Professor Keith Sagar gives Blake seminar


Keith Sagar DH Lawrence, Poet The Art of Ted Hughes The Laughter of Foxes The Achievement of Ted Hughes

Professor Keith Sagar, a legendary figure from the world of literary criticism, gave a seminar to A2 literature students on William Blake recently.

His provocative and thought-provoking readings of Songs of Innocence and Experience gave students an idea of how literary criticism can be an act of creativity as well as analysis.

What, for example, is the symbolism of a rose? After listening to students’ first thoughts, Professor Sagar steered the discussion into an exploration of an impressive range of possible meanings, all of which he rooted in examples from the history of literature. Rejecting modish nomenclature - “intertextuality” - Professor Sagar explained how writers had always read and been influenced by other writers (“of course writers actually read as well as wrote”).

His no-nonsense approach did not, however, exclude complex theoretical frameworks. Having first convinced students of the way that particular symbols – the rose, tiger and worm, for example – may be found everywhere and at all periods of history, Professor Sagar expatiated on Jung’s theory of archetypes: how such symbols articulate human psychology and, in turn, shape human society.

It is around such archetypal images, he argued, that Blake’s poetry revolves. But whilst Blake is a poet whose images have universal and timeless resonance, he is also a man of his time. Professor Sagar’s Blake is a visionary poet engaged in a mental fight against eighteenth-century dualistic thinking, raging against his age’s obsession with measurement and calculation (which Blake felt to be personified in the figure of Newton).

As Professor Sagar gave his exposition of Blake’s “fourfold vision,” students quickly saw that Blake offered “a complete vision of reality in which there is a place for tigers and lambs,” a universe charged with imaginative energy, limitless potentiality and deep spirituality, and in which “innocence” can be “recovered at the far side of experience” – the opposite, in other words, of a mechanistic universe.

Again the issue of the value of poetry arose. Professor Sagar’s answer was typically Blakean: “poetry has the task of having to re-spiritualise the world”.

Students clearly enjoyed the seminar, and bought a number of his books. Professor Sagar was also the guest of the members of the Senior Essay Society, to whom he spoke in March of his literary friendship with Ted Hughes, whose letters to him (well over a hundred) are soon to be published by the British Library.

Dr Paul Ellis, Head of English.