Keith Sagar (1934-2013)

Keith Sagar was known to everyone working on, or interested in, the writings of Ted Hughes as a formidable personality who was always willing to share his extensive knowledge.

Keith's writings on Hughes and other authors can be accessed on his website where his works are also available for purchase.

These tributes to Keith Sagar by Neil Roberts and Terry Gifford acknowledge Keith's unparalleled services to Hughes Studies.Keith was a wonderful friend to all scholars and admirers of Ted Hughes and he will be sadly missed.

Keith Sagar: A Tribute by Prof. Neil Roberts

Keith was an outstanding scholar renowned for his work on two great writers: Ted Hughes and D.H. Lawrence. He was a critic, editor, biographer and bibliographer whose work on Lawrence earned him a lifetime achievement award from the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America. Yet it is for his work on Hughes that he will probably be most remembered. He virtually created 'Ted Hughes Studies'--a phrase that I'm sure Hughes himself would have loathed. One reason why Hughes warmed to and trusted Keith was that, having spent his entire career in Extramural Studies, he was literally 'outside the wall' of academia.

For those who knew him it is his personal qualities, even more than his scholarly achievement, that will stay in the memory. One of the most notable of these was his generosity. When Terry Gifford and I were writing Ted Hughes: A Critical Study, at a time when The Art of Ted Hughes was the only book in the field, we might have been considered rivals, but Keith was dedicated to the belief that criticism is, in Eliot's phrase, 'the common pursuit of true judgement', and he was eager to share all the information in his possession.

 He was a rare example of a critic whose work was inspired by deep personal conviction--in his case, as will be obvious to all who have read him, about the sanctity of the natural world. My most cherished memory of him is of an incident when we were travelling together in New Mexico, after attending a Lawrence conference. As we were driving Keith noticed a bird stunned in the middle of the road, a flicker, a kind of woodpecker, a beautiful sleek bird with bright red underwings, about the size of a European blackbird.  He insisted on our stopping the car, got out, and with infinite tenderness cradled it in his hands and, having assured himself that it wasn't seriously injured,  placed it safely in soft vegetation away from the road. That's what I thought about as I watched his wicker coffin being lowered into the woodland plot at his 'green' funeral in Clitheroe.

Keith Sagar: A Tribute by Prof. Terry Gifford

I was going through some very old notebooks this summer and found an undated one from a week spent discussing Women in Love with Keith at one of his Manchester University Extramural Department summer schools. I was a young three-year trained non-graduate teacher of secondary school English in Sheffield at the time and I remember this week as sheer heaven. Colin Clarke’s new bookRiver of Dissolution was at the centre of our discussions, taking us into the difficult realms of ‘The Crown’ and back into ‘The Sisters’ project. I learned two things from Keith’s approach to our seminars which I later took into my own teaching in Extramural evening classes for Sheffield University. One was his way of using silence to elicit responses. I think Keith’s willingness to let silence draw people out eventually became famous. The second was his being prepared to consider seriously any response, however tentative or outlandish, from his adult students. He could usually quote the text in supportive evidence, even if the student could not. But then he would produce counter evidence and we’d all think again.

 I emailed Keith saying that I had the date April 1970 in my copy of Clarke’s book and was that summer the year of our first meeting? The next day there came a scan of my first letter to Keith (I wrote with red ink in my fountain pen in those days) saying that I’d like to attend his course, write an essay for him, and asking him to give me a reference for a part-time B.Ed degree that I would apply for the following year. Keith’s immaculate files will contain the history of early Ted Hughes correspondence between critics.

 In 1972 my Lancaster University B.Ed was taught at Chorley College and my dissertation was on Ted Hughes, titled ‘The Anthropologist Learns to Sing’. I got in touch with Keith and he offered to pick me up and take me to his house for lunch. Lunch was easily dispensed with – a couple of baps picked up on the way. But his bungalow was memorable for each room containing a fish tank that seemed to be the length of a wall. In each tank was a single brilliant fish – very rare, of course. Anyway, Keith left me looking at photos of D.H. Lawrence in his last years and disappeared. He returned wearing the white silk jacket which Lawrence had been wearing in the photographs of him, painfully thin, that I had been left looking at. It was a moment at once breathtaking, funny and sad. The man who gave the jacket to Keith was given it by Lawrence. It is easy to forget how close it was possible to get to Lawrence’s acquaintances of you decided to specialise in Lawrence for your PhD in 1957, although, actually, this gift took place as a consequence of research for the Cambridge edition of the letters. Keith, as usual, went the extra mile (or hundred) to follow up Arthur Wilkinson’s photographs shown at an exhibition by Vivian de Sola Pinto at Nottingham University. It was from the Wilkinson family that the jacket came, neighbours when Lawrence lived at the Villa Miranda.

Of course, then came the first Ted Hughes conferences that Keith organised in Manchester where I made several friends for life and a lifetime’s exchanges of information about Hughes. It was the late Fred Rue Jacobs, the Californian collector and friend of Ted’s, who coined the phrase ‘the Ted Hughes Mafia’, but there was no doubt that Keith was the Godfather. Was it at one of these early conferences that, as we were playing darts one evening before dinner, Keith appeared, took one dart, turned his back to the board, bent down and through his legs hit a bullseye? Where did he learn that? It has to be said that at our later conferences young scholars must have found it intimidating to have the Godfather on the front row putting them right with the definitive information. But in correspondence later, they would be rewarded with any documents or information they needed.

I stayed with Keith and Melissa last August and Keith confirmed that he had no more to say on Lawrence. His Introduction to ‘Art for Life’s Sake’: Essays on D.H. Lawrence is a valedictory that is essential reading for anyone curious to know more about his approach to scholarship. In it he is keen to put on record his being forced into early retirement by Manchester University’s English Department in 1995 when his critical approach had fallen out of fashion in ‘the theory wars’. As a result Keith was initially outraged that I wanted to edit a New Casebook on Hughes representing twelve different theoretical approaches to the work. In addition to his personal bitterness about the crushing of everything his scholarship and teaching stood for, Ted had himself hated what theory had done to literary studies. I agreed with much that he said, but argued that times had changed and perhaps monolithic adherence to a theory had given way to alternative ways of reading, whether through a ‘tragic equation’, or motifs of dissolution, or gender issues. Well, he had an essay on ‘Hughes and the Absurd’. Would that be the kind of thing? So I’m glad to say that Keith’s essay will be published in the New Casebook: Ted Hughes in 2014, despite his recurring uncertainty about the enterprise, as in, again, ‘You must have mixed feelings about editing a book on Ted and theory given how much Ted hated theory ...’

 In August Keith was working on an essay on ‘Hughes and the Fitful Sixth’, as I remember, returning to Blake’s framework of the senses: ‘about Blake’s contempt for the “ratio” of the five fallen senses, and his requirement that great poets must have “enlarged and numerous senses” and “senses unknown”’. I asked for which publication or conference it was intended. ‘It’s just to keep myself occupied’, he said. I came away with the very strong feeling that Keith knew he had completed his life’s academic work, in many ways an enviable position to be in. There is a sense, at the end of the Introduction to ‘Art for Life’s Sake’, that, having given up any hope or expectation of certain achievements, Keith realises that they have come to him with a sort of redeemed satisfaction, a sort of letting go after all that scholarly striving.