“Thresher” Duck on Richmond

By Ron McEwen

2018 is the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Prince George and Princess Caroline in Richmond – the first step in a sequence of events that would lead to, among other things, the creation of Kew Gardens. The following is by way of commemoration of this event.

Stephen “Thresher” Duck (1705-56) was a self-educated Wiltshire ploughman who achieved fame in his day as a poet. He has recently received some attention from sociologists for his description of gruelling manual work in his poem “The thresher’s labour”. However, unlike that other 18th-century ploughman poet, Robert Burns (1759-96), who wrote mostly in the vernacular, Duck wrote mostly in the style of John Milton, his verse replete with classical allusions. In 1735 Queen Caroline, after receiving a character reference from Alexander Pope, housed Duck in Richmond and employed him as “librarian” in her Merlin’s Cave in Richmond Gardens. His collection of poems, Poems on several occasions, was first published in 1736 and ran to several editions. This collection includes a poem concerning the two royal estates in Richmond – Richmond Park and the grounds of Richmond Lodge (Old Deer Park). The latter is here called by Duck “Royal Gardens” and elsewhere “Richmond Gardens”. [N.B. the spelling in the text that follows has been modernised.]

“On Richmond Park and Royal Gardens” (1736)

By Stephen Duck

Duck begins his praise of the two Richmond estates with a reference to Alexander Pope’s early poem, “Windsor Forest” (1713). “Cynthia” is an epithet of the Greek nature goddess, Artemis, who is depicted with a quiver of arrows and a knotted belt. “Consecrated floods”: rivers in ancient times were consecrated to and named after deities.

Of blissful groves I sing, and flowery plains:
Ye Sylvan Nymphs, assist my rural strains.
Shall Windsor Forest gain a deathless fame,
And grow immortal, as the Poet’s name;
While not a bard, of all the tuneful throng,
With these delightful fields adorns his song?
Thy Gardens, Richmond, boast an equal theme,
And only ask an equal Muse’s flame.
What, though no virgin Nymphs, of Cynthia’s train,
With belt and quiver grace the verdant plain?
What, though no fabled consecrated floods
Flow o’er thy fields, or murmur through thy woods?
My song thy real beauties shall pursue,
And paint the lovely scenes, and paint ’em true;
A pleasing task! Nor slight shall be the praise,
If Royal Caroline accept the lays.

The poet ascends Richmond Hill.

Delighted, often thro’ the mazy groves,
The Muse, in pensive contemplation, roves;
Or climbs the slow ascending hill, whose brow
Hangs o’er the silver stream, which rolls below;
Where all around me shining prospects rise,
And various scenes invite my gazing eyes;
And, while I view one object with delight,
New pleasing wonders charm the feasted sight:
Now this allures, now that attracts it most;
And the first beauty’s in the second lost.
Thus, in a grateful concert, may we hear
The sounds at once surprise, and charm our ear;
The trembling notes, in hasty fugues, arise;
And this advances, ere the former flies;
All seem to be confused, yet all agree,
To perfect the melodious harmony.

The Thames is compared to the Rivers Hermos (in modern Turkey) and Tagus (Iberia). Sir John Denham (1615-69) was an Irish poet, whose poem “Cooper’s Hill” describes the Thames Valley at his home in Egham.

Beneath the mount, with what majestic pride
The sire of rivers rolls his silver tide!
Let poets sing of Hermos’ golden shore,
His amber foam, and sands of shining ore:
Nor Tagus envy we, nor fruitful Nile,
Whose fattening floods enrich the thirsty soil:
Happy Britannia boasts as fair a stream,
As great in bounties, and as great in fame;
Since Denham’s deathless Muse has sung his tide,
And India’s riches o’er his surface glide.

Obsequious” at this time did not have a pejorative connotation. Here it could mean either “keen to please” or “winding like a root” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). “Infidels” here means “atheists”.

Obsequious river, when my eyes survey
Thy waves, or east, or west, pursue their way;
Now swiftly roll, to meet the briny main,
At stated periods, now return again;
How vain the schemes of infidels appear!
How weak their reasonings, and the God how clear!
Say, atheists, since you own, by Nature’s laws,
There’s no effect produced without a cause;
Why should the restless stream run to and fro,
And, with alternate motion, ebb and flow;
Did not some being, of superior force,
Rule the wild waves, and regulate their course?

Windsor Castle is visible from Richmond Hill on a clear day. “Pompous” was once also not derogatory. It meant “grandiose” or “magnificent”. John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” (1674) has a description of Eden before the Fall.

Hence lofty Windsor to the sight appears;
And, high in air, her pompous turrets rears:
Wide, round her domes, the spacious forest shines.
Though brighter much in Pope’s harmonious lines:
O! would his tuneful Muse my breast inspire,
With equal warmth, with her sublimer fire;
Then Richmond Hill renowned in verse should grow,
And Thames re-echo to the song below;
A second Eden in my page should shine,
And Milton’s Paradise submit to mine.

The poet enters Richmond Park. “Aurora” is the Roman goddess of the dawn. “Philomela” was a mythical Greek princess who was turned into a nightingale; hence a synonym for nightingale.

Oft, lost in thought, forgetful of my way,
I, o’er the park, through wilds of beauty, stray;
Where sportive Nature wantons at her will,
And lavishes her bloom, unchecked by skill.
Old venerable trees, majestic, rise,
Sublime in air, and brave the vaulted skies;
Which, free from cruel steel, or labourer’s hand,
In peaceful age, and hoary honour, stand.
Here, when Aurora first begins to dawn,
The wakeful larks spring mounting from the lawn;
Poised by their plumes, in lofty flights they play;
With joyful warblings hail the approaching day:
But, when the sun displays a purple scene,
And drinks the pearly dew, that decked the green;
A thousand tuneful birds in concert meet,
A thousand tuneful notes the groves repeat;
And, when their music ceases with the day,
Sweet Philomela chants her pensive lay.

“Albion’s King” is George II, King of Great Britain from 1727.

But, hark! I hear a louder music sound;
From woods and vales the various notes rebound:
‘Tis Albion’s King pursues the royal chase;
The nimble stag skims o’er the unbending grass:
The way which fear directs, he trembling tries;
Nor knows, where fear directs, or where he flies:
A hundred different sounds assail his ears;
A death, in every different sound, he fears:
And now he faintly moves a slower pace,
And closer now the hounds pursue the chase;
Till, in despair, back on his foes he turns;
Makes feeble efforts with his branchy horns;
Short is the combat, soon he yields his breath,
And gasping falls, and trembling pants in death.

The scene now moves to the grounds of Richmond Lodge. “Terrace” refers to the riverside terrace that ran the length of this estate until it was demolished by  Lancelot “Capability” Brown. “Ceres and Flora” are the Roman goddesses of agriculture and flowers respectively.

Now to a softer theme descends my Muse;
Through artful walks her pleasing path pursues;
Where lofty elms, and conic lindens rise,
Or where the extensive terrace charms her eyes;
Where elegance and noble grandeur meet,
As the ideas of its mistress, great,
Magnificently fair, majestically sweet.
See, on its margin, fields of waving corn;
These bearded crops, and flowerets this, adorn;
Ceres and Flora lovingly embrace,
And gay varieties the landscape grace.

“Oval” refers to the “Great Oval”, a clearing in the pleasure grounds over 500 feet in diameter, created by Charles Bridgeman. The “sequestered cell” refers to William Kent’s Hermitage (1731) which contained busts of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.

Hence lead me, Muses, through yon archèd grove,
Adorned with sand below, and leaves above;
Or let me o’er the spacious Oval trace,
Where verdant carpets spread the lovely place;
Where trees in regular confusion stand,
And sylvan beauties rise on every hand:
Or bear me, Nymphs, to the sequestered cell,
Where Boyle and Newton, mighty sages!, dwell;
Whose fame shall live, although the grot decay,
Long as those sacred truths their works display.

Phoebus is the Graeco-Roman epithet for Apollo as sun god.

How sweetly pleasing is this cool retreat,When Phoebus blazes with meridian heat!
In vain the fervid beams around it play;
The rocky roof repels the scorching ray;
Securely guarded with a sylvan scene,
In Nature’s livery dressed, for ever green.
To visit this, the curious stranger roves,
With grateful travel, through a wild of groves;
And, though directed, oft mistakes his way,
Unknowing where the winding mazes stray;
Yet still his feet the magic paths pursue,
Charmed, though bewildered, with the pleasing view.

“Thorny brakes” means briers. “Symmetry from wild disorder sprung” is probably a reference to Milton’s “Light shone and order from disorder sprung” (“Paradise Lost”).

Not so attractive lately shone the plain,
A gloomy waste, not worth the Muses’ strain;
Where thorny brakes the traveller repelled,
And weeds and thistles overspread the field;
Till Royal George, and Heavenly Caroline,
Bid Nature in harmonious lustre shine;
The sacred fiat through the chaos rung,
And symmetry from wild disorder sprung.

Duck draws a strained analogy between the landscaping of Bridgeman and Kent and the Roman Empire. Perhaps his subtext is that Britain has become the new Rome.

So, once, confused, the barbarous nations stood;
Unpolished were their minds, their manners rude;
Till Rome her conquering eagles wide display,
And bid the world reform – the world obeyed.

“Augusta’s pompous piles” means Augusta’s grandiose buildings. Augusta was the honorific name given to Roman empresses. In this case it likely refers to Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus, who is noted for commissioning a number of public buildings. This stanza contains a Judeo-Christian creation story with an admixture of classical allusions in the manner of “Paradise Lost”. “Solitude”, “peaceful Nymph” and” celestial Dame” are apparently references to Hekate, one of whose epithets, according to the first Orphic Hymn, is Philerimon (“fond of solitude”). She was the only Titan spared by the Olympian god Zeus. “Eternity” is the Greek god Aeon. Michael is the archangel of that name.

How blessed the man in these delightful fields!
New pleasures each indulgent moment yields.
Let gayer minds in town pursue their joys,
Exchanging quietness for crowds and noise;
Consume the night at masquerade or play;
Or waste, in busy idleness, the day:
I envy not Augusta’s pompous piles,
Since rural solitude more pleasing smiles.
O Solitude! the sage’s chief delight!
What numbers can thy lovely charms recite!
Hail, peaceful Nymph! thou eldest thing on Earth!
Nay, like Eternity, thou hadst no birth:
The Heavens alone can thy commencement tell,
Ere Michael fought, or peccant Angels fell;
Before the skies with radiant light were clad,
In awful gloom, and venerable shade,
The Father thee his sole companion made.
When to creation first his thoughts inclined,
And future worlds were rising in his Mind;
He sat with thee, and planned the mighty scheme;
With thee adjusted the stupendous frame;
Contrived how globes, self-balanced in the air,
With restless rounds should rule the circling year;
How orbs o’er orbs in mystic dance should roll,
What laws support, and regulate the whole:
Nor art thou yet impaired, celestial Dame;
Thy charms are still attractive, still the same;
With thee the mind, abstracted from the crew,
May study Nature, and her ends pursue;
With thee I hear the feathered warblers sing;
With thee survey the beauties of the spring,
When blossoms, leaves, and fruits the branches yield,
And Eden’s glory crowns the happy field.

“Royal guardian” refers to Queen Caroline. “Condescending” is not pejorative: it means something like “graciousness shown to someone of a lower social status”. What follows is praise of George II’s avoidance of war while the country is protected by the Royal Navy (“floating towers”). This was before the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48).

Here first the Muse (auspicious was the place!)
Rejoiced to see her Royal guardian’s face:
How mild, yet how majestic, was her look!
How sweetly condescending all she spoke!
On every pleasing accent wisdom hung,
And truth and virtue dwelt upon her tongue.
O! were I equal to the glorious theme,
Then should my lays immortalise her fame;
Or paint great George in peaceful laurels dressed,
With Albion’s safety labouring in his breast;
Who (while contending nations round him jar,
And subjects’ wealth supports their monarchs’ war)
Guards happy Britain, with his floating towers,
From purple slaughter and invading powers;
No plundering armies rob our fruitful plain;
But, blessed with peace and plenty, smiles the swain.

Meanwhile, other European countries wage war and their armies ravage the countryside.

Not so he smiles upon the foreign shores;
But starving walks through Nature’s lavish stores;
Poor peasants with their rigid burdens groan,
And till the glebe for harvests not their own.
What, though their more propitious Phoebus shines
With warmer rays, and chears the curling vines?
What, though rich olives grace the fertile soil,
And the hot climate teems with fattening oil?
The hungry farmer views his crops in vain,
In vain the vineyard tempts the thirsty swain;
While their stern tyrant’s arbitrary power
Rifles the plains, and ravages their store:
Thy sons, Britannia, from such evils free,
Enjoy the sweets of peace and liberty;
A gracious Sovereign smiles upon the throne,
And heaven confirms the happy realm his own.


Duck’s description of the view from Richmond Hill was written after the more famous 1730 version of James Thomson (1700-48). The latter was also a local resident (Kew Foot Lane, now Kew Foot Road) but he was a protégé of Frederick Prince of Wales, the son and neighbour of Queen Caroline. The poetry of the university-educated Thomson, it must be said, is the better. The two poets were acquainted. It is known that Duck sent Thomson a copy of his poems and that Thomson reciprocated. They spent some time together and, according to Duck, “drank plentifully to Miss Robbison’s health” (a local beauty perhaps?).

After Queen Caroline’s death in 1737, Duck took holy orders and was for a while a preacher at St Anne’s church in Kew. He drowned at the age of 51 in the River Kennet at Reading, but whether he committed suicide is disputed.

© Ron McEwen 2018