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Scholarly Introduction

Contributed Scholarly Introduction: graingerjames-sugarcanepoem-1764

About this Intro


Scholarly Introduction

James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane was first published in 1764 in London by R. and J. Dodsley. Grainger was born in the early 1720s in Duns, Berwickshire on the Scottish border. He moved to London in the 1750s, where he worked as a literary critic, writing for The Monthly Review. In 1759, Grainger travelled to St. Christopher, where he married Daniel Mathew Burt (Gilmore 9, 13).[1] Grainger composed The Sugar-Cane while travelling between plantations, working as a physician. Grainger died on St. Kitts in 1766 (Goodwin; Gilmore, ‘Introduction’).

In his “Preface” to the poem, Grainger calls The Sugar Cane a “West-India Georgic.” The term Georgic recalls Virgil’s Georgics, and also places the poem in the eighteenth-century British tradition of poetry which combined rural subject matter, Baconian science, and the representation of national identity (Goodman 1-16). It is organized into four books of blank verse. The first book describes the conditions most favourable for planting and cultivating sugar cane, focusing on the landscape, soil, wildlife and climate in St. Christopher. He also describes Jamaica, Barbados, Nevis and Montserrat, and gives a brief account of Columbus’s landing on Jamaica. In the second book, Grainger details various threats to the growth and health of the sugar-cane, (including vermin, weeds, insects, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes) and then concludes with a romance narrative. The third book describes the harvest of the sugar-cane and the sugar-boiling process. In the fourth book, Grainger describes slave culture on the sugar plantations of St. Christopher and offers arguments in favor of slavery and the slave trade. The fourth book also briefly discusses “Obiamen” and is one of the first texts to describe obeah for the “English reading public” (Richardson 174). Writing in the early 1760s, before the English “association of Obeah and slave revolts” had crystallized, Grainger dismisses obeah as “fraud” (174).

The Sugar-Cane was popular on first publication and was reprinted several times in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries (Gilmore 1). In 1766, a second edition was published in Dublin by William Sleater and another was published in London. In 1802, Alexander Aikman published an edition in Jamaica. The poem also appeared in various anthologies, for example, Alexander Chalmers’s The Works of the English Poets (1810), Thomas Campbell’s Specimens of the British Poets (1819), and The British Poets Including Translations, vol. fifty-nine (1822), which also included a biographical sketch of Grainger by R. A. Davenport. The final nineteenth-century publication of The Sugar-Cane was in The Poetical Works of James Grainger (1836), edited by Robert Anderson, (which included an Index of Linnaean plants names by William Wright).

The poem’s initial critical reception was mixed. Some early readers were skeptical about Grainger’s decision to use the Georgic form for a poem about Caribbean sugar production. The high seriousness associated with the genre (and particularly with conventions like the invocation of the muse), it was thought, did not suit the details of Grainger’s chosen subject. The poem is “best remembered for the circumstances of its introduction to the high literary echelons of London,” when it was read in manuscript form at the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds (Randhawa 67). In his Life of Johnson, Boswell records that “the assembled wits burst into a laugh, when, after much blank-verse pomp, the poet began a new paragraph thus:– ‘Now, Muse, let us sing of rats.’” (698). An article in the Monthly Review (which Gilmore [38] attributes to John Langhorne) excerpted large portions of the poem, but criticizes the “novelty of his subject, a manufacture unknown in the European world” which “loaded” the poem with “many difficulties – Terms of art to which the ear has never been accustomed have a peculiar uncouthness in poetry” (106). In the early nineteenth century, the poem was criticized more specifically for the idealization of the enslaved workers on the sugar plantations: an 1814 Quarterly Review article on Chalmers’s The Works of the English Poets comments that “if Grainger… metamorphosed in Arcadian phrase negro slaves into swains, the fault is in the writer, not in the topic,” (489) and Thomas Campbell is similarly critical of Grainger’s use of “the name of ‘Swains’” (88) to refer to the enslaved people on the plantations (For a detailed account of the poem’s initial reception, see Gilmore, “Introduction”).

The Sugar-Cane was republished for the first time after 1836 in Thomas Krise’s 1999 anthology, Caribbeana: An Anthology of the English Literature of the West Indies, 1657-1777, and then in 2000, John Gilmore republished the poem in a detailed critical edition entitled The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger’s The Sugar Cane. The sense among early readers that the poem’s form and its subject matter were somehow at odds has been picked up and explored by critics in the early twenty-first-century: Shaun Irlam, for example examines how the Georgic mode is “exported” by Grainger in order to “stabilize colonial social relations and domesticate the foreign, Caribbean terrains” (379). Beth Fowkes Tobin, in analysing the poem’s “georgic elements,” argues that because Grainger assigns the Georgic “rural virtue” to the “planter and not to the actual agricultural laborers, the slaves,” Grainger’s “panygeric to sugar planters and their plantations fails to be totally convincing” (224). Carl Plasa, examining Grainger’s insistence on the novelty of the “West-India Georgic” (Plasa 8) has explored the motives and methods of “Grainger’s self-fashioning as poetic trail-blazer” (11). Critics have also explored the role in the poem of Grainger’s creole and Scottish identities. Randhawa for example argues that the poem internalizes the “anxiety of ‘belonging’ and overseas acceptance which the colonial West Indian Creole craved, as a cultural outsider” (68). John Gilmore, noting that Grainger is “a doubly colonial writer… a Scotsman by birth and a Kittitian by adoption,” (35) suggests a parallel between the marginalization of Scotland and that of the Caribbean, both of which Grainger resists. For further information, see the secondary bibliography.

[1] According to Gilmore, “Grainger’s wife was Daniel Matthew Burt, whose masculine-sounding Christian names were those of prominent Caribbean families to whom she was related” (13).



Works Cited

Anderson, Robert, James Grainger and William Wright. The Poetical Works of James Grainger, M.D.: With Memoirs of His Life and Writings. Edinburgh: Stirling, Kenney and Company, 1836.

Anon. “Review of The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper; including the Series edited, with Prefaces Biographical and Critical.” In: The Quarterly Review. Vol. 11 (No. 22). London: John Murray, 1814. pp. 480-504.

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. Ed. R. W. Chapman, J. D. Fleeman and Pat Rogers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Campbell, Thomas. Specimens of the British Poets; with Biographical and Critical Notices and An Essay on English Poetry. Seven Vols. London: John Murray, 1819.

Chalmers, Alexander. The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper; including the series edited with prefaces, biographical and critical, by Dr. Samuel Johnson: and the most approved translations. Twenty-one Vols. London: J. Johnson, 1810.

The British Poets Including Translations (In One Hundred Volumes). Vol. LIX: (Grainger; Boyse) Chiswick: C. Whittingham for J. Carpenter, J. Booker et al., 1822.

Gilmore, John. The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger’s The Sugar Cane. London and New Brunswick N.J.: The Athlone Press, 2000.

Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Goodwin, Gordon . “Grainger, James (1721x4–1766).” Rev. Caroline Overy. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oct. 2007. 29 Feb. 2016.

Irlam, Shaun. “"Wish You Were Here": Exporting England in James Grainger's "the Sugar-cane"”. ELH 68.2 (2001): 377–396.

Krise, Thomas W. Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies, 1657-1777. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Langhorne, John. “Review of The Sugar Cane. A Poem.” In: Monthly Review or Literary Journal: By Several Hands. Vol. 31. London: R. Griffiths, 1764.

Plasa, Carl. Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literature of Sugar. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009.

Randhawa, Beccie Puneet. “The Inhospitable Muse: Locating Creole Identity in James Grainger's "the Sugar-cane"”. The Eighteenth Century 49.1 (2008): 67–85.

Richardson, Alan. “Romantic Voodoo : Obeah and British Culture, 1797-1807.” In: Sacred Possessions : Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean. Ed: Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. pp. 171-194.

Secondary Bibliography

Doring, Tobias. Caribbean-English Passages: Intertextuality in a Postcolonial Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Egan, Jim. ‘“The Long’d-for Aera” of an “Other Race”: Climate, Identity, and James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane.’ Early American Literature, 38 (2003), 189-212.

Fairer, David. “A Caribbean Georgic: James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane.” Kunapipi: Journal of Post-Colonial Writing, 25.1 (2003).

Morris, Michael. Scotland and the Caribbean, c. 1740-1833: Atlantic Archipelagos. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Morton, Timothy. The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Sandiford, Keith. The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Thomas, Steven W. ‘Doctoring Ideology: James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane and the Bodies of Empire’, Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 4 (2006).

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Agriculture, Caribbean, Jamaica, Obeah, Poetry, Slave Trade, Sugar

Cite this Introduction

Bond, William. "Introduction to James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1764)." The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service. 2016.


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William Bond is a PhD student in the English Department at Northeastern University. His research and...