Georgic Transformations and Stephen Duck's "The Thresher's Labour" Bridget Keegan

by Bridget Keegan
Georgic Transformations and Stephen Duck's "The Thresher's Labour" Bridget Keegan
Bridget Keegan
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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Georgic Transformations and
Stephen Duck's "The Thresher's


Who casts to write a living line, must sweat -Ben Jonson

No early-eighteenth-century poet sweated more, both in and about his poetry, than Stephen Duck.' A glance at "The Thresher's Labour" reveals five descriptions of sweating in this 283-line poem. This perspiration was a necessary by-product of the arduous manual labor that forms the text's central subject. Moreover, such sweat has typically been read as a sign of authenticity of experi- ence, a category which has allowed critics to classify Duck as a minor poet and the poem as a paraliterary phenomenon. Although even Raymond Williams has tried to rescue Duck's name from its "'limiting' associations," Williams's strategy is ultimately similar to those who have been responsible for the initial limiting of Duck's rele~ance.~

Williams argues for the poem's "simple power" heard behind "the strain of this labourer's ~oice."~

As such, Williams marshals the same standard of documentary accuracy that has impeded sustained analyses of the poem's literary (and not just historical) attributes and achievements. Because he was involved in manual labor, critics for nearly three centuries have found themselves profoundly uneasy in approaching seriously Duck's poetic labors.

Bridget Keegan is an associate professor of English at Creighton University. She is editing volume 2 (1740-80)of the six-volume English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700-1900 forthcoming in 2002.

Although "The Thresher's Labour" is typically mentioned in most standard literary histories of the period, when it is discussed in any detail, it is assessed and occasionally praised for its his- torical veracity. How might an understanding of the poem's rel- evance be altered if it were read as more than the "realistic" representation of sweating agricultural laborers? What if it was to be interpreted as the product of an intellectual effort, the in- vention of a self-conscious creative agent-a poet who worked as a thresher and not a thresher who also happened to be a poet? My purpose in this essay is to move beyond the conventional justifications for Duck's marginal importance, as merely an in- teresting literary anecdote (primarily owing to his having been the target of ample Scriblerian scorn) or as evidence for a na- scent "working-class" consciousness. Instead, Duck should be seen as a key contributor to the significant experimentations with the form of the georgic underway in the first half of the eigh- teenth century. To date, only John Goodridge has examined in detail the specifically literary dimensions of Duck's poem, such as its use of voice, imagery, or the meeting or innovating of ge- neric conventions.* Goodridge's reading is exemplary; however, Duck's poem is complex enough to sustain more than one such analysis.

My contention is that in the poem Duck is just as concerned with engaging the debate about the formal nature and purpose of the georgic (particularly as it was articulated by Joseph Addison in his preface to John Dryden's Virgil), as he was in describing the act of threshing. After reviewing some of the poem's critical reception, I wish to test the limits of the "'limiting' associations" surrounding Duck's status as a poet in order to demonstrate that he is deliberately responding to, and often challenging, early- eighteenth-century theories of georgic. In "The Thresher's Labour," Duck speaks to the debate primarily through careful stylistic in- novations at the level of voice. The layering of voices within "The Thresher's Labour" reveals Duck's poetic craftsmanship and the complexity and importance of his contribution to the develop- ment of the georgic form.

Gustav Klaus is one of the first twentieth-century critics to initiate more ambitious claims for 'The Thresher's Labour." Klaus asserts that Duck's "greatest merit is his intuitive recognition that work is a theme worthy of literary treatment."6 Klaus locates the poem's value in its accuracy: "Never before had there been such a truthful description of workaday routine in ~erse."~

Klaus does claim that there is some importance to Duck's use of voice,

in particular to his unique use of the collective pronoun "we." Yet this innovation is explained in terms of that voice's relationship to what Klaus sees as the poem's political agenda. For Klaus, it suggests Duck's (largely unsubstantiated) status as spokesper- son for the oppressed. Such a position is less easy to defend upon close reading. Klaus is correct to point out Duck's influence on subsequent laboring-class and artisan poets, but he unneces- sarily politicizes the inspiration Duck provides. Thus, Klaus downplays the poem's stylistic nuances in favor of locating larger political implications; Klaus overreaches in his effort to ascertain proletarian solidarity in the text without fully developing his pro- vocative claims about the poem's language. By anachronistically putting Duck's experiments with voice in the service of a Marxist agenda, and not of a generic one, Klaus ignores crucial dimen- sions of the poem.

Other critics tend toward similar elisions. Morag Shiach ac- counts for the work of Duck and his successors as mediated by factors representative of the hegemonic culture, including pa- tronage trends and shifting ideologies of the nature and value of rural life. Shiach does discuss the odd generic status of "The Thresher's Labour": "The form of this poem is difficult to specify." Shiach labels it "anti-georgic" because of the layering of voice: "Its use of the collective pronoun, 'we' also signals its problem- atic relation to lyric traditions of poetic writing."8 Regrettably, this observation goes undeveloped. Richard Greene confronts the question of genre more explicitly and originally. Greene classifies "The Thresher's Labour" as "counter-pastoral"g and suggestively sees its similarities to John Gay's Shepherd's Week. Nevertheless, although he settles upon a generic category, he is quick to remind us of James Sambrook's assertion of Duck's inventive- ness in matters of form. Sambrook writes: "The Thresher's Labour' is 'one of the earliest eighteenth-century poems to belong to no recognized literary kind."'1° Pastoral, anti-pastoral, counter-pas- toral, georgic, anti-georgic, or plebeian georgic, "The Thresher's Labour" has been called all of these, but still there remains no critical consen~us.~~

Yet, making a generic classification is es- sential to understanding the formal accomplishments of Duck's poem. According to Greene, Duck "altered by degree the condi- tions of public di~course."'~

'The Thresher's Labour" not only in- vited laboring-class speakers to enter into public discourse; it also, as Goodridge has revealed, affected one of the most impor- tant georgic poems of the century, James Thomson's The Sea- sons.l3

Arguing contrary to Greene is Linda Zionkowski, who states unequivocally that Duck had little impact on the English canon. l4 She claims that Duck, and other laborer poets after him, were not proof of a political "democratization" of print culture: "Rather than disrupting the norms of polite literary practice, Duck's and [Ann]Yearsley's incursion into print reaffirmed and validated those norms; and their poetry never presented an audience with any- thing unfamiliar or strange. Indeed, their knowledge of verse and aesthetic 'taste' mirrored that of their refined readers who de- rived a concept of literature from the classic texts of Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden, which were among the staples of the book trade."15 What is unique about Zionkowski's position is that where other critics argue for Duck's work in so far as it deviates from literary conventions (and hence is somehow "revolutionary," a stance which unfortunately seems to be one of the only critical justifications for studying poetry written by those of the lower ranks of society), she reminds us of Duck's mastery of poetic convention: "He [Duck] may have owed his recognition as an 'Ex- cellent Poet' not to the essential greatness of his poems, but to his skill in adopting a style that sophisticated readers considered 'poetic.' Despite class boundaries, Duck and his patrons shared the same canon and held common beliefs about what constitutes poetry-a coincidence that the commerce in letters had only re- cently made possible."16 The generic ambiguities of Duck's poem are not due to the fact that he was a confused poet; rather they are entirely self-conscious, in so far as Duck also revealed him- self to be entirely aware of the laws of the genre within and against which he worked. Zionkowski considers Duck's poem as purely pastoral, which leads her to aver that the form of pastoral is not accommodating to Duck's experience and hence produces a

"strainw17 as Duck essays a form that does not relate to his expe- rience. However, in his poem, Duck himself admits that the pas- toral is not his chosen form. Zionkowski ignores that Duck adopts the georgic rather than pastoral mode. If the poem is read as attempting idealized pastoral norms, even as it critiques them, then it is simple to read it as a failure. But if it is "straining" to be something else, as well as working within norms and forms rec- ognizable to readers, it demands another standard of judgment. Although Duck's work should be seen in dialogue with contem- porary pastoral as well as anti-pastoral satires, such as Gay's Shepherd's Week (as all georgics of the period should), it should be analyzed primarily in its relations to the georgic.

Reading Duck's poem in terms of the generic development of the georgic in the early eighteenth century and examining how he experiments with poetic voice within the genre demonstrate that, although its appearance was influenced by extraliterary forces, 'The Thresher's Labour" is produced by an artist who was entirely in control of his craft. It was written by an individual who thought about, and responded to, his experience and that of his potential audience. Though Duck's work may have been affected by meddling patrons or lack of access to a complete classical library, within his poem he nonetheless envisioned himself speak- ing directly to theories of genre circulating at the time of the poem's composition. In particular, Duck addresses one of his central lit- erary role models: Addison. Duck's poem must be read alongside and against Addison's essay on georgic and Dryden's translation of Virgil, both of which (if we are to believe Joseph Spence) Duck had read carefully before starting to We know from Spence, in his detailed 1730account of Duck's life and studies, that Duck made thoughtful choices in composing his poems. In his bio- graphical letter prefatory to the poems, Spence assures the reader of Duck's attentiveness in composition: "When you have read his Poems, and consider the Manner he has been bred up in, I doubt not you will think they have Merit: But I assure you, they give an imperfect Idea of the Man; and, to know how much he deserves, one should converse with him, and hear on what Reasons he omitted such a Part, and introduc'd another, why he shortens his Style in this Place, and enlarges in that; whence he has such Word, and whence such an Idea."'s We know too from Spence that Duck had collected a good-sized library, and owned and had read Dryden's Virgil, to which the preface by Addison is attached. Addison's essay is a central document in the history of the georgic, and one whose influence on Duck has not been sufficiently ex- amined.

The georgic is, as Kurt Heinzelman has aptly observed, a "weird" genre, one that though it was central to eighteenth-cen- tury poetics, has become, after Romanticism, even weirder to twentieth-century critics. It is weird because (like Duck himselfl it has, according to Heinzelman, "been defined by exclusion." The georgic, the middle term of the classical Virgilian rota, is peril- ously formally "in between," frequently understood "as a subset of pastoral, now as a proleptic epic, even at times as a species of satire (mock-pastoral or mock-heroic) ."20 Calling the georgic a "low- wattage genre" and emphasizing Virgil's diminution of his poetic labors on the topic of labor, Heinzelman argues that the reasons for the georgic's marginalization are similar to the reasons for the marginalization of authors who wrote in the mode: namely the prescription that their function be limited to conveying largely factual information. 21 Heinzelman asserts that "the inherent referentiality of the georgic, its very historicity, tends to be a lit- erary liability."22 For readers today, studying eighteenth-century georgics can be a tedious endeavor. It is difficult to see the liter- ary value of poems about cider production, or to be moved by a poet's skill in describing hoof rot prevention in sheep. Such top- ics seem better suited to the cultural historian or the anthropolo- gist. Their worth becomes even more dubious when they are written by authors whose social and educational pedigrees are suspect.

If Duck had the Addisonian model in mind while writing "The Thresher's Labour," then he was most certainly confronted with the potentially incommensurable discursive dilemma that Addison's essay highlights. While the georgic might seem the "natural" mode for Duck to adopt, paradoxically, the very linea- ments of the form, as they were set forth by Addison and subse- quently came to be understood in the Augustan era, actively excluded those speakers perhaps most capable of fulfilling its instructional function. As Addison famously remarks: "the pre- cepts of husbandry are not to be delivered with the simplicity of a plowman, but with the address of a poet."23 Addison further ex- horts that "the low phrases and turns of art, that are adapted to husbandry," should not "have any place in such a work as the Georgic, which is not to appear in the natural simplicity and na- kedness of its subject, but in the pleasantest dress that poetry can bestow on it."24 The Addisonian georgic is a genre that is, professionally speaking, at odds with itself, setting the farmer/ laborer and the poet in discursive opposition to each other, even while thematically identifying rural labor with the labor of po- etry. Comparing Hesiod to Virgil, Addison writes: "We see in one [Hesiod] the plainness of a downright countryman, and in the other, something of a rustic majesty, like that of a Roman dicta- tor at the plough-tail."25 Duck's work, and the source of a great deal of creative sweat for him, was in making his experiments with voice work both within and around the Addisonian vision of georgic.

In order to speak properly as a poet, Duck had to linguisti- cally distance and control the signs of his other vocational iden- tity, the very one which may have granted him empirical authority to compensate for his lack of a formal education. Duck's efforts to mediate the conflict between what George Crabbe memorial- ized as 'The poet's rapture and the peasant's care" are legible at the level of voice and specifically in the use of pronouns in the poem.26 Moreover, by comparing the subtle but important stylis- tic shifts between the two main variant editions of the poem, the first from 1730 and the second from 1736 (by which time Duck was comfortably settled with his royal sinecure), we see that it is voice and significant pronouns that Duck revises.27 Duck solves the problem of the proper voice for georgic through creating a society of voices, representing at least four (although arguably five) separate vocal layers speaking to and with each other in the poem. Far from being a sign of Duck's "confusion," this multipli- cation of speaking voices in the poem argues a sophistication that most critics have been unwilling to acknowledge.

Addison's central prescriptions for proper georgic writing and for identifying Virgil's particular success in the poem focus on the issue of voice. Addison appears to be more concerned with who is speaking in the poem and how he speaks over and above what the speaker says. The georgic thus, while devoted to in- structions about work, also requires the author to make specific choices in language and style. Addison's well-known advice on the latter point is worth quoting in full: "He ought in particular to be careful of not letting his subject debase his style, and betray him into a meanness of expression, but every where to keep up his verse in all the pomp of numbers, and dignity of words. I think nothing which is a phrase or saying in common talk, should be admitted into a serious poem; because it takes off from the solemnity of the expression, and gives it too great a turn of famil- iarity."28 Language is important because of the overall effect the poem is to create for its reader, allowing him or her to be elevated above the "low" subject matter. In one of the most often cited lines of the essay, Addison ascertains that Virgil's accomplish- ment is that "He delivers the meanest of his precepts with a kind of Grandeur, he breaks the clods and tosses the dung about with an air of gracefulnes~."~~

It is difficult to locate anything explicitly crude in Duck's lan- guage-at least anything that would offend the letter of Addison's laws. Even his use of the laborers' sweat has a precedent in Paradise Lost (another work Duck knew well). Indeed, most of the earliest criticism of Duck's poem witnesses an anxiety that this "poor thresher" imitates poetic diction perhaps too well for a per- son of his station. As Zionkowski argues, Duck's poetry is fluent in the poetic convention and idiom of its day. Reading contempo- rary eighteenth-century appraisals of "The Thresher's Labour," one begins to suspect that it was not the speech but the speaker who was considered antipathetic to Addison's rules of decorum. In the editions of 1730 and 1736, extensive biographical infor- mation precedes the text of the poem. The details provided therein would preclude the poem's ever being fully capable of fitting into the Addisonian model. According to such standards, because the voice in the poem ultimately originated with a real laborer, it must fail as georgic before the verse even begins, regardless of the per- sonae depicted as speaking in the poem.

However, by listening attentively to the layering of voices in Duck's work, it is possible to move beyond the presupposition that the poem is a failure simply because of who wrote it. Instead of regarding the modulations of voice in the poem as a congenital imperfection produced by a rural clown, we should view the poet's stylistic decisions as indicative of his insight into the tradition he was writing against and within. By doing so, it may be demon- strated that in the language of 'The Thresher's Labour," Duck transforms the georgic to provide the blueprint for much of the poetry produced by subsequent laboring-class and genteel georgic writers.30 For Duck and others after him, the georgic became the privileged but contested generic space within which they worked to claim and explore new vocational identities. Like the Virgilian prototype, these poems teach the worth of work. But instead of categorically celebrating such endeavors, they openly address the ambiguous value of labor as a source of joy and pain. A sus- tained reading of 'The Thresher's Labour" illustrates a sophisti- cation in the registers of voice that anticipate the limits and possibilities of georgic expression that later poets, both refined and rustic, confront.

There are four separate central voices in "The Thresher's Labour" (with a fifth voice implied in the 1730 edition). The first voice to speak in the poem is clearly not that of a farm laborer; it is a voice that identifies itself in line 10 as speaking about rather than asthe "poor Thre~her."~'

Described in the opening stanza as the voice of the Muse, it prefigures the voice of the poet that appears later in the poem. At the outset, the Muse, the conven- tional source of poetic voice, does not speak for herself and does not use a proper pronoun. Although the speaker in the first stanza follows the Virgilian model astutely, providing a precis of what will follow and indicating the conditions of the poem's production for a particular patron, the one difference between the opening of Duck's and Virgil's first georgic is the absence of the assertive

first person pronoun of the speaker. Compare the opening of Dryden's translation:

What makes a plenteous Harvest, when to turn

The fruitful Soil, and when to sowe the Corn;

The care of Sheep, of Oxen, and of Kine;

And how to raise on Elms the teeming Vine:

The Birth and Genius of the frugal Bee,

I sing, Mecamas, and I sing to thee.

(lines 1-6)32

with Duck's first stanza (the alterations made to the 1736 edition are included in square brackets):

The grateful Tribute of these rural Lays,

Which to her Patron's Hand the Muse conveys,

Deign to accept; 'tis just She [the] Tribute bring

To Him whose Bounty gives her Life to sing:

To him whose generous Favours tune her Voice,

And bid her 'midst her Poverty rejoice.

Inspir'd by These, she dares her self prepare,

To sing the Toils of each revolving Year:

Those endless Toils, which always grow anew,

And the poor Thresher's destin'd to pursue;

Ev'n these with pleasure can the Muse rehearse,

When you, and Gratitude, command [demand] the


(lines 1-12)

Whereas Dryden's Virgilian poet speaks self-confidently in the first person, the voice in Duck's song is displaced onto the Muse. Moreover, while both sing for a patron, in Duck's poem, the Muse is compelled to speak in response to the reported command (or in 1736, the demand) of the powerful but unrepresented voice of the patron. The poem then, as Duck creates it, is explicitly not originally the product of the laborer, a fact which all readers but Goodridge have failed to discover. As such, at the outset, it con- forms to Addisonian parameters. This verbal exchange of the lit- erary work between Muse and patron frames the ensuing account of the exchange of labor-agricultural work-between farmer and thresher. The laboring voices represented in the body of the poem are not given precedence, but are mediated through the words of more traditional and respectable literary figures: the Muse and the patron.

The next voice that appears in the poem is again not the voice of the laborer, but the voice of the farmer or master, who calls upon his threshers to work for him just as the patron had called upon the Muse to perform her labor. Tellingly, the verb "com- mand" is used in both instances. In the 1730 edition, the second stanza also introduces another voice into the labor relations de- picted in the inner frame of the poem-that of the landlord, a voice that is silenced in 1736, when Duck was well ensconced in royal preferment and when, perhaps, he was less inclined to sug- gest any tensions in rural labor relations. These lines begin the second stanza (the lines deleted in 1736 are included in square brackets):

Soon as the Harvest hath laid bare the Plains,

And Barns well fill'd reward the Farmer's Pains;

What Corn each Sheaf will yield, intent to hear,

And guess from thence the Profits of the Year;

[Or else impending Ruin to prevent,

By paying, timely, threat'ning Landlord's Rent,]

He calls his Threshers forth: Around we stand,

With deep Attention waiting his Command.

(lines 13-20)

Just as the Muse was subject to the "command" of the patron, here the farmer/master who commands the laborers is shown (in the 1730 edition) to be subject to the "threat" of the otherwise silent landlord. Both Muse and farmer speak in response to the voices of those to whom they are subject. Yet it is noteworthy that although a parallel exists between farmer and Muse, they are never precisely identified. Indeed, Duck (or perhaps an editor) is careful, in the editions after 1736, to put the farmer's remarks in quotation marks, more clearly separating them and guarding against any mistaken conflation. With the farmer's speech re- ported in quotation marks, it becomes even more explicit that the poem is not spoken by a farmer but by a poet, speaking through or as the Muse, who quotes the farmer's speech.

The lines introducing the farmer's voice, however, also intro- duce the collective voice, the "we" of the farm laborers. Duck's use of this "we" is distinctive and has already yielded ample criti- cal commentary. Most notably, it has been read as articulating a nascent collective proletarian voice in poetry. However, this use

of a first-person plural pronoun throughout a good portion of the poem's description of agricultural labor has a generic as well as a potentially political aim. By this device of the modulation of voice, Duck solves the problem of how a real "Plow-man" like himself could exchange that vocation for that of poet, and, in keeping with the Addisonian precepts, write in the georgic mode. The "we," though it may at times include the "I" of the poet, offers a sepa- rate perspective from that "I." The "I" and the "we" perform differ- ent kinds of work within the poem. While the "we" reports on the manual labor, the "I" distinguishes itself by translating that la- bor into more figurative discourse, making the work stylistically fit for verse.

Not only is the collective voice clearly separated from the voice of the poet, the very nature of the labor that the collective voice undertakes prevents its poetic expression-indeed the first time the "we" speaks, it speaks of being silenced. This is evident early in the poem, in a description of the work that commingles a real- istic rendering with dense classical allusions (implicitly inserted by the muted poetic "I" to properly elevate the "low subject"):

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 Vulcanforg'd the Arms for Thetis' Son.

In briny Streams our Sweat descends apace,

Drops from our Locks, or trickles down our Face.

No intermission in our Works we know;

The noisy Threshall must for ever go.

Their Master absent, others safely play:

The sleeping Threshall does itself betray.

(lines 38-49)

The clamor of the work prevents communication. The workers, the "we," cannot speak above the noise of their activities. In order to do so, they would have to stop working. Quite literally, the labor of threshing is antithetical to the labor of creating poetry. The laborers speak in the poem only to underscore their inability to speak as a consequence of that labor. Duck acknowledges that threshers cannot be poets, but cleverly, in so doing, contradicts himself and contests the initial premise. In a barbed anti-pasto- ral critique, the collective voice comments: "Can we, like Shep- herds, tell a merry Tale? / The Voice is lost, drown'd by the noisy Flail" (lines 52-3). The "Voice" is presented in the process of dis- appearance, yet it speaks nonetheless.

The activity of work does not merely prevent lyrical effusions, the scene and subject of the work are decidedly uninspiring. Even if the "we" wished to think poetic thoughts,

-Alas! what pleasing thing

Here to the Mind can the dull Fancy bring?

The Eye beholds no pleasant Object here:

No chearful Sound diverts the list'ning Ear.

(lines 54-7)

The laborers' voice is doubly silenced, for their very subject pro- vides scant matter for song: "'Tis all a dull and melancholy Scene, / Fit only to provoke the Muses Spleen" (lines 62-3). Duck allows the laboring voices to enter into poetic discourse negatively. They speak in the poem only to announce the unsuitability of their labor to literature, even as the implicit "I" who has initiated the poem (masquerading as the Muse) proves otherwise with the in- sertion of extensive classical allusions. This strategy enables Duck to resolve the inherent paradox of the georgic, the challenge faced by all poets who attempt to put hard labor into poetry, or again, in the infamous words of Addison: "he breaks the clods and tosses the dung about with an air of gracefulness."

Although he must negotiate how to include his own voice as a laborer, Duck continues to fulfill many of the Addisonian expec- tations of the georgic. It is precisely those more conventional moments that are explicitly recorded by a singular poetic "I," a speaking subject distinct from the threshing "we." While the voice remains implicit at several junctures in the poem, this "I" emerges strongly at significant moments. Duck uses the "I" to announce a shift to a more elevated (and literary) perspective. The singular poetic voice emerges clearly in the seventh stanza, actively sepa- rating the persona of the poet from that of the thresher. After lines that describe how the laborers' initial enthusiasm for work flags with the day's increasing heat, the lines recount:

Thus in the Morn a Courser I have seen,

With headlong Fury scour the level Green,

Or mount the Hills, if Hills are in his way,

As if no Labour could his Fire allay,

Till the meridian Sun with sultry Heat, And piercing Beams hath bath'd his Sides in Sweat;

The lengthen'd Chace scarce able to sustain,

He measures back the Hills and Dales with pain.

(lines 127-34)

The content of this analogy indicates that the speaker may not be a member of the laboring ranks, as it uses images from the hunt, an activity reserved for the gentry. The analogy further likens the laborers' activities to those of animals, naturalizing labor and potentially dehumanizing the worker. This is a strategy that will be repeated in the subsequent simile (one that has gained Duck the opprobrium of many feminist readers) wherein he likens talk- ing women to a flock of chattering birds. While there is much to object to in this latter image, it is worth noting that both male and female laborers suffer a similar naturalization through figu- rative language.

The speaker in these lines appears as a spectator rather than as a participant in the labor performed. The labor is naturalized as the language of the poem becomes more figurative. This "I" adopts a distinctly distant, almost epic tone, and does not sweat himself but observes others sweat. Although the more prosaic "we" returns in line 135, the "I" reappears in line 190. Once more, it adopts the position of spectator and completes an epic simile describing the garrulous women workers, in a passage that would be Mary Collier's main point of contention. As Collier in the eigh- teenth century and Donna Landry, Moira Ferguson, and others in the late twentieth century have rightly noted, it is precisely the female laborers' speech that inspires the collective scorn of the male laborers.33 While the misogyny of this passage should not go unremarked, a jealousy resounds through these lines. As noted above, the first words spoken by the "we" are a complaint about the inability to speak. Thus, the resentment toward the women, who have some liberty to talk, might be interpreted as an envy of their greater freedom. Nevertheless, the women's freedom, too, is limited, for they must await the master's absence to express them- selves fully and playfully:

Our Master comes, and at his Heels a Throng

Of prattling Females, arm'd with Rake and Prong:

Prepar'd, whils't he is here, to make his Hay;

Or, if he turns his Back, prepar'd to play.

But here, or gone, sure of this Comfort still,

Here's Company, so that they may chat their fill:

And were their Hands as active as their Tongues, How nimbly then would move their Rakes and Bongs? (lines 163-70)

There is a resentment of the women for the pleasures they can take in their labor through the opportunity it provides for con- viviality, an opportunity that was denied the male workers. Although their speech is increasingly represented as a kind of cacophony, its vigor and enthusiasm are not entirely negative:

All talk at once, but seeming all to fear,

That all they speak so well, the rest won't hear;

By quick degrees so high their Notes they strain,

That Standers-by can nought distinguish plain:

So loud their Speech and so confus'd their Noise,

Scarce puzzled Echo can return a Voice;

Yet spite of this, they bravely all go on,

Each scorns to be, or seem to be, outdone.

(lines 177-84)

Much as their male counterparts heroically engaged in a com- petitive effort to "try their Strength" upon the uncut fields on the first day of the harvest, the women too engage in their own "sport- ive labor," which is noted to be with its own bravery. As with the competitive labor of the men, the interruption of the "competi- tion" among the women by a cloudburst is naturalized by the intrusion, once again, of the first person voice:

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.

(lines 191-6)

The "I" of this stanza once again separates itself to perform the poetic work of naturalizing rural labor.

This is not the last time the "I" will identify itself to render manual labor fit for verse. The "I" appears a final time and fur- ther underscores its difference from the collective voice of the workers by engaging in a direct address, an apostrophe to the laborers about to begin the harvest:

Ye Reapers, cast your Eyes around the Field,

And view the Scene its different Beauties yield:

Then look again with a more tender Eye,

To think how soon it must in Ruin lie.

(lines 223-6)

However, at the very moment that the "I" announces its separa- tion from the laborers through the apostrophe, and through call- ing upon them to notice the beauties of an uncut field, the voice appears simultaneously to be subsumed in the "we":

For once set in, where-e'er our Blows we deal,

There's no resisting of the well-whet Steel:

But here or there, where-e'er our Course we bend,

Sure Desolation does our Steps attend.

(lines 227-30)

These crucial lines, describing the climax of the agricultural year, the harvest, and announcing the climax of the poem with the final epic simile, make it unclear as to whether the lines are the product of the "I" of the poet or the "we" of the laborers. These lines are devoid of any pronouns:

Thus, when Arabia's Sons, in hopes of Prey,

To some more fertile Country take their way;

How beauteous all things in the Morn appear,

There Villages, and pleasing Cots are here;

So many pleasing Objects meet the Sight,

The ravish'd Eye could willing gaze 'till Night:

But long e'er then, where-e'er their Troops have past,

Those pleasant Prospects lie a gloomy Waste.

(lines 23 1-8)

These lines accomplish several goals even as they obscure the distinction between the two voices. They seem to work at cross- purposes thematically as well as vocally, likening the work of harvesting to a heroic martial task. However, they also compare it to the act of destroying "pleasant Prospects." Quite literally, the act of reaping, however valiant, ruins the prospects of and for

poetry. It is no surprise then that while the arduous nature of the collective "we's" labor continues to the poem's conclusion, the "I"

does not reappear. In describing the thresher's labor, Duck is describing the silencing of the poet who would sing of that labor. This may account for why Duck never returned to the theme of his previous employment and devoted the rest of his subsequent career to more conventional occasional and religious verse. "The Thresher's Labour" is a georgic that attempts to fulfill, and largely succeeds in fulfilling, the spirit, if not the letter, of Addison's rules. Yet as it does, it enacts at the level of voice the limitations of those rules to accomplish their aim. It is thus all the more com- pelling that in the 1736 edition, when Duck had been safely dis- tanced from engaging in rural labor, his emendations to the poem include primarily the insertion of more classical allusions. More notably, however, he does not erase the collective voice, the "we," but in a few instances, he inserts additional direct notations of the first person plural.

While some of the alterations may have originated with friends and patrons, that Duck would continue to work with the poem at the level of its representations of voice strongly indicates that his use of this range of voices-the powerful yet infrequently heard voice of the patron and the landlord, the first person speakers of the farmer/master and of the poet, the collective voice or the "we" of the workers, and the voices of the women laborers-was thoroughly intentioned. It is regrettable that these generic inno- vations did not extend beyond this single, but important instance. And although it is a single instance, it is interesting enough to merit recognition for Duck not merely as a thresher who wrote poetry but as a poet who contributed to the development of the georgic. That contribution, much as we might fail to acclaim it today, was not unnoticed by his contemporaries. As Goodridge has convincingly argued, it is highly probable that Duck's poem influenced Thomson in his revisions of The Seasons.34 Moreover, Duck's poem further inspired numerous georgics by those of la- boring and artisanal ranks, who found their voices from reading Duck's experiments with the layering of voice. Not only did Collier respond eloquently to Duck's representation of female voices, but so did Robert Dodsley, whose later work as a publisher gave many of the eighteenth century's more celebrated voices a place in print. Dodsley's A Muse in Livery, or the Footman's Miscellany (1732) was one of the many laboring georgics that were explicitly written in response to Duck, and such responses continued into the nine- teenth century.35 This is all the more reason why Duck's place in the history of the georgic ought to continue to be examined.


The epigraph comes from Ben Jonson, 'To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us," in Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, ed. Hugh Maclean (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974). p. 87, line 59.

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford Univ.

Press, 1975), p. 88. Ibid. John Goodridge, Rural Life in Eighteenth-Centuy English Poetry (Cam

bridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995).

While the justificatory terms may have changed, the tendency to con- tinue to resist granting Stephen Duck (and the many laboring-class poets after him) an active role in creating their art persists today. While it is no longer theories of "natural genius" called in to explain (or explain away) the poet's accomplishments, modern critics continue to rely upon extraliterary occurrences (such as the shift away from aristocratic patronage or the rising literacy rates) to account for the appearance of the poetry. A glimpse at nearly three centuries of criticism of laboring-class poets from Duck forward shows a consistent pattern of evaluating context over and above (and even instead of) the text, and regarding the poem as artifact rather than art.

H. Gustav Klaus, The Literature of Labour: Two Hundred Years of Work-

ing-class Writing (Brighton UK: Harvester, 1985), p. 11. Klaus, p. 12.

* Morag Shiach, Discourse on Popular Culture: Class, Gender; and His- tory in Cultural Analysis, 1730 to the Present (Oxford: Polity Press, 1989), p.

48. Richard Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 105. lo Quoted in Greene, p. 108.

Goodridge provides a thorough and compelling discussion of the poem's generic status in the introductory chapter to his Rural Life in Eighteenth- Century English Poetry. Goodridge makes valid and interesting claims for classlfylng the poem as "proletarian anti-pastoral" largely because the georgic "presents a positive, and even a heroic view of labour, as a pleasurable and a socially progressive activity" (p. 6). However, given Duck's intimate familiar- ity with Virgil's Georgics,and given the fact that Virgil himself is often am- bivalent about the "joys" of work, Duck may in fact be closer to the classical (rather than the neoclassical) prototype of the genre.

l2 Greene, p. 109.

l3 Goodridge, pp. 79-80.

l4 Linda Zionkowski, "Strategies of Containment: Stephen Duck, Ann Yearsley, and the Problems of Polite Culture," ECLife 13, 3 (Autumn 1989): 91-108, 98.

l5 Zionkowski, p. 92.

l6 Zionkowski, p. 93.

l7 Zionkowski, p. 97.

l8 Joseph Addison, "Essay on Virgil's Georgics,"in The Works of Joseph

Addison, ed. George Washington Greene, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1888), 2:379-88.

l9 Joseph Spence, "Preface" in Poems on Several Subjects (London, 17301, pp. xv-xvi. 20 Kurt Heinzelman, "Roman Georgic in the Georgian Age: A Theory of Romantic Genre," 7SLL33, 2 (Summer 199 1): 182-2 14, 185.

21 Ibid.

22 Heinzelman, p. 192.

23 Addison, 2:380.

24 Addison, 2:384.

25 Addison, 2:386.

26 George Crabbe, The Village, book 1, line 28, in Eighteenth-Century Verse, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), p. 670.

27 DUCKS-poemswent through at least six editions (some of which were actually simple reprints labeled as separated editions) in 1730. These edi- tions, Duck later claimed, were "pirated," and he asserted that the edition brought out in 1736 represented his poems as he wished them to appear. The history and implications of this "piracy" are difficult to unravel. The earliest editions of 1730 were produced by James Roberts, a thoroughly reputable printer who published both John Gay and Alexander Pope. David ~Arer,in a personal email communication of 14 October 1999, speculates that Duck's complaints in 1736 were meant to assuage his patrons that the edition he for them was the authentic one. Because there is no record of an overt controversy or lawsuit, there is little reason to doubt Duck's partial involvement in bringing forth the 1730 text, upon which most of the discussion in this essay is based. As it was the first 1730 edition ("pirated" or not) that brought Duck to public attention, I have chosen to use it as the text for my argument, noting the later revisions as they occur.

2R Addison, 2:384.

29 Addison, 2:386.

30 The list of poets and poems directly influenced by Duck includes, among others, John Bancks's The Weaver's Miscellany (London, 1730), Mary Collier's The Woman's Labour (London, 17391, and Robert Tatersal's The Bricklayer's Miscellany (London, 1734-35). Duck's indirect influence can be felt into the Romantic age in the works of poets such as Robert Bloomfield and John Clare.

31 Duck, 'The Thresher's Labour," in Poems on Several Subjects, pp. 15-

25. All subsequent citations of the poem will be from this edition and will appear parenthetically within the text. 32 John Dryden, The Poems of John Dyden, ed. James Kinsley, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19581, p. 918.

33 See Donna Landry, TheMuses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poety in Britain, 1739-1 796 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 56-77. See also Moira Ferguson, Eighteenth-Centuy Women Poets: Nation, Class and Gender (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1995), pp. 7-25.

33 Goodridge, p. 63.

3Vor the most significant overview of Duck's influence on subsequent laboring-class authors, see Goodridge's two essays: "Some Predecessors of Clare: 'Honest Duck"' (JCSJ8 (19893: 5-10) and "Some F'redecessors of Clare:

2. Responses to Duck (JCSJ9 [1990]: 17-26).

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