PETER DANIEL STEELE, AM
PRIEST, POET, ACADEMIC
"PUBLISHING a poem," Peter Steele once said, "is like dropping a feather down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."
Yet, right to the end of his life, the poet and professor emeritus never stopped delighting in words and sharing his poetry with friends and with anyone who, like him, relished the possibilities of language and rejoiced in the mysterious features of the world.
Born a week before the beginning of World War II, he grew up in Perth, Western Australia, the eldest in a family of three boys. His father had emigrated from England at the age of 19 he became a Catholic (and a serious one) when he married Steele's mother, Jesse, an Australian of mixed English and Irish stock.
A pious boy, he grew up intending to become a priest, and from his early teens showed himself, as he put it, bookish. "As Marxists have wrath and kangaroos have grasslands, I had books," he said. "Few of them were at home, but the school library was generous in scale, and for years my Christmas present was a subscription to the Central Catholic Library."
What he called "logophilia", a "respectable form of gluttony, gorging on the printed word, took hold of me very early".
Steele was educated by the Christian Brothers, one of whom encouraged him to think of joining the Jesuits. He learnt something about them and later recalled: "What struck me was the sense that Jesuits knew what they were about. They seemed to be informed, intelligent and dedicated, and they seemed to want to be useful on a generous scale." He could have been talking about himself and the ideals that were to guide his own life.
In January 1957, Steele took two days and three nights to travel by train from Perth to Melbourne to join the Jesuits, of whom he remained a member until death. From studying at Melbourne University and completing his PhD there, he moved smoothly to making its campus a base for a lifetime of teaching and writing.
In 1993, he was named to a personal chair in English. After retirement in 2005, he became emeritus professor and honorary professorial fellow in 2006, and was awarded a honorary doctorate (DLitt) in 2008. Further honorary doctorates came from Notre Dame University (2010) and Australian Catholic University (2011).
The campus of Melbourne University and his residence at Newman College were his "local habitation", to borrow the title of a collection of poems and sermons he published in 2010: A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies. Generations of students flocked to the lectures and seminars of this soft-spoken priest. They learnt from his wise humanity, his loving eye for detail, and his unfailingly sharp imagination that found so much to appraise and rejoice in.
Steele published major works on the Irish satirist and Anglican cleric, Jonathan Swift: first An Air of Truth Apparent: A Study of Gulliver's Travels (1968) and then a longer book with the Clarendon Press, Jonathan Swift: Preacher and Jester (1978). He also wrote studies of contemporary poets, both Australians and others, Expatriates: Reflections on Modern Poetry (1985) and Peter Porter (1992), as well as a short study of Samuel Johnson and Dante Alighieri, Flights of the Mind: Johnson and Dante (1997).
A fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Steele held visiting chairs at Georgetown University (Washington, DC), the University of Alberta (Canada), and Loyola University in Chicago. He delivered the Martin D'Arcy memorial lectures at Oxford University, and later published them as The Autobiographical Passion: Studies in the Self on Show (1989).
He wrote two illustrated books of poems prompted by works of art: Plenty: Art into Poetry (2003) and The Whispering Gallery: Art into Poetry (2006). Patrick McCaughey, a former director of the National Gallery of Victoria, wrote an introduction to the first volume, and Gerard Vaughan, also a director of the NGV, wrote a foreword to the second. Steele also published other volumes of poetry: Word from Lilliput (1973), Marching on Paradise (1984), Invisible Riders (1999), and The Gossip and the Wine (2010).
White Knight with Bee Box: New and Selected Poems, which appeared in 2008, was awarded the Philip Hodgins Medal for poetry in that year. In April last year, he received the Christopher Brennan Award, given by the Fellowship of Writers for "lifetime achievement in poetry".
From 1985 to 1990, Steele was provincial superior of the Australian Jesuits. When he finished that term of office, he recalled: "The Irish joke, that when a man becomes a bishop he will never again eat a bad meal or be told the truth, is exactly reversed when it comes to being a provincial. He eats, on his peregrinations, a lot of very strange food, and he is told more truth than he can easily deal with." As for the peregrinations, "my predecessor told me that he had travelled half a million miles in his six years' stint, and I would have done all of that, within Australia and beyond".
For many years Steele preached the Sunday homily, whether at Newman College within Melbourne University, at Georgetown University, or wherever else he found himself in the world. Meticulously crafted, these homilies offered a feast of insight, tackling universal questions and issues. They introduce an extraordinary range of subjects: from Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons to Shakespeare's Richard II, from the story of the Prodigal Son to the image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, from a travel agency named Please Go Away to reflections on the nature of heaven. Steele published 86 of these homilies in Bread for the Journey (2002).
A final book, a collection of poems and essays titled Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry, was launched at Newman College on June 12, the day after he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday honours.
In a wheelchair, he was present at the launch to receive long and repeated applause from a large crowd but could speak very little. A friend of 45 years, Professor Chris Wallace-Crabbe, read two of the poems from the new collection.
Diagnosed with cancer of liver in late 2006, Steele faced operations, chemotherapy and blood transfusions with gentle courage, realism and never a touch of self-pity. He moved with calm faith to a peaceful death at Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew, aged 72.
He was cherished and loved by his family, students, fellow Jesuits, academic colleagues, and fellow poets not least by the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Since he was born in the same year but a few months before Steele, Heaney called him "young Steele".
As poet, priest and preacher, he touched the lives of those who met him in academic settings and beyond. He never failed in his affable concern for others, insatiable curiosity about all things human and divine, and restless.
He is survived by a brother, Jack.
Gerald O'Collins, SJ, AC, was a lifelong friend of Peter Steele.