Duck, Stephen

, a very extraordinary person, who from a thresher became a poet, and was afterwards advanced to the cure of a parish, was born about the beginning of the last century, and had originally no other teaching than what enabled him to read and write English: and, as arithmetic is generally joined with this degree of learning, he had a little share of that too. About his fourteenth year he was taken from school, and was afterwards successively engaged in the several lowest employments of a country life, which lasted so long, that he had almost forgot all the arithmetic he had learned at school. However, he read sometimes, and thought oftener: he had a certain longing after knowledge; and, when he reflected within himself on his want of education, he began to be particularly uneasy, that he should have forgot any thing of what he had learned, even at his little school. He thought of this so often, that, at last, he resolved to try his own strength; and, if possible, to recover his arithmetic again.

He was then about 24 years of age; was married, and at service: he had little time to spare: he had no books, and no money to get any; but used to work more than other day-labourers, by which means he got some little matter added to his pay. This overplus was at his own disposal; and with this he bought first a book of vulgar arithmetic, then one of decimal, and a third of measuring land; of all which, by degrees, he made himself a tolerable master, in those hours he could steal from sleep after the labours of the day. He had, it seems, one dear friend, who joined with him in this literary pursuit; and with whom he used to talk and read, when they could steal a little time for it. This friend had been in a service at London for two or three years, and had an inclination to books, as well as Stephen Duck. He had purchased some, and brought them down with him into the country; and Stephen had always the use of his little library, which in time was increased to two or three dozen of books. “Perhaps,” says his historian, Mr. Spence, “you would be willing to know, what books their little library consisted of. I need not mention those of arithmetic again, nor his Bible. Milton, the Spectators, and Seneca, were his first favourites; Telemachus, with another piece by the same | hand, and Addisou’s Defence of Christianity, his next. They had an English dictionary, and a sort of English grammar, an Ovid of long standing with them, and a Bysshe’s Art of Poetry of later acquisition. Seneca’s Morals made the name of L’Estrange dear to them; and, as I imagine, might occasion their getting his Joseph us in folio, which was the largest purchase in their whole collection. They had one volume of Shaksneare, with seven of his plays in it. Besides these, Stephen had read three or four other plays; some of Epictetus. Waller, Dryden’s Virgil, Prior, Hudibras, Tom Browne, and the London Spy.

With these helps Stephen grew something of a poet, and something of a philosopher. He had from his infancy a cast in his mind towards poetry, as appeared from several little circumstances; but what gave him a higher taste of it than he had been used to, was Milton’s Paradise Lost. This he read over twice or thrice with a dictionary before he could understand the language of it thoroughly; and this, with a sort of English grammar he had, is said to have been of the greatest use to him. It was his friend that helped him to the Spectators; which, as he himself owned, improved his understanding more than any thing. The pieces of poetry scattered in those papers helped on his natural bent that way; and made him willing to try whether he could not do something like them. He sometimes turned his own thoughts into verse, while he was at wo;k and at la>-t bo;,an to venture those thoughts a little upon paper. The thing took air; and Stephen, who had before the name of a scholar among the country people, was said now to be able to write verses too. This was mentioned accidentally, about 1729, before a gentleman of Oxford, who sent for Stephen and, after some talk with him, desired him to write him a letter in verse. He did so; and that letter is the epistle which stands the last in his poems, though the first whole copy of verses that ever he wrote.

By these attempts, one after another, he became known to the clergymen in the neighbourhood; who, upon examining him, found that he had a great deal of merit, made him some presents, and encouraged him to go on. At length some of his essays falling into the hands of a lady of quality who attended on queen Caroline, he became known to her majesty, who took him under her protection, and settled on him a yearly pension, supposed to be of 30l.; it | was such a one at least as was sufficient to maintain him independently of labour. This Duck very gratefully acknowledges in the dedication of his poems to the queen “Your majesty,” says he, “has indeed the same right to them, as you have to the fruits of a tree, which you have transplanted out of a barren soil into a fertile and beautiful garden. It was your generosity which brought me out of obscurity, and still condescends to protect me; like the Supreme Being, who continual‘.;,’ supports the meanest creature which his goodness has produced.” Swift, who might, one would think, easily have overlooked such an object as Duck, but whose spleen prompted him to be satirical on any occasion or none, was so piqued at this generosity in the queen, while we suppose he thought himself and his own friends neglected, that he wrote the following quibbling epigram, as he calls it, “on Stephen Duck, the thresher and favourite poet:

The thresher Duck could o’er the queen prevail

The proverb says, “No fence against a flail.

From threshing corn he turns to thresh his brairds,

For which her majesty allows him grains.

Though ‘tis confess’d, that those who ever saw

His poems, think them all not worth a straw.

Thrice happy Duck, employed in threshing stubble

Thy toil is lessened, and thy profits double.

In 1733 the queen made him one of the yeomen of the guards, from which situation, by a singular, and, we think, absurd transition, he was admitted into orders, and preferred to the living of Byfleet in Surrey. The only qualification for this office which his biographers mention, is a small knowledge of Latin, not enough surely to justify such an abuse of church patronage. Before this he was appointed keeper of the queen’s select library at Richmond, called Merlin’s Cave, where he had apartments, which were continued to his daughter after his decease. Here and at Byfleet he continued for many years to make poems and sermons, and was much followed by the people as a preacher; till, falling at length into a low-spirited melancholy way, he flung himself into the Thames from a bridge near Reading, or, as some say, into a trout stream, which is near Reading, and was drowned. This unhappy accident, for he was perfectly lunatic, befell him some time in March or April, 1756. In the preface to his poems he makes his acknowledgments to some gentleman | who “first took notice of him in the midst of poverty and labour.” What those gentlemen did was highly generous and praise-worthy, and it was but gratitude in Stephen to acknowledge it yet it is more than probable, that if he had been suffered to pass the remainder of his lite, after he had spent so much of it, in poverty and labour, he had lived and died more happily. It was thought that his melancholy proceeded from a notion that he had not been sufficiently provided for, and if so, his injudicious patrons must have flattered him into a very false estimate of his merit. Warton says that Spence, who wrote Duck’s life and published his poems, was the means of his obtaining the living of Byfleet; and such was the taste of the courtiers of queen Caroline, that they actually wished to set up this poor versifier as a rival to Pope. But although, to use Warburton’s sarcastic language, “queen Caroline, who moderated, as a sovereign, between the two great philosophers, Clarke and Leibnitz, in the most sublime points in metaphysics and natural philosophy, chose this man for her favourite poet,” it was beneath such a man as Spence to persuade poor Duck that he merited the higher rewards of genius. Few men, if we may judge from his works, had ever less pretensions.1


Spence’s Life prefixed to his poems. Bipg. Brit. &c.