels, counts how much a day, Then swears we've idled half our Time away. Why, look ye, Rogues! D'ye think that this will do? Your Neighbours thresh as much again as you.
Behind our Master waits; and if he spies One charitable Ear, he grudging cries, "Ye scatter half your Wages o'er the Land." Then scrapes the Stubble with his greedy Hand.
The image of a miserly stubble-scraper in that alliterative final line is a cleverly humorous way of presenting a tyrant. Mary Collier goes for a subtler character assassination of the "Mistress" for whom the women are washing clothes. This work begins well before dawn, but the mistress appears only later:
At length bright Sol illuminates the skies, And summons drowsy Mortals to arise. Then comes our Mistress to us without fail, And in her hand, perhaps, a mug of Ale To cheer our Hearts, and also to inform Herself, what Work is done that very Morn; Lays her Commands upon us, that we mind Her Linen well, nor leave the Dirt behind. Not this alone, but also to take care We don't her Cambricks or her Ruffles tear, And these most strictly does of us require: To save her Soap, and sparing be of Fire; Tells us her Charge is great, nay, furthermore, Her Cloaths are fewer than the time before.
The sting is in the little words: "drowsy," "perhaps" (italicized to imply "or perhaps not"), "nor . . . Not this alone, but also," "strictly," "sparing," "nay, furthermore," and "fewer." The charges against her are laziness, snooping, meanness, and an airy dishonesty as she paves the way for paying them sixpence rather than eightpence by claiming there are "fewer" clothes "than the time before" (cf. "Sixpence or Eightpence pays us off at last," l. 199).
As with Tatersal's building site, there is a wealth of interesting and detailed information in these competing descriptions of labor: for example, in Collier's cataloguing the fiddly demands of "Holland Shirts, Ruffles and Fringes too, / Fashions which our Forefathers never knew" (ll. 162-3): that is, new fabrics whose presence in the mistress's washing-basket reflect the growth of consumer culture in this period. A social historian would certainly want to take these texts seriously and put them alongside other available sources on eighteenth-century laboring conditions - as Bridget Hill, for example, does with Collier in her study of Women, Work and Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-Century England (1989). But one can equally value the literary resourcefulness and economy of these two poems. It is especially evident that the descriptions of Duck's "Master" and Collier's "Mistress" in the poems are strategically clever, both as literary presentations — the creation of literary "characters" — and as a practical survival strategy in Duck and Collier's non-literary work, where having the measure of, and being able to some degree to laugh at, those who hold the power in the workplace is obviously a potentially important source of strength and self-confidence.
The current popularity of these poems, to return to my opening theme, may perhaps represent their moment of greatest canonical prominence, although what we can piece together of their critical history suggests that they have often been a "hidden" influence that is apt to well up suddenly, for example in later poems of workplace or domestic description. It is hard to measure the precise effect they had on their contemporaries, partly because there is little obvious "reception" to Collier's poem, although it was published in London as well as Petersfield. Its reprinting in 1740, 1762, 1820, as well as in the 1970s and 1980s, must surely suggest a continuing or easily revivable interest, and indeed H. Gustav Klaus (2000) cites evidence that both Duck and Collier still had significant readerships in the early nineteenth century. A rancorous satirical response to Duck's glittering success at Queen Caroline's court seems to have dominated the contemporary response to his work, but a recent rediscovery by John Gilmore, working on eighteenth-century British neo-Latin poetry, reveals a more positive perspective, and perhaps offers an instructive place to conclude. "Ad Stephanum Duck" was published in 1743 (though clearly written earlier) by Vincent Bourne, Master of Westminster School and a near-contemporary of Duck's. Davis (1926) published it in its original Latin, which Gilmore translates as follows:
In Praise of Stephen Duck From destiny obscure and humble birth The rustic Muse calls toiling Stephen forth, To please the great at Court and gain renown, More than is his who wears the laurel crown. A pension's granted thee by royal command, The palace gardens' care is in thy hand, And, if reports be true, then these beside, The Queen her library doth to thee confide. Yet better days, the care of royal books, Do not thy Muse indue with haughty looks. Thy ways change not; in spite of worldly gain, An humble, modest man thou dost remain, As happy in a wain to ride, or coach, A pattern to the great — or a reproach.
Gilmore forgivably anticipates Gray's Elegy by a few years in line 1, with "destiny obscure": the source phrase, "obscuram vita," is close enough. His translation revives an apt eighteenth-century tribute to a poet shrewdly seen by Bourne as offering an alternative to the official laureateship, and an example and a "reproach" ("opprobrium") to the great ("magnis"). However magnanimous Duck's own royal reception may have been, Bourne saw beyond the gimmickry of a thresher's elevation, to Duck's essential moral integrity.
The Thresher's Labour, The Woman's Labour, and other poems in this tradition can, I think, continue to exert an instructive "moral" influence, by focusing critical and historical attention on those whose labors built their nation's wealth, on their frustrations and feelings of exhaustion (and sometimes of pride), and on their aspiration to engage in cultural activity, a desire most clearly inscribed in the ingenious, double-edged use of neoclassical models and methods in the poems under discussion. This was the real revolution they represented: a washerwoman daring to write about her working life in a witty, Popean style; a thresher upending the conventions of classical pastoral and georgic poetry in order to show the rich and powerful what toil it costs to produce corn. It is easy enough to read the story of the eighteenth-century laboring-class poets, from Duck and Collier to Bloomfield and Clare, in terms of containment and ultimate failure. These poets certainly display a keen awareness of the limitations of a life of labor; yet it is precisely in writing about this life in the way they do that they defy such limitations.
See also chs. 10, "John Gay, The Shepherd's Week"; 14, "James Thomson, The Seasons"; 16, "Mary Leapor, "Crumble-Hall"; 40, "Rural Poetry and the Self-Taught Tradition."
Christmas, William J. (2001). The Lab'ring Muses: Work, Writing, and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730—1830. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses.
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