Labouring Class Poetry
During the eighteenth century (1701 – 1800), poets who wrote on their experiences about labour emerged. The poems they wrote were described to be “georgic.” “Georgic is a didactic poem primarily intended to give directions concerning some skill, art or science.” It is said that it “emphasized on leisure” and that it “celebrates the virtues of hard work and cultivation.” These poems are full of “reflections” and “descriptions of nature, myths and lore.” It is said that “Hesiod, from 420 B.C.,” started this but was made popular by Virgil, and a lot of eighteenth century poets “imitated” Virgil’s works. (From Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour, text). It is noticeable that the poets who wrote georgic poems worked as labourers too. These poems reflected their means of living during that era. One of the most influential poets who wrote a georgic poem during the eighteenth century was Stephen Duck. One of his notable works was “The Thresher’s Labour.” This discussion will focus mainly on “The Thresher’s Labour,” because this influenced writers like Mary Collier, Robert Bloomfield and a lot of writers and critics to react based on this poem. It is very important to know then the background of Stephen Duck to shed a light on why he wrote such a poem.
Stephen Duck (1704-1756) was born in Wiltshire, England. He came from a poor family of laborers and went to “charity school” to learn. A child of labourer he was, he left at the age of thirteen and worked in the fields too. He worked and at the same time managed to go to his “friend’s library” to further learn. He took advantage of this opportunity to access and read books. He then “educated himself” further by discussing what he had read to his friend. Among the many books he had read are books written by “Alexander Pope, John Dryden and John Milton.” Like any other poor young man, at the age of nineteen, he married Ann, and had children with her. When he was at the age of 25, his wife died and he was able to write his first poem, “The Thresher’s Labour.” At first, it was hard for the upper class to take his works “seriously” because of his background. Eventually, his works were recognized by artisans and genteel and he was paid thirty pounds annually to write for them. Especially the Reverend Mr. Stanley, and his wife. This gave him opportunities to step up into a higher level of society. He then married a cook. He got appointed to higher positions and been given an “island” to own. There were a lot of criticism due to his works though, and was rumored to be biased “politically.” At the age of 52, he chose to end his life by committing “suicide.” (Fairer, D. et al. p 260).
Though Stephen Duck might have ended his life miserably, his works continue to be the center of study and criticism by twentieth century authors. Let us discuss about some of the authors of the books he read that would have influenced his style of writing. First was John Dryden. Dryden’s “Virgil,” has a style that the “first person” in the poem speaks himself. The use of the word “I” in his stanzas marked clearly that the speaker is the first person. Dryden’s works are also said to be politically realistic and revolutionary. Comparing Dryden’s style, Duck’s style in “The Thresher’s Labour” has “voices.” The first person is the first voice. Duck used the word “I” but indirectly. The first person in “The Thresher’s Labour,” is the “thresher” himself. He was speaking to the “Muse.” The “Muse” is the “farmer.” This showed the relationship between the farmer and the thresher. This style of Duck is a breakthrough in georgic poetry. Though Duck came from a humble beginning, aristocrats, bourgeois and the elite class had to admit that he had a unique, scholastic way of writing poems. (Keegan, B.).
The next influence was Alexander Pope. Pope was one of the most influential writers of this century. He is famous for his “satirical” works. The “correctness, sense, wit, and decorum” of his works is evident in Duck’s poetry. Pope also “saw how pride, frustrated desires, lack of direction, or just plain stupidity, could warp human life and destroy its hopes,” and “how farce and tragedy intermingle.” (Fairer, D. et al. p 102.). John Milton’s works are also similar to Pope’s, as they both address in very scholastic ways political issues and views of revolution. Especially Milton. Milton made sure his works are done elitely to be noticed by the ruling class of society. Duck had done his best efforts too to be at the level of the upper class, that’s why he made sure that the poem’s words are much like Pope’s and Milton’s. Duck used his “natural genius” to write elitely and sophisticatedly. (Keegan, B.).
One of Stephen Duck’s “literary role model is Addison.” The Addisonian model “is a genre that is, professionally speaking, at odds with itself, setting the farmer/labourer and the poet in discursive opposition to each other, even while thematically identifying rural labor with the labor of poetry.” This best describes “The Thresher’s Labour.” It is as if Duck is in the Addison mode while writing this poem. The first voice here is important which the center of “proper georgic writing” is, according to the Addisonian model. (Keegan, B.).
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. (Duck, S. lines 232-239).
These lines “likened the work of harvesting to a heroic martial task.” The first six lines described how wonderful it is to see the fields especially in the morning. The fresh country air with the fresh sight of the fields makes it a very beautiful sight. The “Eye” mentioned in line 237 is the labourer. The labourers here are the threshers and farmers. Notice how line 238 said the word “Troops.” This made it sound like the labourers are going to a war, thus, how valiant their work is. The last two lines, however, it said that the beautiful sight is a waste because it will be destroyed due to reaping. “Quite literally, the act of reaping, however valiant, ruins the prospects of and for poetry.” (Keegan, B.).
“The Thresher’s Labour” described the role of men who toil in the fields and makes it look heroic. It is indeed described in the poem how toil brought about the “sweat” of the labourers. Interesting enough, too, how Duck described the role of men and women in this poem. Thus, the issue of gender here is stressed. The lines above described the “Troops” as male. Only males go to war. Thus, the male gender here is superior and powerful. The men work for a living, thus, it is expected that upon their return home after a hard day’s work, their wives should have welcoming and loving arms, the food ready, bed ready, so they can sleep afterwards. (Duck, S.) On the other hand, females are described in the poem as follows:
Behind our Backs the Female Gleaners wait,
Who sometimes stoop, and sometimes hold a Chat. (Duck, S. lines 244-245.).
Gleaners are those who pick up the remaining crops that the farmers and thresher’s leave after reaping. Whatever’s left is what they use to feed their families, so it is suggested that farmers don’t reap the crop all the way. Line 244, the farmers are saying that “female gleaners” wait. This clearly shows that women still work in the fields to gather up what was left to bring back home for food. Line 245 described women to be agile in gathering up what’s left, but can still manage to talk or gossip to someone else. He also wrote how women “prattle” while working in the fields:
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 Prongs? (Duck, S. lines 163-70).
Line 166 said that when the Master is gone, the women resume talking. Lines 169 and 170 described how their mouths talk as fast as they work. It shows how “idle” women are and that all they are good at is talking. (From the Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour text.). These lines show how men are “jealous” of the fact that women are free to talk whenever they could. Is this a “scorn” of men against this kind of freedom? As one critic said, this is men’s “resentment of the women for the pleasures they can take in their labor through the opportunity it provides for conviviality, an opportunity that was denied the male workers.” (Keegan, B.). All these georgic poems make it seem that the toil of the labouring class is “noble,” the amount and gravity of work makes it not. If it were a noble profession, then Stephen Duck himself would’ve stayed being a labourer, rather than climbing up the ladder of society. The labourers though, are very happy whenever the Master is around, because the Master throws a celebration whenever there’s harvest. This is the way the Master makes the labourers always excited; however, in the last two lines of the poem, “growing labours” tell of a “ceaseless, inescapable labor.” This reflects the kind of feudal system that the labourers face, thus, it is not to be “celebrated” but should be “lamented.” There is continuous unequal distribution of wealth. The workers work and toil the land, but the Master gets all the profit. (Thompson, P.)
During this era, people see men as the breadwinner, and women only the shadows of men. Another example of one georgic poem that Stephen Duck had a great influence to was Robert Bloomfield’s “The Farmer’s Boy.” The boy, Giles, described how the women share equal toil with men in the fields, when he said “she hies to the fields.” (Bloomfield, R. lines 152-153.). The woman’s role as a mother was described too because the bosom is compared to an “udder” and as a medium of sexual desire when the breast of a woman was described to have a “full, ripe bosom, exquisitely white; but Giles is not interested in her.” (Cochran, P.) The way women were described in “The Thresher’s Labour” raised a lot of criticism and a great response from Mary Collier. A brief introduction of Mary Collier will explain a lot why her response to Stephen Duck was written as such. She was a “common labourer,” a “washerwoman,” and she never went to school but was “taught by her parents.” Her interest in reading a lot of books somehow made her discover “The Thresher’s Labour.” She had the most passionate reaction to Duck’s poem that she wrote a response to it titled, “The Woman’s Labour.” (From the Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour text).
Immortal Bard! Thou Fav’rite of the Nine!
Enrich’d by Peers, advanc’d by CAROLINE!
Deign to look down on One that’s poor and low,
Remembering you yourself was lately so; (Collier, M. lines 1-4).
The opening lines of Collier addressed Duck as if she’d hit him in the head like a mother would a naughty, young boy. She called him “bard,” which means “poet.” (Fairer, D. et al. p 268). The fourth line tells Duck to remember where he came from. Remember that he started very poor and became very rich due to his profession and recognition. The second line, “enriched by Peers,” was mentioned due to the fact that Duck’s works were funded by artisans, bourgeois, and the upper class society. Caroline was the Reverend’s wife who recognized his works and due to that he became very famous. He was being told here to acknowledge his past, so as not to look down upon the labourers, especially the women. (Collier, M.) Lines 31 to 39 started with:
And you, great DUCK! Upon whose happy Brow
The Muses seem to fix the Garland now,
In your late Poem boldly did declare
Alcides’ Labours can’t with your’s compare;
And of your annual Task have much to say,
Of Threshing, Reaping, Mowing Corn and Hay;
Boasting your daily Toil, and nightly Dream,
But can’t conclude your never-dying Theme,
And let our hapless Sex in Silence lie (Collier, M. lines 31-40).
This gives Duck another tap on the head like a boy. These lines evidently showed how scornful Collier was and told how Duck made it look like the toil of men are the hardest job ever. On the next lines of the poem, an irritated Collier has repeated the words that Duck used in “The Thresher’s Labour” to describe women as noisy when the Master’s not around. That women are “idle” in general. She has clearly stated in the lines of the poem that women’s works are much harder than men’s. Women are there in the fields with their children “gleaning,” while they protect the children under their clothes from the sun. Women work as much too as men do because gleaning is still work. They carry the children at the same time they work. When evening comes and they all have to go home, “their work doesn’t end there.” They still have to cook, clean the house, feed the children, and do other chores. Sleep could only be their way to rest, but alas, they still have to worry about their children crying at night, so sleep. (Thompson, P).
When Ev’ning does approach, we homeward hie,
And our domestic Toils incessant ply:
Against your coming Home prepare to get
Our Work all done, our House in order set;
Bacon and Dumpling in the Pot we boil,
Our Beds we make, our Swine we feed the while;
Then wait at Door to see you coming home,
And set the Table out against you come. (Collier, M. lines 75-83).
It is indeed, a ceaseless job that a woman does. Men don’t see and appreciate what women do. Oftentimes women’s works are taken for granted. Overlooked at most of the times. The relationship of “washer-woman” and “thresher poet” showed how somebody poor can connect with somebody forgetting to be poor once. Mary Collier never had formal education but she was able to write poems good enough too. She’s the labourer who “happened to be a poet too.” Duck, on the other hand, is a poet who “became a labourer.” This is the reason why Duck advanced in life but took his own life due to a lot of controversies attacking his motives for writing. The “being” of Mary Collier as a washer-woman made it very hard for her to get recognized by the upper class. During the eighteenth century, women are considered to be the weaker sex and should stay at home. On the other hand, Stephen Duck, being a thresher poet and a man at the same time made it easier for him to get recognized by the upper class of society. Still in the lighter side of the eighteenth century and even before, women had been given due respect as the weaker sex. Collier even wrote in one of her lines that men “laid their trophies at the women’s feet.” The men should always act gently towards women. Disrespect for women by branding them as “idle” is unjust. (Keegan, B.).
The view of the world about women is actually the core of Collier’s and Duck’s poems. Collier’s poem had been used to defend the rights of women of today. We owe a great deal to poets like her for the freedom women made them independent and educated. Due to Collier’s criticism of Duck’s poem, this sparked the revolution of women and influenced writers like Barbauld, a great writer during the Romantic period, thus the world saw the importance of women and children in society and further helped advance to defend the rights of women.
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