The Thresher's Labour

"The Thresher's Labour" is one of three poems written by a common worker, Stephen Duck in 1730. The poem is a description of Duck's struggles as an agricultural labourer, and a representation of the working class in general. H. Gustav Klaus said it was the most accurate description of working life in verse, and praised Duck's recognition that work deserved a literary treatment.[1] "The Thresher's Labour" became the voice, in a sense, for the rural labourers who were oppressed. It also became a model for other common labourers to follow as many other common workers began to write about their lives and their daily experiences. It was the start of a new genre of literature developed by working-class people.

History and background

Duck wrote "The Thresher's Labour" after a friend, Reverend Stanley,[2] suggested that Duck write about his life. A pirated edition of the text was published in Poems on Several Subjects in 1730, and a revised and authorised version in Poems on Several Occasions in 1736.[3]


"The Thresher's Labour" gives details about the hard, tedious labour of an agricultural worker of the 18th century:

SOON as the golden Harvest quits the Plain,

And CERES' Gifts reward the Farmer's Pain;

What Corn each Sheaf will yield, intent to hear,

And guess from thence the Profits of the Year,

He calls his Reapers forth: Around we stand,

With deep Attention, waiting his Command.

To each our Task he readily divides,

And pointing, to our diff'rent Stations guides.

As he directs, to distant Barns we go;

Here two for Wheat, and there for Barley two.

But first, to shew what he expects to find,

These Words, or Words like these, disclose his Mind:

" So dry the Corn was carry'd from the Field,

" So easily 'twill thresh, so well 'twill yield;

" Sure large Days-works I well may hope for now:

" Come, strip and try; let's see what you can do."[4]

His characterisation of the agricultural cycle as a destructive machine controlled by "The Master" has been contrasted with the traditional depictions of pastoral scenes.[5]

Response to The Thresher's Labour

In "The Thresher's Labour," Stephen Duck mentions that the women did not contribute much during the harvests (the hardest time of the year). Duck portrays the workers as strong men, covered in dust from their work, while mentioning that the women are at home taking care of the children.

"The Sweat, the Dust, and suffocating Smoak,

Make us so much like Ethiopians look,

We scare our Wives, when Ev'ning brings us home;

And frighted Infants think the Bugbear come.

Week after Week, we this dull Task pursue,

Unless when winn'wing Days produce a new:

A new, indeed, but frequently a worse!"[6]

These statements enraged feminists an Mary Collier, a common washerwoman, who knew that women most often worked alongside the men. Collier wrote a poem called "The Woman's Labour" which was directed at Stephen Duck in response to "The Thresher's Labour." "The Woman's Labour" corrects and criticizes Duck's statements about women's contributions. Collier brought up specific statements and topics from Duck's poem to discuss.[7]

Further Reading


  1. Klaus, H. Gustav (1985). The Literature of Labour: Two Hundred Years of Working-Class Writing. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf. p. 12. ISBN 9780710806314.
  2. Van-Hagen, Steve (Fall 2007). "Literary Technique, the Aestheticization of Laboring Experience, and Generic Experimentation in Stephen Duck's The Thresher's Labour". Criticism. 47 (4): 421–450. Retrieved 9 Dec 2014.
  3. McGonigal, Peter (1982). "Stephen Duck and the Text of The Thresher's Labour". The Library. 6 (IV): 288-296. Retrieved 12 May 2016.
  4. Duck, Stephen. "The Thresher's Labour". Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Retrieved 9 Dec 2014.
  5. Goodridge, John (1996). Rural Life in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry. Cambridge University Press. p. 12. ISBN 9780511584909.
  6. Duck, Stephen. "The Thresher's Labour". Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Retrieved 9 Dec 2014.
  7. Kuiper, Edith. "Mary Collier". Political and Feminist Economics. Retrieved 9 Dec 2014.
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