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Duck was born at Charlton, near Pewsey, in Wiltshire. Little is known about Duck's 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. Encouraged by the village squire, schoolmaster and rector he read Milton, Dryden, Prior, and The Spectator, as well as the Holy Bible, according to Joseph Spence.
Rising in Popularity
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, his late wife, 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 Merlin's Cave (a thatched folly containing waxworks) in Richmond Park, where he had once worked as a gardener. 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. Between 1731 and 1733, Swift satirized the poverty of Duck's rhymes in several pieces. 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.
An annual commemorative feast, the Duck Feast, is held at the Charlton Cat inn in the village of his birth. It is funded by the revenue from a field ("Duck's Acre") presented by Lord Palmerston, to whom Duck had dedicated a volume of poetry. Duck presided at the first feast, writing:
All eat enough and many drink too much.
Full twenty threshers quaff around the board. No cares, no toils, no troubles now appear, For troubles, toils and cares are drowned in Beer… Thus shall Tradition keep my fame alive; The Bard may die, the Thresher still survive.
Since the 1990s, Duck has seen renewed interest among New Historicist and Marxist literary critics. Duck's case featured in 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.
- "Stephen Duck: the Wiltshire Phenomenon". Wiltshire Community History. Wiltshire County Council. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
- Duck came by a copy of Paradise Lost by chance, which he read over "twice or thrice with a dictionary before he could understand…it thoroughly" He took particular note of Addison's "Criticisms of Milton's Paradise Lost", from issues of The Spectator of January 1712: Arber, Edward, ed. (1 August 1868). A full and authentick Account of Stephen Duck, the Wiltshire Poet. London.
- "Local History Notes 'Merlin's Cave' and 'The Hermitage'" (PDF). London Borough of Richmond. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
- The Times was later to deride Duck's verse, in comparison to that of Swift, as a "[j]ingling train" : "Era of good prose-writing". The Times: 2. 27 June 1788.
…a kind of [j]ingling train ["sequence"] that even Stephen Duck, in the days of Swift, … would have blushed to own
- Aslet, Clive (2010). Villages of Britain : the five hundred villages that made the countryside. London: Bloomsbury. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-7475-8872-6.
- Batt, Jennifer. "From the Field to the Coffeehouse: Changing Representations of Stephen Duck". Criticism (47:4): 451–70.
- Robert DeMaria's headnote and text of The Thresher's Labour via Google Books
- Landry, Donna (1987). "The Resignation of Mary Collier". The New Eighteenth Century. New York: Routledge: p. 99–120.
- Stephen, Leslie, revised by William R. Jones. "Stephen Duck" in Matthew, H.C.G. and Brian Harrison, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. vol. 17, 33–34. London: OUP, 2004.
- Van Hagen, S. "Literary Technique, the Aestheticization of Laboring Experience, and Generic Experimentation in Stephen Duck's The Thresher's Labour". Criticism (47:4): 421–50.
- Davis, Rosemary. Stephen Duck, The Thresher Poet. Second series, number eight. Orono: University of Maine Studies, 1926.