Stephen Duck, "The Thresher's Labour" (1730)
Demaria, p. 634
Mary Collier, "The Woman's Labour" (1739)
Demaria, p. 726
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Also read the introductory statements for the authors in Demaria.
The poems by Duck and Collier are representative of eighteenth-century
working-class poetry, a genre that they essentially began.
While we will discuss the stylistic conventions and modifications
that Duck and Collier make in their poems, I want to highlight
the ways in which these poems contest certain "truths" about
laboring people. Moreover, we will look at Collier's poem as
a response to Duck's to explore how she challenges perceptions
of female laborers in particular. How do these categories of
class and gender overlap? How do they conflict?
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
Stephen Duck, "The Thresher's Labour" (1730)
If we pursue our line of questioning, then whose story does Stephen
Duck tell? And why do you suppose this is so novel that the Queen
invites him to a post?
"Duck was given a small house and various minor court appointments
by the Queen; he became a yeoman of the guard, then a Keeper of
the Queen's Library, and eventually took holy orders, retiring
to the living Byfleet, Surrey in 1752" (Moira Ferguson,
Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, 18).
In comparison, Collier remains in her humble working position,
despite local fame and the publication of several editions
and volumes of poetry. Comment on what you see in the
differences between their relative material success and fame.
Note the extended metaphor in lines 232-239. What does
Duck compare? What are the implications of the comparison?
What details does he highlight and to what effect?
Raymond Williams describes Duck's poetry: "It is easy to
feel the strain of this labourer's voice as it adapts,
slowly to the available models in verse, the formal
explanation, the anxious classical reference, the arranged
subordinate clauses of that self-possessed literary style"
(quoted in Ferguson, p. 88).
Describe the style of Duck's poetry. How does this fit
in with the poetic style of Milton, Dryden or Pope?
Note especially the lines in reference to female laborers:
244-245. What does this suggest about female laborers?
How do they fit into Duck's image of a Thresher's labor?
Why is the Master's harvest celebration significant?
How does Duck describe it? What is the speaker's attitude
toward the celebration?
Analyze the play on words in the closing lines -- "growing
Labours." What is the theme of Duck's poem? How does
this fit in with the economic and agricultural changes
taking place in England at this time? (See Greene for
more information on these changes.)
Mary Collier's "The Woman's Labour" (1739)
Examine the opening statement by M.B. What does this
writer imply about his/her relationship to Collier?
What fears or anxieties does he/she anticipate in the
reader? What does this suggest about the audience for the poem?
How does Collier describe Duck in the opening lines?
What relationship does this establish between the
"washer-woman poet" and the "thresher-poet"? Note
that her relationship to Duck is complex -- we should
try to understand it in ways informed by both gender
How does Collier represent herself as a poet in the opening
lines? To what extent is this similar to Barbauld's opening?
In 1762, Collier issued a revised edition of the poem.
At that time she appears to have been 72 years old and
still working. How does this information contribute to
your understanding of the poem?
"Since Stephen Duck had male patrons early on who
read his work, his authenticity was never questioned;
the Earl of Macclesfield read Duck's poems to the
queen as early as 1730" (Ferguson 13). The same is
not true for Mary Collier, who has a list of neighboring
gentry testify to her authorship as well as her class
identity. What does this suggest about the role
gender plays in authorship? What about a male working-class
poet would be more compelling or believable than a
female working-class poet?
Moira Ferguson suggests that "the unvarying iambic
pentameters reinforce the endlessly repetitive labor"
of the washer-woman. Comment. To what extent is
this a useful evaluation of the style?
In the poem Collier equates servitude with slavery.
How valid is this comparison? how does Collier adopt/adapt
Lockean notions of equality in this poem?
Why does Collier address this poem to Duck? In lines
31-74 she directly addresses Duck's poem, offering an
inter-texual reading of his poem. What is her criticism?
How does she counter him?
Summarize the responsibilities of female laborers as
represented in the poem. How does this differ from
Duck's representation of female laborers? from
Barbauld's representation if female laborers? from
Pope's representation of women? from Milton's?
Note the role of English luxuries in "The Woman's Labor."
How does the commercial oppulence of the English
gentry/bourgeosie affect the laboring class? Compare
"All perfections Woman once could boast / Are quite
obscured, and altogether lost" (221-222). How does
this poem challenge gender-assumptions of female beauty, f
ragility, and dependence, as represented in The Rape
of the Lock or Paradise Lost? The same
might be asked of "Washing Day."
Evaluate the parallels of the last two lines of the poems
-- the nascent Marxist criticism of her lot as a working
woman. What does this suggest about class consciousness?
How does her relationship with the Mistress challenge
assumptions of gender solidarity? What ultimately seems
more important in this poem, lines of class difference
or lines of gendered difference?
Some historians suggest that Walpole used the Licensing
Act of 1737 to help suppress dissent from his government.
Ferguson argues that "with the licensing laws changed,
profit-motivated publishers now recognized their
vested interest in repromoting controversy around
women as the political infighting which characterized
Walpole's reign began to wane" (7). How might this
explain the phenomenon of the Washer-woman poet?
What does this suggestion imply about publishers?
About audiences? Who were buying these magazines?
What might be their interest in "The Woman's Labour"?
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