Poems on several occasions: By Stephen Duck.
Duck, Stephen, 1705-1756.
Page  [unnumbered]


Written in the Year 1730.


_I Don't wonder that you should desire so distinct an Account, how Stephen Duck came to write Verses, and how he manag'd in writing them. Philosophers find as much Subject for their Admiration in the minutest Bodies, as in the largest; and a Poet from the Barn, tho' not so great a Man, is as great a Curiosity, as a Dictator from the Plow. I can be particular enough as to his first setting out in Poetry; and, since you seem to desire it, shall give you all the Cir|cumstances I could learn from a Week's Conversation with him in all his Simplicity; without considering, that many of them, to a Person less curi|ous, might appear too trifling to be mention'd even in a Letter.

Page  xii MY Friend Stephen had originally no other Teaching, than what enabled him to read, and write English; he had never taken a single Step toward any other Language. As Arithmetic is generally join'd 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 engag'd in the se|veral lowest Employments of a Country Life. This lasted for some Years; so long, that he had forgot almost all the Arithmetic he had learn'd at School: However he read sometimes, and thought oftener. He had a cer|tain 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 something of what he had learnt, even at the little School he had been at. He thought of this so often, that at last he resolv'd to try his own Strength; and, if possible, to recover his Arithmetic again.

HIS first Attempt of this kind I take to have been about Six Years ago. Considering the Difficulties the poor Fellow lay under, this Inclination for Knowledge must have been very strong in him. He was then marry'd, and at Service; he had little Time to spare; he had no Books, and no Money to get any: But he was resolv'd to go thro' with it; and accordingly us'd to work more than other Day-labourers, and by that means got some little matter added to his Pay. This Overplus was at his own Disposal. With this he bought first a Book of Vulgar Arithmetic, then one of Decimal, and a third of Measuring of Land; all which by degrees he made himself a to|lerable Master of, in those Hours he could steal from his Sleep, after the Labours of the Day.

WHERE there was such a Desire for Knowledge, there must be good Sense at bottom, and a Soul, at least, somewhat above the common Con|versation he must meet with in his poor State of Life. I have ask'd him, whom he had that he could talk and converse with in the Country; and was pleas'd to find him, in this Particular, happier than I expected. He said, he had one dear Friend, that he mention'd with uncommon Affection. They us'd to talk and read together, when they could steal a little Time for it. This Friend had been in a Service at London for two or three Years: He had an Inclination to Books; he had purchas'd some, and brought 'em down with him into the Country; and Stephen had always the Use of his little Library; which by this Time, possibly, may be increas'd to two or three dozen of Books. This Friend knew no more out of English than Stephen; but by talking together they mutually improv'd each other. Ste|phenPage  xiii is all Simplicity: He says,

"That his Friend can talk better than he, as having been more us'd to Company; but that he himself has been more us'd to Poetry, and in that can do better than his Friend."

HAD it not been for this, Stephen must have been plac'd in the same Class with Hai Ebn Yokdhan, and the young Hermes in Mr. Ramsay's Cyrus: But the Story of their Improvements without any Assistance agrees only with Romances; and you know, what I am writing to you is a true History. Our retir'd Philosopher had his Friend; and it seems to have been the greatest Happiness of his Life, that he had one. They did not only read, but reason'd over Points together; and I have sometimes thought, how agreeable a thing it would have been, to have been conceal'd within hearing of them, when they were in the midst of some of their most knotty Debates. We may imagine 'em both to have had good natural Sense, and a few good Books in common between 'em: Their Minds were their own; neither improv'd, nor spoil'd, by laying in a Stock of Learning: They were perhaps equally well inclin'd to learn, both struggling for a little Knowledge; and, like a Couple of Rowers on the same Bottom, while they were only striving perhaps, which should out do his Companion, they were really each helping the other, and driving the Boat on the faster.

PERHAPS 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 Addison's Defence of Christia|nity, 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 Po|etry of later Acquisition: Seneca's Morals had made the Name of L'Estrange dear to them; and, as I imagine, might occasion their getting his Josephus in Folio, which was the largest Purchace in their Collection: They had one Volume of Shakespear with Seven of his Plays in it. Beside these, Stephen had read Three or Four other Plays; some of Epictetus, Waller, Dryden's Virgil, Prior, Hudibras, Tom Brown, and the London Spy. You may see I am a faithful Historian, by my giving you the Bad with the Good.

WITH these Helps Stephen is grown something of a Poet, and some|thing of a Philosopher. I find by him, that from his Infancy, he has had a Cast in his Mind toward Poetry. He has delighted, as far back as he can remember, in Verses, and in Singing. He speaks of strange Emotions, that he has felt on the top Performances of the little Choir of Songsters in Page  xii〈1 page duplicate〉Page  xiii〈1 page duplicate〉Page  xiv a Country Chancel; and mentions his first hearing of an Organ, as a re|markable Epocha of his Life. He seems to be a pretty good Judge too of a musical Line; but I imagine, that he does not hear Verses in his own Mind, as he repeats them. I don't know whether you understand me. I mean, that his Ideas of the Notes in a Verse, and his Manner of repeating the same Verse, are often different: For he points out an harmonious Line well enough; and yet he generally spoils its Harmony by his way of speaking it.

WHAT first gave him a higher Taste of Poetry, than he had been us'd to, was Milton's Paradise Lost. This came oddly enough into his Hands; and when I see you, I'll tell you the History of it. Stephen read it over twice or thrice with a Dictionary, before he could understand the Language of it thoroughly. This, and a sort of English Grammar they had, have been of the greatest Use to him of any thing.

INDEED it seems plain to me, that he has got English just as we get Latin. He study'd Paradise Lost, as others study the Classics. The new Beauties in that Poem, that were continually opening upon his Mind, made all his Labour easy to him. He work'd all Day for his Master; and, after the Labour of the Day, set to his Books at Night. The Pains he has taken for the Pleasure of improving himself, are incredible; but it has answer'd too beyond what one could have expected; for he seems to understand some of the great and deeper Beauties of that Poem tolerably well; and points out several particular Beauties in it, which it requires a good nice Eye to discover.

'TWAS his Friend that help'd him to the Spectators; they read them often together, and often by themselves. Stephen tells me, that he has frequently carry'd them with him to his Work. When he did so, his Method was to labour harder than any body else, that he might get half an Hour to read a Spectator, without injuring his Master. By this means he us'd to sit down all over Sweat and Heat, without regarding his own Health, and often to the Prejudice of it. If this affects you, as it has me, I ought not to pass it over, that you may not lose the Pleasure of so strong an Instance of Honesty and Industry mix'd together.

THE Spectators improv'd his Understanding, he says, more than any thing. The Copies of Verses, scatter'd in those Pieces, help'd on his natural Bent that way; and made him willing to try, whether he could not do something like 'em. He sometimes turn'd his own Thoughts into Verse, while he Page  xv was at Work; and at last begun to venture those Thoughts a little on Paper. What he did of this kind, was very inconsiderable; only scatter'd Thoughts, and generally not above four or five Lines on the same Subject; which, as there was nobody thereabouts that car'd for Verses, nor any body that could tell him whether they were good or bad, he generally flung into the Fire, as soon as he had pleas'd himself enough in reading them.

WHATEVER Care he took to burn these little Pieces, he found it not sufficient to conceal them. 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 mention'd accidentally, about a Year ago, before a young Gentleman of Oxford, who sent for Stephen; and after some Talk with him, desir'd him to write him a Letter in Verse. That Letter is the Epistle which stands the last in his Poems, but was the first whole Copy of Verses that ever he wrote. This happen'd to fall into the Hands of some Clergymen in the Neighbourhood, who were very well pleas'd with it; and upon examining him, found the Man had a good deal of Merit. They gave him some Presents, which, as Things stood then, were a great Help to him; and encourag'd him to go on as much as they could.

THIS made him proceed with more Courage: And, as he had wrote some scatter'd Verses on Poverty, before this happen'd, he carry'd those Thoughts on, and fill'd it up, as it stands at present in the printed Collection I send you: So that this is his second Copy. I am very careful in settling the Chronology of his Poems, that you may see how he has gone on Step by Step, if you please.

THE Composition which was next in Order, is that on his own Labours: That Subject was given him by one of those who first encourag'd him; and after this was finish'd, he was employ'd from the same Quarter in his Shunammite. As this exceeded any of the rest, I think from hence we may date the Aera of his rising in his Character and Circumstances. Upon this it was that Per|sons of Distinction began to send for him different ways. In short, it got him Fame enough to be pretty trouble some to him at first; tho' it is likely to end in a much happier Settlement of him and his Affairs, than could ever have been dreamt of by him at his first setting out.

WHEN you have read his Poems, and consider the Manner he has been bred up in, I doubt not you will think they have their Merit: But I assure you, they give an imperfect Idea of the Man; and, to know how much he de|serves, Page  xvi one should converse with him, and hear on what Reasons he omitted such a Part, and introduc'd another; why he shortens his Style in this Place, and enlarges in that; whence he has such a Word, and whence such an Idea. I'll give you all I can recollect of this kind, in relation to what is generally reckon'd the best Thing he has wrote, The Shunammite.

IN the first Place, I found upon Inquiry, that he wrote by a Plan; he thought over all the Parts, as he intended to use them, before he made the Verses. For a Poem of any Length, no doubt 'tis as necessary to do this, as it is to have a Draught of a House, before you go to building it; and yet I believe, the common Run of our Poets have generally thought themselves above it, or not thought of it at all. Tho' the Shunammite was written on a Story given to his hand, still something of this kind was convenient enough; because, in forming it anew, he did not make use of all the Materials before him, and has brought in some of his own. He thought, the Stretching of the Prophet in so particular a manner, must sound strange. The Woman introduc'd to tell her Story, is a new Cast of his own; so is her Doubting, and then Confirming herself again, by a particular Induction of all Elisha's Miracles; so the Bringing an Audience about her, and their Chorus's, when they join together in congratulating her Happiness; the last of which closes the Poem in a good proper manner.

UPON being ask'd, Why he introduc'd a Person to tell all the Story in the Shunammite, and why he could not as well tell it himself; he said, he had read Prior's Solomon; and that, in reading it, Solomon's speaking every thing touch'd him particularly. He was then ask'd, since it was to be spoken, why he did not rather chuse the Prophet, as the Person of the greater Dig|nity, to speak it. He said to this, That the Woman was to be pity'd; That there seem'd to him to be *some Expressions of the Woman in the History, which, if not omitted, might lessen our Regard and Compassion for her; That, if the Prophet had related the Thing, he could not have omitted a Word; but when the Woman did, she might well be allow'd to soften her own Case; and to drop, when she was cool, any thing wrong, that she had said in the Violence of her Grief and Passion. This is rather fuller in Words than he express'd it; but nothing, I think, is added to his Meaning.

Page  xvii AS Milton had been his favourite Poet, you may wonder why none of his Pieces are in blank Verse. I ask'd him about this too: Upon which he told me, That he had originally written the whole Shunammite in blank Verse; That, upon reading it over, he found his Language was not sublime enough for it; and that therefore he was forc'd to write it all over again, and turn it into Rhyme.

UPON reading over the Chapter and his Poem together, you will see how justly he shortens and enlarges some of the particular Passages, in order to adapt them the more to Poetry. Besides some Things already mention'd, he drops several little Circumstances in it*. On the other hand, he enlarges on the 1Contentedness and Charities of the Woman; on the 2Look and Attitude of the Prophet; on her 3Thanks for bearing a Son; on 4the Death of the Child; on the 5Reasons of her Confidence in the Prophet; in 6pointing out the Prophet, when she comes to him; and in 7his Answer; in her 8pressing the Prophet more earnestly to assist her; in 9pointing out the dead Child; his being 10freed from Death; and her Thoughts 11upon receiving him again into her Arms.

'TIS agreeable to see what Use he has made of the little Reading he can have had, and how he has improv'd the Thing, by observing some good Strokes in the Books he has met with. Upon my telling him, that I lik'd nothing better in it, than his altering the Prophet's Countenance as he does; he said, he took that Hint from Telemachus; where the young Prince comes to Idomeneus's Court, while they are sacrificing. The Priest, on seeing Telemachus, breaks off from what he was about, assumes a more inspir'd Air, and begins speaking of his future Fortunes. This Alteration of the Prophet's Countenance, Stephen says, he took from thence; but that at the same time he thought himself oblig'd to drop the Wildness and Enthusiasm of it, in order to adapt it more to the Nature of a true Prophet.

THE Chorus in the Close of the Shunammite, he said, was brought into his Mind by the general Rejoicing of the Angels in Milton, upon God's Page  xviii finishing the Creation of the World. The first Chorus was not in the Work originally; he inserted it, when he new-form'd it all into Rhyme.

HE had also been very careful as to single Words; and had Authorities to produce in several little Particulars, where one would not expect it. For 1flow'ry Carmel, he quotes Mr. Pope; and the Prophet's Arbour on the Top of that Mount is cover'd with 2Vines, on the Authority of Mr. Sandys in his Travels: For the Words 3adust and supernal, he refers to Milton:4Fanatic he uses according to the true, and not the vulgar Sense of the Word; he had learn'd the proper Meaning of it from his Dictionary: 5Dilated Heart, as spoken of Sorrow, is certainly a Fault; but it is a Fault that Stephen was naturally enough led into by the common Notion and Expressions in the Country, of the Heart's swelling and being ready to burst with Grief.

HE owns his Faults very readily; and if he thinks a Line of his better than ordinary, he will say so without any Reserve. He seems to be exceedingly open and honest in every thing he says; and 'twould be very difficult for you to be with him a Week, as I have been, without going away very much his Friend.

THO' I have been so long in shewing you how critically he has proceeded as to his own Works; I shall add some of his Thoughts on the Works of others, to give you as full an Idea of him as I can.

'TIS not yet three Years ago that he first met with Milton; and I believe, that was the first Poet of real Value, that he ever study'd in earnest. He has assur'd me, with all his Innocence and Simplicity, that when he came after|wards to read Addison's Criticisms on Milton in the Spectators, 'twas a high Pleasure to him to find many Things mention'd there, in the Praise of Milton, exactly as he had before thought in reading him. Here we must depend on his Credit, which I need not tell you with me is very good.

THE Name of Milton, whom he admires and dotes on so particularly, has not prevail'd on him enough to make him like his Paradise Regain'd. In speaking of these two Poems, he said,

"he wonder'd how Milton could write so incomparably well, where he had so little to lead him; and so very poorly, where he had more."

Page  xix THE Spectators, you know, he has read with great Pleasure, and great Improvement. I remember particularly, that on somebody's calling them Prose, he said,

"'Twas true, they were Prose; but there was something in 'em, that pleas'd almost like Verse."
—He mention'd, with more Regard than usual, the critical Papers on Wit, those on Milton, the Justum & tenacem from Horace, Mr. Pope's Messiah, and the several scatter'd ones written in the Cause of Virtue and Religion.

UPON asking him what Plays he had read, he nam'd particularly Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Cato, Venice Preserv'd, and the Orphan. Venice Pre|serv'd, he said, gave him the most Horror; a Word which I took notice he us'd sometimes for Sorrow, and sometimes in its proper Sense: He could not bear the comic Parts in it. Hamlet he lik'd better than Julius Caesar; and in Hamlet pointed out that celebrated Speech, To be, or not to be, &c. as having been his favourite Part, merely of his own Taste. He did not admire Shakespear's Comedy; and said,

"He was too high, and too low."
I read over to him some of Hamlet, and the celebrated Speeches of Antony to the People in Julius Caesar. He trembled, as I read the Ghost's Speech; and admir'd the Speeches and Turns in the Mob round Caesar's Body, more, he said, than ever he had done before. As I was reading to him, I observ'd that his Countenance chang'd often in the most moving Parts: His Eye was quick and busy all the time; and, to say the Truth, I never saw Applause, or the shifting of proper Passions, appear so strongly in any Face as in his.

HE had formerly read Tom Brown's Letters from the Dead, and the London Spy, not without some Pleasure; but, after he had been some time conversant with the Spectators, he said,

"He did not care much to look into them."
He spoke of Hudibras in another manner; he saw a great deal of Wit in it, and was particularly pleas'd with the Conjurer's Part in that Poem: But, after all, 'tis not a Manner of writing that he can so sin|cerely delight in, as in the Moral, the Passionate, or the Sublime.

INDEED what every body seems to admire him for, is, that he seems to have an excellent moral Turn in his Thoughts. He is, as I told you before, something of a Philosopher; and, what is better than a Philosopher, a good honest-hearted Man. He has read, and speaks highly of, the Archbishop of Cambray's Demonstration of the Being of a God, and Mr. Addison's Defence of the Christian Religion. He said,

"That they touch'd his Mind; and that nothing did so well, as when one's Reason is mov'd by what is said."
Page  xx He had lik'd the little he had read of Epictetus; but 'twas Seneca that had made him happy in his own Mind. He seems as yet not to be hurt at all by any Applauses that have been given him, and to have been perfectly con|tented with his Condition before: When he had only receiv'd some Pre|sents from Gentlemen in the Country, he was quite easy as to his Circum|stances. The only Thing then, that he was solicitous about, was, how he might succeed as to the Poetry he should be employ'd in. This was his chief Concern: But even this seem'd to proceed not so much from any Desire of Fame, as from a Principle of Gratitude; or, as he express'd it, his Longing to please those Friends that had been so generous to him. He was not lifted up with the Character some People gave him, and talk'd of Fame absolutely like a Philosopher. After his best Fortune, many of his Friends told him the Danger of being vain; and, if he should once be so, that he would be as much despis'd as he had been applauded. He said,
"That he could not well tell what they meant; That he did not know what it was to be vain: But, since so many great Men, who knew the World so much better than he did, were apprehensive for him on that head, he began to be terribly alarm'd at his Danger, tho' he had no settled Ideas of what it was."
He was told upon this, That he should never speak too highly in Praise of the Poems he had written. He said,
"If that was all, he was safe; that was a Thing he could never do, for he could not think highly of them: Gentlemen indeed, he said, might like 'em, because they were made by a poor Fellow in a Barn; but that he knew, as well as any body, that they were not really good in themselves."

THUS, Sir, I have obey'd your Commands as faithfully as I am able. You desir'd me not to spare Paper; but to send you a Book rather than a Letter. You see I have taken you at your Word; and that I am resolv'd, in this, as well as in every thing else, to shew you how punctually I would ever be,


Your most Humble Servant, J. SPENCE.