Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duck, Stephen

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DUCK, STEPHEN (1705–1756), poet, was born in 1705 at Charlton in Wiltshire. His parents were poor, and after some slight education up to the age of fourteen, he was employed as an agricultural labourer at 4s. 6d. a week. He was married in 1724, and was the father of three children in 1730. He managed to save a little money and bought a few books. With a friend of similar tastes he tried to improve his mind by reading whatever literature they could procure. 'Paradise Lost,' which he puzzled out with a dictionary, the 'Spectator,' and L'Estrange's translation of 'Seneca's Morals' were his first favourites. He afterwards procured a translation of Télémaque, Whiston's 'Josephus,' an odd volume of Shakespeare, Dryden's 'Virgil,' Prior's poems,'Hudibras,' and the 'London Spy.' He began to write verses at intervals of leisure, generally burning them. His fame spread, however, and in 1729 a 'young gentleman of Oxford' sent for him and made him write an epistle in verse, afterwards published in his poems. The neighbouring clergy encouraged him, especially a Mr. Stanley, who suggested the 'Thresher's Labour' as the subject of a new poem. At Mrs. Stanley's request he wrote the 'Shunammite.' A clergyman at Winchester spoke of him to Mrs. Clayton (afterwards Lady Sundon), who recommended him to Queen Caroline. Lord Macclesfield read Duck's verses to her on 11 Sept. 1750. The queen, according to Warburton, sent the manuscript of Duck's poems to Pope, concealing the author's name and position. Pope thought little of them, but, finding that Duck had a good character, did what he could to help him at court, and frequently called upon him at Richmond. Gay, who had heard of this 'phenomenon of Wiltshire' from Pope, writes to Swift (8 Nov. 1730) from Amesbury, saying that he envies neither Walpole nor 'Stephen Duck, who is the fortunate poet of the court.' The queen allowed him 30l. (or 50l.) a year, and in April 1733 made him yeoman of the guard. Duck's good fortune excited the spleen of Pope's friends who were not patronised. Swift tells Gay (19 Nov. 1730) that Duck is expected to succeed Eusden as poet laureate. A contemptuous epigram upon Duck is printed in Swift's works. Duck became a wonder; his 'Poems on several Subjects' were published with such success that a tenth edition is dated 1730. Duck's first wife had died in 1730. In 1733 he married Sarah Big, the queen's housekeeper at Kew, and in 1735 he was made keeper of the queen's library at Richmond, called Merlin's Cave (Gent. Mag. v. 331, 498). In 1736 his 'Poems on several Occasions' were published by subscription, with an account of his career by Joseph Spence [q. v.] In 1746 he was ordained priest; in August 1751 he became preacher at Kew Chapel; and in January 1752 was appointed to the rectory of Byfleet, Surrey, where Spence had settled in 1749. In 1755 he published 'Cæsar's Camp on St. George's Hill,' an imitation of Denham's 'Cooper's Hill.' His mind gave way about this time, and he drowned himself 21 March 1756, in a fit of dejection, in a trout stream 'behind the Black Lion Inn' at Reading. Kippis says in the 'Biographia' that his poems are nearly on a level with some of those in Johnson's collection, an estimate which may be safely accepted. He seems to have been modest and grateful to his benefactors; and it must be admitted that Queen Caroline was more successful than some later patrons in helping a poor man without ruining him. Besides the above volumes, the second of which includes the former, he published a few congratulatory pieces addressed to the royal family. Lord Palmerston gave a piece of land to provide an annual feast at Charlton in commemoration of the poet. The rent in 1869 was 2l. 9s. 9d., and annual dinner was still given at the village inn to all adult males, from the proceeds and subscriptions. 'Arthur Duck' is the pseudonym adopted by the author of a gross parody upon Stephen Duck's poems called 'The Thresher's Miscellany' (1730), though in Davy's 'Suffolk Collections' (Add. MS. 19166, f. 71) this Duck is supposed to be a real person.

[Spence's Account of the Author prefixed to Duck's Poems on several Occasions; Life prefixed to Poems on several Subjects; Gent. Mag. iii. 216, xvi. 329, xxi. 381, xxvi. 206; New General Biog. Dict. 1761, iv. 533; Pope's Works (by Elwin), vii. 202, 208, 443; Notes and Queries, 4th series, iv. 423, 529.]

L. S.