- Insect PoeticsJames Grainger, Personification, and Enlightenments Not Taken
Since the recuperation to the canon of Scottish-born poet and physician James Grainger’s work, scholars have concentrated on book 4 of his West Indian neogeorgic The Sugar-Cane (1764) as the portion of his oeuvre with the most contemporary relevance. Here Grainger finally turns from discussions of what seem entirely prosaic topics like the care of West Indian soil (book 1), threats to the cane crop (book 2), and the conversion of raw material to commodities (book 3) to take up a problem that if it strikes readers as equally unpoetic is at least of interest to twenty-first-century audiences. Here in book 4 the poem focuses on the African-born slave population that cultivated the sugar crop, a topic relevant to scholars working to track the lives of those subjected within an emerging modernity.
While twenty-first-century readers have turned critical attention to the poem’s fourth book, Grainger and a number of his eighteenth-century readers took more interest in its second. Writing from St. Christopher (St. Kitts) to correspondents in the high-culture London literary coterie in which he formerly circulated, Grainger repeatedly suggested that this second book was the poem’s centerpiece. In a letter to Thomas Percy he wrote that the “second book . . . I must tell you it is my favorite one of the whole” (Nichols 279).1 Eighteenth-century metropolitan reviewers by and large confirmed Grainger’s high estimation of his second book, excerpting large portions of it along with their reviews (Gilmore 39–44).2 Grainger may well have particularly esteemed his second book because of its account of massing tropical insects and other overwhelming West Indian phenomena like hurricanes. In charging the poem with description after description of such phenomena, he intensified the georgic mode’s formal challenge of exploiting the tension between the high and the low so as to reveal the high [End Page 299] in the low.3 It was in his second book’s rills on plantations’ teeming insect life that he might most fully exercise his poetic power by using aesthetic form and figure to show that low West Indian topics could incite pathos in readers, in so doing integrating these themes into a metropolitan culture structured by sensibility.4 Hoping to burnish the poem and his reputation, Grainger revised the second book of the poem more substantively than any other. Between the 1762 manuscript draft of the poem he sent to London and the edition of the poem published in 1764 (the only edition Grainger saw through from start to finish before his death in 1766), he made a series of revisions to book 2, most of which intensified the threat posed by West Indian natural phenomena in order to crystallize the book’s structuring problem: if, and how, British aesthetics and other cultural forms (natural history and agriculture, most obviously) might prove adequate to West Indian phenomena (fig. 1).5
Grainger aims to neutralize the power of the West Indian phenomena he describes through the deft deployment of personification, which was the key literary figure eighteenth-century poets used to manage the base and staggeringly diverse topics typical of neogeorgic poetry (Wasserman; Chapin; Keenleyside). The newly named trope personification worked to reveal, and in so doing to catalyze in readers, a feeling or spirit that suffused the various themes and scenes of the neogeorgic. Commodity exchange, backcountry farming, colonial entrepôts, Scots shepherds, clouds, American vegetables, cows, birds, soil, Persian traders, and medicine could be justifiably brought together when personification revealed a similar affect moving through each.
In the georgic and neogeorgic tradition in which Grainger’s poem participates, the insects with which he fills his second book are key vectors for personification’s inspiriting effect and synthesizing operation. For instance, in James Thomson’s massively popular The Seasons (1726–30), from which Grainger draws liberally, insects function as figures for the animating process that poetic personification triggered. Thomson implores the muse to
let the little noisy summer-race Live in her lay and flutter through her song: Not mean though simple—to the sun allied, From him they...