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‘Muse Suppress the Tale’: James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane and the Poetry of Refinement


Carl Plasa, Reader, Critical and Cultural Theory / English Literature, School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University

Keywords: sugar; slavery; Caribbean; poetry; eighteenth century

James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane (1764) is a work notable both for its foundational role in the Anglophone Caribbean literary tradition and the extensive technical knowledge of sugar production which it exhibits. Yet the text is as much a poem of evasion as display, censoring the racial and sexual oppression intrinsic to the culture of the slave plantation. What is significant about The Sugar-Cane’s gaps and silences is the parallels they suggest between aesthetic and economic orders, the making of the poem and the making of the sugar it celebrates: Grainger’s text excludes from itself those aspects of slavery the genteel reader might find unpalatable, just as the planter refines out from his sugar those things which threaten its purity (and profitability). Despite such discursive vigilance, however, what The Sugar-Cane seeks to expunge remains stubbornly present, appearing in displaced, distorted and fragmentary forms, which undermine the saccharine portrayal of slavery its author promotes.