Lyrical poet, much influenced by William Blake, whose later work contained a strong philosophical and reflective streak
From the start, Sebastian Barker, who has died aged 68 of a cardiac arrest after suffering from lung cancer, was a lyrical poet, both technically and emotionally. Much of his work is based on song-like stanzas with a strong emphasis on rhyme, though as he matured he developed his range to include free verse and the long-line versets associated with French and modern Greek. There is also in his later work a strongly philosophical and reflective streak, which was not much in evidence in his early days. It is perhaps due to this fact that his reputation now stands higher than it did at any previous time in his life.
Less than two days before his death, there was a reading from his new book, The Land of Gold, in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. Most of the poems were read by his wife and friends, but he himself read a few from his wheelchair, his deep, musical voice edged with a poignant gruffness. It was an unforgettable occasion; he seemed touched by a kind of spiritual exaltation. It was as if, with his three daughters and many friends in the audience, he had reached completion.
Sebastian grew up in a bohemian milieu with people for whom poetry was what mattered. His mother was Elizabeth Smart, best known as the author of a lyrical prose masterpiece, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. His father was the poet George Barker, one of the stars of the neo-Romantic generation that dominated English poetry in the 1940s. Through his parents he had a lifeline to the poets of an era that was soon to become unfashionable, and he was to maintain friendships with John Heath-Stubbs and WS Graham and others for the rest of their lives. They influenced him, but he added to his inheritance something of the harder edge associated with his own generation.
Literary genealogies and cultural traditions were to prove important, reaching back beyond his parents to their sources of inspiration in the Romantic movement. William Blake is a constant presence, palpably so in The Land of Gold, which is surely his finest book. It is Blake the maker of songs who first comes to mind, but there is also a visionary thread, which links Sebastian to a tradition of mystical thought.
Those sources are on display in a trilogy of groundbreaking books: Damnatio Memoriae (2004), The Erotics of God (2005) and a curious chart of world history and European culture called The Matter of Europe (2005). They range from St Augustine through Jacob Boehme to Martin Heidegger. There is also a body of philosophical prose.
If it is Blake the poetry calls to mind, it was probably Byron whom the young Sebastian resembled. He was magnetically handsome and tended to live dangerously. In the poem Curriculum Vitae he refers to a breakdown, and a powerful sonnet sequence called On the Rocks (1977) logs the collapse of his first marriage in all its daily anguish. He had three marriages; the third – to the poet Hilary Davies– transformed everything for him. It was partly as a result of their connection that, in 1997, he was received into the Roman Catholic church. From his first two marriages he had three daughters and a son, to all of whom he was devoted.
The single-mindedness of the poetry could lead you to suppose that nothing else mattered to Sebastian, but this was far from being the case. Educated at the King's school, Canterbury, he went on to study natural science at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Science remained a preoccupation, though he later gained a master's degree in English at the University of East Anglia. He worked as a furniture restorer, a carpenter, a fireman and a cataloguer at Sotheby's.
He also proved an important public spokesman for poetry. He was on the executive committee of Pen and, from 1988 to 1992, chaired the Poetry Society. In 1997 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and, from 2002 to 2008, was a brilliantly creative editor of the London Magazine. His editorial principles were generous in their range, though there was always enlivening evidence of his own interests – from the ancient origins of human creativity to Christian mystical thought.
Like many an English poet in love with his own language, Sebastian was also a Hellenophile. He particularly admired the Greek poets of the 20th century, and it was under their inspiration that in 1983 – as he writes in his new book – "I bought a ruin in the mountains of the south-west Peleponnese for £780. The original building dated from 1789 but it had been a ruin for 60 years."
With the help of the villagers, over the next decade, he rebuilt the house, characteristically falling in love with the materials he used and the native traditions of building. He thus created a home from home, which fed into his poetry, most remarkably in the wildly spontaneous, loose-limbed sequence The Monastery of Light, which concludes The Land of Gold. It provided him, at the end of his life, with a glimpse of paradise.
He is survived by Hilary, and his four children, Chloë, Miranda, Daniel and Xanthi.
• Sebastian Barker, poet, born 16 April 1945; died 31 January 2014