Dr. James Grainger, 1721-1767; “Come, Muse, Let’s Sing of Rats”

Grainger comes up as candidate for worst English poet of all time in the anthologies, and  the title line is cited as an opening so unintentionally droll as to have brought down the house  when he first declaimed it in public.

Good joke.  It was not the opening of an epic poem, but rather part of longer poem, and misquoted besides:

“Now, Muse, let us sing of rats.”

Okay, so who is the fellow and what’s up with the rats?  I mean to say – rats?

James  Grainger was by training a physician (apprentice to the Edinburgh surgeon Mr Lander), which qualified him as regimental surgeon to Pulteney’s Regiment, in which he served  during the Scottish Rebellion of 1745.  London, however, beckoned, and he sold up and moved in, hoping to set up a medical practice there.

It didn’t flourish,  though he did use his ample spare time to write up some medical treatises, including a paper on the use of Lime Water as a cure for Dysentery and a longer work on diseases of the army, Historia Febris Intermittentis Armatorum  (1753).  Not much came of those either, and he now turned to verse, publishing his “Ode on Solitude,” well regarded in its day.

It was a short slide from that to becoming a hack. Perfectly respectable following, let us hasten to add, many young men of liberal education and modest means wound up as ink stained wretches. Job lot work for others, but it paid the rent.  On his own bat, Grainger  produced A Poetical Translation of the Elegies of Tibullus.

He was amiable and agreeable company and soon fell in with an admirable crowd including Dr Johnson,  Sir Joshua Reynolds and Tobias Smollett (with whom he fell out – Smollett criticized his working for low wages (“condescended to piece the compilations of superannuated dulness at the bookseller’s lowest price”), Grainger criticized him for writing dirty books).

With neither medical training nor writing bringing in enough money, Grainger got a physician’s post  on the island of St Christopher’s. By good fortune, one of his fellow passengers to that island, wife of the governor Matthew William Burt, came down with small pox.  Good fortune because the governor ‘s  sister was also on board.  He nursed the wife through the illness and married the sister once they all arrived on the island.  This arrangement brought in a whole slew of useful connections and besides his thriving medical practice, he became a planter himself. A reasonably successful one, it appears.

Hence his great poetical work, The Sugar Cane, the poem where the gut splitting line occurs.  Or rather, occurred.

In the fashion of the time, he, having returned to England, was reading a draft of the thing at a gathering at when  according to Boswell, “after much blank verse pomp, the poet began a new paragraph thus:

“Now, Muse, let’s sing of rats.”

And what increased the ridicule was, that one of the company, who slyly overlooked the reader, perceived that the word had been originally mice, and had been altered to rats, as more dignified.”

So basically he was running a late draft by a writers group to see how it played.  Obviously badly enough that the line does not appear in the final version of the poem.

But really, the Sugar Cane? What was he thinking?

As a classically educated man of his time, he was thinking of Vergil’s Georgics, of course.  A long poem on agriculture and agronomy, a perfect subject about which he presumably now knew a good deal,* and suitable for his fellow planters,  for one thing.  The writer of that time had a smaller audience, and as a class these men would have been well able to afford a book that was as close to their hearts as this one was.  Books were much prized in those colonies to pass the interminable days.

Johnson, we are told, he did not think the Sugar Cane a worth while subject for serious poetry – “One might as well write the ‘Parsley-bed, a Poem;’ or ‘The Cabbage-garden, a Poem.”  After which he fell into one of those giggling fits that overtook him when some slight absurdity captured his mind.  But then, Johnson had a rather mixed view on the man in general – not much one for Scotsmen, was Johnson.

The hiccough at Reynold;s place seems not to have have had much immediate effect.  The offending line was struck in the published version which went out to the world and came back with rather good reviews.   For our times, it’s about as interesting as you would expect, but if you’re really into the subject of colonial sugar trade, it’s actually worth a look.  Laugh if you must,  but a little credit where credit is due.  Dr. Grainger was a man of more parts than one simple unfortunate turn of phrase.

And that rat line was apparently part of an attempt to introduce a bit of facetia into the work, a “parody of Homer’s battle of mice and frogs” according to Grainger’s friend Thomas Percy (Bishop of Domere), who regretted the passage being cut.

As do we all.

As to Grainger, he returned to his place at St. Christopher and died in 1767 of fever.   A merciless place, the 18th century Caribbean.  Not even the expertise from his An Essay on the more common West India diseases, and the remedies which that country itself produces; to which are added, some hints on the management of Negroes could save him.

(At least one portrait was made of the fellow, but it has since disappeared.)

John Gilmore, The Poetics of Empire: A Study of Jame’s Grainger’s The Sugar Cane

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