Stephen Duck: The Thresher Poet

During the 1730s, writes Michael Paffard, the modest and unassuming Duck achieved considerable fame.

On September 11th, 1730, Joseph Spence, who was sometime Professor of Poetry at Oxford, wrote from Winchester to his friend Alexander Pope as follows:

‘We have a particular Accident here I cannot forbear communicating to you. All our conversation turns on it; everybody is surpriz’d that hears it. ’Tis a Man without anything of what is cald Education, grown up into an Excellent Poet all at once.

The man is yet a common Thresher: plain & modest in his behaviour; but when you come to talk to him, of particular good sense; & of more knowledge than could possibly be expected.’

After many more particulars and a cursory enquiry after Mrs Pope’s health, he concludes excitedly, ‘You see that I am just full of the Man!’

Spence is chiefly remembered today for his Anecdotes of the literary life of his times, which are invaluable to the literary historian, and his ‘Man’ was Stephen Duck who is scarcely remembered at all, though for some months he was the talk of the town and for some years much read and admired as a poet. The verses of ‘this Phaenomenon of Wiltshire’, as Pope subsequently called him, though largely forgotten, are not devoid of interest today; and his story has some historical significance.

His life is succinctly outlined on the title page of his ‘Beautiful Works’ of 1753. He was, the reader is informed, ‘many Years a poor Thresher in a Barn at Charlton in the County of Wilts, at the Wages of four shillings and Six-pence per Week, ‘till taken Notice of by Her late Majesty Queen Caroline, who, on Account of his great Genius, gave him an Apartment at Kew, near Richmond, in Surry, and a Salary of Thirty Pounds per Annum; after which he studied the learned Languages, took Orders, and is now a dignified Clergyman.’

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