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Lomas, Herbert

LOMAS, Herbert


Nationality: British. Born: Todmorden, Yorks, 7 February 1924. Education: King George V School, Southport, 1935–42; University of Liverpool, 1946–49, post-graduate studentship, 1949–50, B.A. (honors) in English language and literature 1949, M.A. 1952. Military Service: King's Liverpool Regiment, 1943–44: Lance-corporal; Indian Army, Royal Garhwal Rifles, 1944–46: Second-lieutenant and Lieutenant. Family: Married 1) Marie Yvonne Wright in 1951 (divorced 1956), one son; 2) Annukka Partanen in 1956 (divorced 1967); 3) Mary Marshall Phelps in 1968 (died 1994), one daughter and one son. Career: English teacher, Anargyrios School, Spetsai, Greece, 1950–51; lecturer, 1952–64, and senior lecturer, 1965, University of Helsinki, Finland; lecturer, 1966–67, permanent lecturer, 1967–68, and senior lecturer, 1968–72, Borough Road College, Isleworth, Middlesex; principal lecturer, West London Institute of Higher Education, 1972–82. President, Suffolk Poetry Society, 1999. Awards: Poetry prize, Guinness Poetry Competition, 1961; Cholmondeley award, 1982; Observer Book of the Year award, 1986, for Letters in the Dark; Finnish Best Translation of the Year award, 1991; Poetry Book Society Biennial Translation award, 1991; Finnish State prize for translation, 1992. Knight First Class, Order of the White Rose of Finland, 1991. Member: Finnish Literature Society, 1992. Address: North Gable, 30 Crag Path, Aldeburgh, Suffolk 1P15 5BS, England.

Publications

Poetry

Chimpanzees Are Blameless Creatures. London, Mandarin Books, 1969.

Who Needs Money? London, Blond and Briggs, 1972.

Private and Confidential. London, London Magazine Editions, 1974.

Public Footpath. London, Anvil Press, 1981.

Fire in the Garden. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Letters in the Dark. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Trouble. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992.

Selected Poems. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.

A Useless Passion. London, London Magazine Editions, 1998.

Other

A Handbook of Modern English for Finnish Students (part-author).Helsinki, Werner Söderström OY, 1957.

Editor and translator, Contemporary Finnish Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1991.

Translator, Territorial Song. London, London Magazine Editions, 1981.

Translator, Wings of Hope and Daring by Eira Stenberg. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1992.

Translator, Fugue by Kai Nieminen. Helsinki, Musta Taide, 1992.

Translator, Black and Red by Ilpo Tiihonen. Guildford, Surrey, Making Waves, 1993.

Translator, The Eyes of the Fingertips Are Opening by Leena Krohn. Helsinki, Musta Taide, 1993.

Translator, Narcissus in Winter by Risto Ahti. Guildford, Surrey, Making Waves, 1994.

Translator, Two Sequences for Kuhmo by Lauri Otonkoski. Kuhmo, Kamaramusikin Kannatusyhdistys, 1994.

Translator, The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. London, Peter Owen, 1995.

Translator, Selected Poems of Eeva-Liisa Manner. Guildford, Surrey, Making Waves, 1997.

Translator, Three Finnish Poets. London, London Magazine Editions, 1999.

Translator, A Tenant Here: Selected Poems of Pentti Holappa. Dublin, Dedalus Press, 1999.

*

Herbert Lomas comments:

Why be a poet, since poetry can look like a minor art (such as making reproduction furniture) in the twentieth century? One does not choose to be a poet; one is chosen, probably by one's passions. Poems have pestered me all my life; they are my form of speech.

Shelley's A Defence of Poetry convinced me that poetry was worth devoting a life to, and Shelley's thesis is not so easily dismissed as some would like to think. I lost my Christian faith during the war but was helped to become an existentialist through Sartre and a Christian existentialist through Berdyaev. Simplifying as much as I can, it seems to me that the world has preferred Nietzsche to Christ, in various degrees of virulence, and that is what is wrong with it.

The art of poetry should first please and perhaps exalt the reader but then be a civilizing force by reminding people of their feelings, their imperfections, their humanity, their need to love and be loved, and their right to be themselves. Nevertheless, it is impossible to state one's aims shortly without sounding pretentious.

*  *  *

The quiet but distinctive voice of Herbert Lomas has been slower to gain the hearing it deserves than might have been expected. This may be partly explained by the fact that on returning to England in 1965, after some thirteen years in Finland, he decided to discard what he had written up to then and to make a fresh start. But despite the decision to turn his back on his early work, he was eventually to resurrect some of it. What he had put aside included an extended sequence of short poems recording his youthful experiences as an infantryman with the British army from 1943 to 1946. A selection of these appeared in the London Magazine in February 1995 and the whole series three years later in the volume A Useless Passion. This volume also included two new sequences, one of them "Death of a Horsewoman," in which the poet mourns the loss of his wife in lines that fix moments of grief as if in amber.

The early poems of army life show that at nineteen or twenty, and with a volume of Auden in his kit bag, Lomas already possessed a sharply observant and often sardonic eye, a disconcerting candor, and an incisive style of his own. The deaths of two men, set to guard an airsea rescue plane parked on the promenade at Dover and killed by a German shell from Calais that also destroyed the aircraft, elicit a biting comment:

   Someone in authority
   ought to have realised
 
 
   that people
   are a poor protection
   against high explosives.

That Lomas, though intent on reshaping himself, would remain very much his own man was indicated by the first small collection of his maturity, Chimpanzees Are Blameless Creatures (1969). By turns conversational and conventionally formal and employing imagery that veers between the urbane and the surreal, the poems discuss subjects as diverse as childhood terrors, sex, political and social issues, and religious belief. In later volumes Lomas has continued to examine these and other themes, such as music and family history, as well as to offer versions of Finnish poems (of which he is a notable translator) and of Horace and Valéry. There is in Lomas something of an amiable anarchist, dissatisfied as he is with current social structures and values, but he is honest enough to admit that he cannot confidently identify any clear means of improvement. What he does find clear, although it makes him uncomfortable, is that the architecture of society can seem at once "so solid" and yet be "so unaccountably deceiving."

These contradictions and perplexities lie at the core of much of Lomas's work. He is not, as he describes Jane Austen, "one of those happy authors /Who've no history or self." He speculates on the elusive nature of perception—

   Is it you I love or myself?
   Are roses red in the dark?

—and he sees mice glowing in the eyes of an owl as it hunts by infrared or perceives invisible, eerie strands of communication:

   On a night like this
   Dead people
   Can use the moonlight
   Like a telephone.

A moral pilgrimage, or in Lomas's eloquent phrase the pursuit of "the absconded divine," is the subject of his most powerfully sustained and cohesive work, Letters in the Dark (1986). This is a sequence of fifty-two poems inspired by visits to Southwark Cathedral in London. The poems discuss many of the uncertainties and dilemmas that attend the question of faith, and they do so in language that is often inspired and sometimes idiosyncratic but of consistent technical composure. This technical assurance is particularly evident in Lomas's handling of traditional stanza forms, in which rhyme is deployed with a casual deftness that conceals rather than advertises its use.

Chronologically on either side of Letters in the Dark are Fire in the Garden (1984) and Trouble (1992). The spiritual dimension is also apparent in these collections, but both, especially Trouble, are shot through with humor and paradox, reminding the reader at times of Larkin in a lighter mood. Hardy is another poet whose shade lurks somewhere at the back of Lomas's poetic persona, as, for example, in these lines on the men who dug Britain's canals:

   The navvies are all dead, and what they left is a clear
   stretch of almost stillness that's always been there.

Yeats's ghost, appropriately enough for a poet who asserted a firm belief in them, is here too. In what seems at first glance an act of temerity, Lomas has even paraphrased "The Wild Swans at Coole"—and gotten away with it—an astonishing tour de force. This is not to say that Lomas's voice is anything but his own; in fact, it is always resolutely and often captivatingly individual:

   Grief makes holes in a face
   and so does laughter. The womb's
   a hole, the soul's a hole
   and Felicity's the name of a cat
   going through a hole
   just wide enough for her whiskers.

To summarize Lomas's work in a sentence, it could be said that his poems have been written for the love of people, of life, and of God. He might say, echoing Dylan Thomas, that he would be a damn fool if they were not.

—Rivers Carew

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