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 wide-reaching 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 civilisation’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.

Lindsay Clarke’s latest novels are The War at Troy and The Return from Troy.