The Stephen Duck Legacy

Generations of students who have heard the twice-told tale of my Ph.D orals experience with Stephen Duck the Thresher Poet have asked about Robert Bell, the person who terrorized me by quoting at length from Duck's poetry just before I went in to take my exam.

Here he is, Robert Huntley Bell, William Kenan Professor of English at Williams College. He is one of my oldest friends -- we went to undergraduate college and graduate school together -- and is today a distinguished scholar and great teacher. (Two years ago, he won the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teachers. This is not small stuff. It is huge, a national award. Several hundred colleges and universities nominate the best teachers on their faculty. Then the Robert Foster Cherry committee narrows the field to three finalists. Then the committee gathers information from hundreds of their students, including those who graduated ten and twenty years ago, visits their campuses, and consults colleagues and adminstrators. Then, at the end, one person is chosen. In 1998, the person was Robert H. Bell.)

In a deservedly famous article in Duck Studies ("Poetic Prolepsis: Milton and Duck"), RHB was the first person to demonstrate conclusively that a proleptic reference to Duck, wholly ignored by generations of scholars, appears in Milton's Comus, lines 958-962:


Back Shepherds, back, enough your play,

Till next Sun-shine holiday;

Here be without duck or nod

Other trippings to be trod

Of lighter toes . . .


As it happens, RHB in this picture is lecturing on the poetry of Stephen Duck. In his right hand is a rare copy of Duck's most famous work, The Thresher's Labour. With his left he is imploring another generation of Williams undergraduates never to forget that Pope and Swift, while they got all the subsequent publicity, learned everything they knew from Duck.