- Literary Technique, the Aestheticization of Laboring Experience, and Generic Experimentation in Stephen Duck's The Thresher's Labour
The year 2005 was the tri-centennial of the birth of Stephen Duck, the "thresher poet" of Wiltshire accorded patronage by Queen Caroline after the success of poems including The Thresher's Labour and The Shunamite (both 1730). The year 2006, meanwhile, is the 250th anniversary of his (probable) suicide in a river behind a Reading tavern. These anniversaries, coupled with the recent surge of interest in Duck and other laboring-class poets make this an appropriate moment to reexamine his most celebrated and discussed individual work.1
The Thresher's Labour is believed to have been composed third of Duck's extant poems2 (after "To a Gentleman, who requested a Copy of Verses from the Author" and "On Poverty," and immediately before the biblical-historical The Shunamite).3 Even now, these, as well as other significant poems, such as "On Richmond Park, and Royal Gardens," A Description of a Journey to Marlborough, Bath, Portsmouth, &c. (both 1736),4 Every Man in his own Way: An Epistle to a Friend (1741), and the prospect poem Caesar's Camp (1755), are often read (if at all) for the light they shed on The Thresher's Labour and its author. Despite Joseph Spence's view that The Shunamite was his finest poem,5 Duck's biographer Rose Mary Davis calls The Thresher's Labour "the best poem" he wrote,6 adding, "critics are almost unanimous in placing this poem, from the point of view of merit, at the head of Duck's works."7 Commentators in the eighty years since her assessment have tended to agree, or if they have not always been concerned with aesthetics, nonetheless often concur that The Thresher's Labour is Duck's most noteworthy work. As John Goodridge has written with reference to laboring-class poets in general, "one thing these writers have rarely been allowed to be is poets . . . Historically, the considerable interest there has been in labouring-class [End Page 421] poetry has not always extended to a recognition of literary merit."8 Yet a number of recent treatments of the poem have focused anew on its "literary" and formal achievements.9 In the wake of these readings, some of which concentrate on the relationship of The Thresher's Labour to existing genres such as georgic and pastoral,10 the aim of the present essay is to plot the poem's attempts to reconcile laboring-class experiences with verse, with reference to poetic mediums, techniques, and genres.
The Thresher's Labour was composed when one of Duck's patrons, Rev. Stanley, suggested that he write about the life he knew.11 As a necessary part of doing so, a laboring-class poetic voice and a mode of writing about labor that dominates the poem emerged. In enabling the representation of experiences, this mode fosters an informal, confidential tone of friend to friend rather than of poet to public.12 It tends to produce narrative, descriptive verse, describing the vigorous performance of physical labor and depicting labor and laborer with respect and dignity. It does not just describe everyday objects or processes, however, but mimetically evokes the sights and sounds of physical labor. This mode is interested in physical objects as they are rooted in a world of sights, sounds, and smells, yet is suspended within the amber of neoclassical versification (the heroic couplet), and mingles specific everyday and colloquial terms with a familiar neoclassical poetic medium. In advancing these arguments through a detailed close reading, I will also be concerned to suggest that whereas The Thresher's Labour has long been defined in terms of being either pastoral or georgic, there are good grounds for arguing that it should be considered generically distinct.
The heroic couplets in which The Thresher's Labour is written were, as critics including J. Paul Hunter and Margaret Anne Doody have observed, the dominant medium of their time.13 As Bridget Keegan has argued, laboring-class poets were particularly influenced by the couplet's greatest practitioner, Alexander Pope (and other canonical figures who regularly used the couplet...