Keith Sagar
Literary Critic and Poet

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Cover - Literature and the Crime Against NatureLiterature and the Crime Against Nature

Chaucer Press 2005.

At the beginning of a new millennium, one problem towers above all others: how are we (as a species living what we think of as a civilized life) to survive? How, that is, are we to continue to live in an overcrowded world whose finite resources are being rapidly exhausted and whose biological life-support systems are close to breakdown? There is a widespread and fast-growing belief that tinkering with economics ('sustainable development') and local conservation measures (always too little and too late) are not enough; that what is needed is a revolution in our consciousness regarding our place in the natural world and our responsibilities towards it. These concerns span many subjects, from science to religion; but there is little mention, in all the writing and debate, of literature, least of all from academic literary critics.

Yet, as Ted Hughes has argued, the creative imagination is an essential part of our biological survival gear, to be ignored at our peril. The imagination has access to depths and connections, warning and healing truths, closed to intelligence alone. Great imaginative literature, of any age, already embodies the holistic, biocentric vision now being advocated by deep ecology.

My central argument is that most of the world's ills through history, but especially the long, now critical, ecological disaster, are the result of what the Greeks called hubris - a kind of pride which drives men, both as a race and as individuals, to regard themselves, in consequence of intelligence and technology, as outside of and superior to the natural world. I argue that imagination is the only human faculty capable of a wider and deeper vision than the anthropocentric, being capable of breaking through the hard shell of ego (whether the ego of species, race, sex, nation, culture or individual) and releasing a vision of the sacredness and miracle of the created world, the ecosystem upon which mankind wholly depends; and that nearly all the great works of imaginative, especially poetic, art, have testified to this.

We are all criminals against Nature. Western civilization has set itself to complete its subjugation of Nature. Dualism is so deeply rooted in our language and culture that we can barely think in non-dualistic, that is holistic, terms. The difference between the imaginative artist and the rest of us is that, hauled into the dock by his own imagination, he must acknowledge his own guilt and submit himself to the correction and, if he is lucky, the healing power, of that imaginative atonement. His work consists of provisional bulletins on this process, and, perhaps, glimpses of the saving vision.

The characteristic language of poetry is a language developed specifically to express and communicate relationships, connections, patterns, systems, wholes (as opposed to the analytical language of almost all other modern discourse). A formal, rhetorical, crafted language is likely to allow the ego to reassert itself. The best style is therefore styleless, transparent.

Imaginative literature has a central and essential part to play in the transformation of our consciousness from anthropocentric to biocentric which will be necessary if we are to survive far into the new millennium. The only justification for the existence of professional critics lies in their ability to assist as interpreters, teachers, enthusiasts, and publicists.

This argument is not presented theoretically (the book being opposed to theory), but by cumulative examples drawn from eighteen of the greatest writers of the Western tradition from Homer to Hughes


Review by Lindsay Clarke
in Resurgence No240, Jan/Feb 2007

Enjoying the thoughtful harvest of a sensitive literary critic:
Of all the poets who quickened the pulse of language during the course of the last century, D. H. Lawrence and Ted Hughes did most to reanimate our vision of the natural world and bring our vital relationship to its order back into heightened consciousness. Keith Sagar's earlier books were distinguished by the clear, discerning eye he brought to careful readings Of the work of both men. He is that rare kind of critic who understands that, rather than judging the great books we read, we are judged by them, and that the authors of those books accomplished their work only by undergoing the ordeals of trial themselves in the course of the writing.

The uncompromising title of Sagar's most recent and most wide­reaching book reveals from the outset both the nature of the principal charge brought against them and that of the supreme court before whose impartial judgement we all finally stand. So it's a book about literature by a professor of literature, yes; but, unusually in such contexts these days, it's a book about life, about the forces that threaten its decent survival, and about the efforts of a number of great writers to bring their imaginative vision to bear on those forces and require us to recognise the degree to which we are all implicated in them.

Yet to describe the book this way is to suggest a too programmatic approach on the author's part. Certainly Sagar has long been more alert than most academics to the environmental crisis of the age and the need for a dramatic change in the way we relate to the world around us. But his professional work as a teacher in adult education left him unusually free to develop a curriculum of study over a wide range of reading, and the preoccupations of this book have arisen out of that reading rather than being imposed upon it as scholarly propa­ganda for an ecological view of literature. As he puts it in his Foreword, "Most of the authors I engaged with, however remote in time, seemed to offer exciting connections with each other, and require to be thought about in the same context, the context of humanity's relationship with the non-human world."

The harvest of three decades of thought is gathered here in a sequence of illuminating essays that reaches from the understanding of the disastrous consequences of hubris in the Greek tragedians, through Gawain's initiatory encounter with the Green Knight, and refreshing new explorations of Shakespeare, Swift, the Romantic poets, the figure of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the poetic visions of Whitman and Hopkins, and on into the calamitous 20th century with insightful studies of Conrad, Lawrence, William Golding and Ted Hughes. The quest on which the essays take the reader is to understand how imaginative language, honestly used, can illuminate the contradictions that rack human consciousness while also embodying possibilities of regeneration.

The world of literary studies is as rife with politics (or pseudo-politics) as any other and in recent years the abstract intellectualisations of the postmodern critics and theorists attained such power that it became impossible for a book of this kind to find an academic publisher. Under that regime too much student time has been taken up not with reading primary works of literature (a term whose meaning was called into question) but with the study of literary theory, much of it written in a language of such dense, breeze-block construction that it serves little purpose other than to assure those hidden behind it of the ascendancy of the critical intellect over the creative imagination. In that respect they graphically demonstrate the countervailing side of the long debate in which Sagar is engaged: "Whether art is part of civi­isation's struggle to transcend or maintain itself independently of nature, or whether it operates in alliance with nature infiltrating and subverting civilisation in the attempt to prevent it from cutting itself off from nature's sustaining energies and values."

Though his readings are balanced and complex throughout the book, there can be no doubt where Sagar's loyalties lie. Anyone who wishes both to enhance the complicated pleasures offered by some of the finest human achievements in language, and at the same time to increase their under­standing of the role played by the visionary imagination in addressing the life-and-death issues that confront us all across the planet today, will find much to value and be grateful for in this stirring, humane and important book.

Review by Steve Taylor
author of The Fall

Literary criticism can be a narrow, hermetically sealed world, where the only reference points are other books and other literary critics. Many modern critics are distrustful of the attempt to link literature to urgent philosophical or cultural issues, or even to suggest that there can be any inherent 'meaning' within a text. However, Keith Sagar's new book. Literature and the Crime Against Nature, goes far beyond this smug self-sufficiency. Sagar is clearly aware that modern and post-modern and literary criticism is an expression of what Lawrence called the 'disembodied ego', the human intellect attempting to carve out an abstract domain for itself, in opposition to nature and the body. He makes a vital connection between literature and our present cultural and ecological predicament, as a species who have lost the sense of the sacred and our sense of connection to the natural world, and who, as a result, may be close to committing suicide.
       Literature and the Crime Against Nature is a collection of thematically linked essays covering the history of literature from ancient Greece up to the modern era, ending with Ted Hughes. The book's range is vast, covering Sir Gawain and the Green Night, Shakespeare, the Romantics, American authors like Whitman and Hawthorne and twentieth century figures such as Golding and Lawrence. All these authors have tried to express urgent psychological and ecological concerns, and in some way attempted to heal (or at least to depict) the dangerous duality between human ego and nature. The essays can be read independently, but together they constitute a sweeping narrative, tracing the human race's cultural and psychological development as expressed through literature. The narrative describes the demise of goddess religion and human beings' respect and reverence for the natural level.  Sagar describes how a new kind of ego-consciousness develops, a new kind of individuality which gives rise to myths and the stories of the heroic individual pitting his (for the new heroes were almost always male) will against nature.
      I found the essays on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Shakespeare's comedies particularly illuminating, since I was unaware that they contained such strong pagan elements. These seem to represent the last vestiges of a dying world view, a healthy and holistic relationship to nature and the human body which was being superseded by the neurotic patriarchy and anti-physicality of Christianity. Most of the later authors Sagar deals with have attempted in some sense, to rekindle this pagan holism. This is particularly true of Whitman and Lawrence, who both heroically strove to unite the sacred and the profane insisting that the physical world - including the human body - was
an expression of the divine. Sagar's essay on Whitman is brilliantly perceptive,  comparing his celebration of the world in all its squalor and filth to Becket and Eliot's repugnance to the human body and its products. A 'turd' to Becket is a thing of disgust, while to Eliot 'dung and death' symbolize the brute physicality which is diametrically opposed to the spirit, but for Whitman none of these terms have any pejorative weight, since he celebrates them as part of the sacred cycle of life .
      Keith Sagar is the author of many beautiful poems himself, and his appreciation of Whitman's and Ted Hughes' poetry is full of the perspicuity and finely tuned sense of language which you would expect from a fellow poet. It is also clear that Sagar has a similar sensibility and awareness to many of the writers with whom he deals, including Lawrence, Hughes and Whitman. To be able to understand Lawrence  you need to be at least a little  'awake' in the way that he was, to have at least an inkling of the wonder and beauty which he was acutely sensitive to. This is certainly true of Keith Sagar - as his own poetry makes clear - and this perceptual empathy runs throughout this book.
        Literature and the Crime Against Nature is pervaded with urgency and vitality, and as such is a massively healthy alternative to the narrow insularity of most contemporary literary criticism. Above all, the book is a wake up call, a reminder that human beings cannot be separated from nature, and that if we do completely lose our connection to the cosmos (as we are in danger of doing), our species will be nothing more than a foolish diversion in evolutionary history.


Introduction   Word  pdf
Chapter 1

Rebels against the Gods
The Prometheus myth; Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound; Homer: The Odyssey
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Chapter 2

Aeschylus: The Oresteia and the Superannuation of the Gods Word pdf
Chapter 3
The Curse of the Sphinx - the Theban Plays of Sophocles
Ted Hughes wrote of this chapter: You are able to make deep openings very simply. ... This chapter on the Sphinx makes it very clear - an ideal drama for our day would be those Greek dramas updated. Not translated, but totally re-imagined. Your chapter is a meaty synthesis - grandly moulded and inclusive, to my mind. But so timely.
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Chapter 4


Nature Strikes Back - The Bacchae of Euripides
Peter Redgrove wrote of chapters 4, 5 and 6: It is very kind of you to let me have a look at these very informative, well-structured and concise essays, in which, I agree, you are breaking new ground. The stage is full of mechanisms of the right hand through which you elegantly thread your way, as guide. As we come to the Natural or left hand side of the stage, in the essays you have showed me so far, everything is clearer, greener, and less populated. The women of The Bacchae are about their natural communion with nature, which will of course include the sensitivities of their menstrual cycle and its varying access to the psyche and the gods and goddesses there. Thank you for these invigorating essays.

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Chapter 5
Sir Gawain and the Green Girdle
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
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Chapter 6

Shakespeare's Marriage of Heaven and Hell
A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Merry Wives of Windsor
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Chapter 7

Shakespeare 2: The Victimization of Venus
'Venus and Adonis'; Love's Labours Lost; Hamlet; Troilus and Cressida; Othello; Measure for Measure; Macbeth; Antony and Cleopatra
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Chapter 8
Shakespeare 3: The Crime Against Caliban
The Winter's Tale; The Tempest
Barry Unsworth (author of the Booker Prize winning novel Sacred Hunger) wrote: I read the chapter with great interest and enjoyment. In particular I found your insight into Prospero's 'humanisation' as an agent of reconciliation very illuminating. I look forward very much to reading your book when it is in print.
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Chapter 9
Swift - The Gulling of Gulliver
Gulliver's Travels
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Chapter 10

Wordsworth - Nature's Priest or Nature's Prisoner? Word pdf
Chapter 11

Coleridge - The Curse of the Albatross Word pdf

Chapter 12


Emily Brontë - The Crime Against Heathcliff
Wuthering Heights
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Chapter 13 Hawthorne and the Crime against Woman.
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Chapter 14

Whitman and the Voice of Nature
Ted Hughes wrote: Your Whitman piece struck me as one of your best flights. And it brought Whitman's poetry to life - your approach seemed both new and yet spot on. By bringing his poetry to life what I mean is - you isolated the most vital element, which is so startling, so naked and stirring.
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Chapter 15


Hopkins and the Religion of the Diamond Body
Professor Robert Pogue Harrison wrote: The chapter on "Hopkins and the Religion of the Diamond Body" does a very thorough and convincing job of explicating and presenting Hopkins' conflicted and changing attitudes towards nature, providing beautiful close readings which both highlight the relevance of some of Hopkins' characteristic ambiguities and, perhaps more impressively, do justice to the importance of Hopkins' notoriously idiosyncratic rhythms. Your thesis, that Hopkins' initial inspiration from and spiritual appreciation of the natural world ultimately degenerated into a revulsion for nature by an inevitable process, is well argued with a subtle eye for the dualism immanent even in Hopkins' earlier works. In addition, the comparisons to Whitman consistently bring out the similarities in the two poets' approach to nature behind the more obvious differences in moral valence with which they interpret it. There are passages here of great power, for instance the appreciation of Hopkins' later sonnets. Your presentation not only achieves the literary critic's goal of making clearer the meanings of a great poet, but also his own more specific goal of presenting the relevance of reading such a poet, both for the power of his imagination, and for the ability of that imagination to reach beyond the egocentrism of analytic thought and into a holism that might be a powerful new way to think about the place of humans in a broader ecosystem.

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Chapter 16

Conrad - The Case of the Missing Elephants
The Heart of Darkness

Lindsay Clarke (author of 'The Chymical Wedding', which won the Whitbread prize) wrote: I liked your paper on Heart of Darkness very much indeed. It's amazing how often one can read a loved book with great care and attention and yet only begin to see the obvious when it is pointed out by someone more alert. I'm truly grateful for it.
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Chapter 17
Lawrence and the Resurrection of Pan Word pdf
Chapter 18

Golding and the Crime of Being Human
Professor Mark Kinkead-Weekes, the leading authority on Golding, wrote of chapters 17 and 18: I read the Golding chapter with great interest, almost entire agreement, and admiration at your power to deal with an oeuvre so economically and concentratedly. I thought both were triumphs of compression, and very illuminating.
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Chapter 19
Philip Larkin: Refusing the Call? Word pdf
Chapter 20


Ted Hughes - From World of Blood to World of Light
This is a shorter version of the final chapter of The Laughter of Foxes.

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During the long gestation of Literature and the Crime Against Nature, I considered, and in some cases began, chapters on several authors who never made it into the book as published: Blake, Keats, Yeats, Eliot and Larkin among them. I have now belatedly added the chapter on Larkin. The chapter on Yeats is in preparation.

Copies of Literature and the Crime Against Nature can be bought from me at £10 post free (within UK).


A good selection of websites relating to the British and American writers I cover in this book are listed on Mitsuaru Matsuoka's useful site.

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