The Sugar-cane. A Poem (1764): A Scholarly Introduction
By: William Bond
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 traveled to St. Christopher, where he married Daniel Mathew Burt (whose masculine name was not uncommon for her family). Grainger composed The Sugar-Cane while traveling between plantations, working as a physician. In addition to The Sugar-Cane, he authored a treatise on the management and medical treatment of slaves, An Essay on the common west-india diseases and the remedies which that country itself produces. To which are added, some hints on the management, &c. of Negroes (1764) in which he advocated for the “science” of slave management. Grainger died on St. Kitts in 1766.
In the preface to the poem, Grainger calls The Sugar-Cane a “West-India Georgic.” The term “Georgic” recalls Virgil’s Georgics, placing the poem in the contexts of classical and eighteenth-century British traditions of poetry. The elements of Grainger’s poem combine rural subject matter, Baconian science, and the representation of national identity. It is organized into four books of blank verse. The first book describes the conditions most favorable 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.”
The Sugar-Cane was popular in its first publication and was reprinted several times throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1766, a second edition was published in both Dublin (by William Sleater) and London. It was also reproduced in Jamacia in 1802 by Alexander Aikman. The poem also appeared in numerous anthologies, including 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.59 – 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 of 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) was thought not to 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. In his work, The Life of Johnson, James 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.’” . An article in The Monthly Review (which Gilmore attributes to John Langhorne) excerpted large portions of the poem, but criticized the “novelty of his subject, a manufacture unknown in the European world” which “loaded” the poem with “many difficulties – [including] terms of art to which the ear has never been accustomed have a peculiar uncouthness in poetry.” In the early nineteenth century, the poem was criticized more specifically for its idealization of enslaved workers on 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 the writer, not in the topic,” and Thomas Campbell is similarly critical of Grainger’s use of “the name of ‘Swains’” to refer to enslaved people on plantations.
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”. Beth Fowkes Tobin, in analyzing 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.” Carl Plasa, examining Grainger’s insistence on the novelty of the “West-India Georgic” has explored the motives and methods of “Grainger’s self-fashioning as poetic trail-blazer.” Critics have also explored the role in the poem of Grainger’s creole and Scottish identities. Beccie Puneet 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.” John Gilmore, noting that Grainger is “a doubly colonial writer… a Scotsman by birth and a Kittitian by adoption,” suggests a parallel between the marginalization of Scotland and that of the Caribbean, both of which Grainger resists.
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How to cite this scholarly introduction:
Bond, William. “The Sugar-Cane. A Poem. (1764): A Scholarly Introduction” The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2016.