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ELH 68.2 (2001) 377-396

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"Wish You Were Here": Exporting England in James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane

Shaun Irlam

[N]obody can tell me any thing of the Charibbean poetry; indeed, from what I have seen of these savages, I have no curiosity to know aught of their compositions.

--James Grainger to Bishop Thomas Percy,
Basseterre, 25 July 1762

I had rather not be talked about hereafter, than talked of as an indifferent poet.

--Grainger to Percy, Basseterre, 18 April 1763 1

As Raymond Williams has shown in The Country and the City, something called "the English countryside" is already a fully discursive entity by the seventeenth century, synthesized and regulated by an impressive variety of aesthetic, literary, and ideological codes. 2 Laura Brown further demonstrates in her work on Alexander Pope and more recently in Ends of Empire that the ideological labor of pastoralizing and naturalizing mercantile-capitalist social relations continued unabated in the eighteenth century. 3 If anything, the literary and aesthetic making of the English countryside in the image of pastoral ideals acquires greater urgency as the very gap between agrarian ideal and material realities becomes more palpable. John Barrell, in his readings of Thomson and Dyer, for example, has shown what severe strains georgic and pastoral myths of the English countryside are under as they seek to contain and represent a rapidly diversifying and heterogeneous mercantile society in the eighteenth century. 4 Within the context of these readings of English loco-descriptive, georgic, and pastoral verse as distinct ideological forms, I propose to examine James Grainger's quirky 1764 poem in four books entitled The Sugar-Cane.

The Sugar-Cane, described by Grainger as "a West India georgic," appeared in May 1764. 5 Although it is a neglected work today, Grainger's poem was hailed by no less a reviewer than Samuel Johnson, who wrote: "we have been destitute till now of an American poet, that could bear any degree of competition." 6 The poem is today remembered, if at all, [End Page 377] for the mirth it provoked among Johnson and his circle. 7 This inconsistency of Johnson's public and private opinions nevertheless discloses some ambivalence in the poem's general reception. I shall have more to say about that episode in literary history later. Nonetheless, the poem is symptomatic of the way in which the considerable classical prestige of the georgic form was marshaled during the eighteenth century to produce, stabilize, and legitimate an agrarian-capitalist organization of English and colonial countrysides in idyllic and extra-economic terms. While certainly no striking accomplishment as poetry, it illustrates the eighteenth century's implicit trust in, and exploitation of, in Edward Said's words, "the authority of recognizable cultural formations" for the reproduction of social relations. 8 It also, as we shall discover, discloses at once the limitations of the classical genre to respond to the Caribbean colonial geography and the abiding strain European literary forms are under to respond adequately to exotic peripheries. Indeed, the literature of the Mediterranean archipelago has seemed to many an obvious precursor to its New World counterpart. No less a figure than Derek Walcott, in his epic poem, Omeros (1990), has recently turned once again to that archipelago of antiquity for inspiration in naming the Caribbean. Peter Hulme delicately remarks that in the Caribbean "a Mediterranean discourse is constantly stretched by the novelty of an Atlantic world." 9 Remarking on the constraints placed by genre on Grainger's experiments with the georgic in the context of the Caribbean, one scholar comments:

James Grainger . . . was clearly moved to wonder and delight by the fecund and exotic splendor of the West Indies, but his poem The Sugar-Cane (1764) gives expression to that delight much more in its footnotes than in the text. Within the poem enthusiasm is constricted by the neo-georgic mode in which it is cast. This is a cogent example of ebullient content being constricted and constrained by form . . . In language and in form the response of poets to "abroad" is codified. The...


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