I last saw Peter Levi in a laneway near the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I think in 1989. He was unsteady, looking in various directions, apparently unable to make his way in a place where he had spent most of his life. I was surprised to see him like this and called out. He seemed pleased to hear a voice he recognized but did not look precisely in my direction. He said, "I've lost my eyesight, temporarily. I am going to buy shoe-laces in the Turl. Will you walk with me." Late for an appointment, I led him down the next street to the shop he wanted, and then told him I had to go. He looked a little shocked that I would leave him there to find his own way back, and said good-bye.
It is an odd picture to hold in mind, one of the finest English poets of the late twentieth century groping his way along in a quest for shoe-laces. Whatever I did that afternoon, my time would have been better spent leading him back to his college. Years later, I sent him a letter congratulating him on his collection Reed Music (1997); he responded, with typical modesty, that he was glad to hear from me and was surprised at the reversal in our positions¨where I had once waited on his opinion as a teacher, he was now delighted to hear what I thought of his poems. He also said that he had gone permanently blind and that his letter was being signed for him.
The final complications of diabetes killed him at the age of 68 on 1 February 2000. By that time, he enjoyed an outstanding reputation, especially among other poets. He was encouraged early on by W. H. Auden. Among his contemporaries, he was venerated by P. J. Kavanagh, Anne Stevenson, John Wain and Elizabeth Jennings. The poet John Heath-Stubbs wrote of him: "His is certainly one of the most authentic and original, perhaps one of the few major talents of his generation." Indeed, at his death an obituary in the Daily Telegraph, reprinted in the National Post, complained at length about his scholarly lapses, then allowed itself a remarkable claim: "His best collections of verse, which have a strong sense of the visual and the spiritual, include Gravel Ponds (1960) and Shadow and Bone (1989). Better still are his elegies for friends¨some of the best ever writtenÓ" These elegies, collected in The Rags of Time (1994) are probably his masterpiece, showing the full range of his enormous talent in a single work.
Still, there is something about Levi's sensibility that was most at home in short compositions. Viriditas is a posthumous collection assembled by his widow, Deirdre Levi, to whom nearly all his books were dedicated after he left the Jesuits for married life in 1977. She describes how these last poems were written: "Ó he could see trees and buildings better than people, who might often appear to him with no heads. He missed seeing the stars. He could not, however, read at all during his last two years, however magnified the letters, so these poems he mostly scribbled out, not being able to read them through." They were then transcribed after "deciphering and dictation." Many of the poems reflect the landscape around his home in Frampton-on-Severn in Gloucestershire, which she describes thus: "Aeroplanes are seldom heard, but instead flying swans and formations of geese. There are a good many cormorants and herons, and plenty of larks and curlews. Peacocks roam freely."
His fading eyesight, his love of landscape, and his expectation of death interlace through poem after poem, with gentle brush-strokes of surrealism:
The loose trees grazing in the park
against a ground of Lincoln green
uncovered, but the fields were dark
and August leaves were limp and lean.
It was the shadow between leaves
that made the evening trees look dark,
it is the lighted sky that heaves
the sunlight high above the park
dropping shade between leaf and leaf
until the hills of green we see
seem shadow-dunes, and heights of life
go black as walls, tree after tree.
As he grew older, his spirituality expressed itself less in the oratorical mode that he mastered in the early 1960s than in the subtle description of natural things. Indeed, his approach to the inner life relied invariably on landscape imagery. The mysteries of consciousness and the disappearance of time are often represented as caverns or grottoes underlying a visual world that is less and less accessible:
The equinoctial gales bellowed and passed,
we slide into the long nights and the dark days
woods sicken and the leaves fall away fast
the vixen runs through ground-mist and moon haze
it was the darkened mornings taught the Muse
daily to come to Milton blind in his bed,
no bird-chorus nor summer's air confuse
that chanting, tranquil water-song of the dead.
So the moon melts away, the planet turns,
heaven's fire grazes my neighbour's rooftop,
only towards morning one bright star burns
while hollow caverns of the earth fill up.
W. B. Yeats, whose grand gestures are much feared by contemporary poets, makes several appearances in the book. Levi, with his modest self-possession, knows how to receive the guest. Like Yeats in the "The Circus Animals' Desertion", he fears that he can no longer write poems, even on his best themes:
There was book-learning, my lost powers,
and religion once in an ocean of grass:
now wings creak in the withering sky, birds swim in glass
and I can taste the stones of ruined towers.
The poems die away to housedust on the tongue
their season is like death, it will not return
out of that darkness where the starlight burns
out of the dead gardens and the times' distress.
No matter I suppose, because night will fall,
just one old poet wandering along the world's edge
fingering the dead strings for the moon's old privilege
and the lake's surface for its last bird-calls.
The poem that begins with Yeats's imagery is distinctively Levi's by the second stanza, and in the last lines could be no one else's.
More than anything, this book turns a steady gaze on the body's decline and the nearness of death:
My old brown coat for the year's shortest days
with the wind coming icy out of Wales
when the sun has hardly the energy to rise
and slowly down the river pools he sails.
Now snow is on the Marlverns and Manhattan
glitters from the loop line like Samarkand
the painted planes whirl like a carousel,
while here the snow lies crisp over the land.
But room by room I can hear waterfalls
loose from their pictures with a roar of doom.
I take my shoes off and I sigh downstairs
but hear them echoing from room to room.
The persona's modesty is the key to such a poem. The world is touched with mortality, but the terribleness of the change is known not so much in the snow that falls on Manhattan or Samarkand, but in the quiet places of a domestic life where the deluge will at last break.
While there are some superb religious poets writing in English, Levi, almost uniquely, has made quietness the province of his poetry. Without loss of compassion or social concern, Levi has managed to write out of a stillness that certainly eluded T. S. Eliot, R. S. Thomas and Geoffrey Hill; it has allowed him to look with gentleness and steadiness on the most sorrowful things. His work is characterized by an extraordinary technical skill, creating resonances of language that are wholly his own, and in articulating an aspect of humanness that is otherwise hidden he has done what great poets do. ˛
Richard Greene is a poet and an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto.