Lowbury, Edward (Joseph Lister)

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LOWBURY, Edward (Joseph Lister)

Nationality: British. Born: London, 6 December 1913. Education: St. Paul's School, London, 1927–33; University College, Oxford (Newdigate prize, 1934, Matthew Arnold memorial prize, 1937), 1933–37, B.A. (honors) 1936, B.M., B.Ch. 1939; London Hospital, University of Oxford Medical School, 1937–39, M.A. 1940, D.M.1957. Military Service: Specialist in pathology, Royal Army Medical Corps, 1943–47: Major. Family: Married Alison Young, daughter of the poet Andrew Young, in 1954; three daughters. Career: Bacteriologist, 1946–79, and member, Medical Research Council Scientific Staff, Birmingham Accident Hospital; consultant adviser in bacteriology, Birmingham Regional Hospital Board, and founder and honorary director, Hospital Infection Research Laboratory, Birmingham, 1964–79. Editor, Equator magazine, Nairobi, Kenya, 1945–46. Visited the United States as a World Health Organization consultant in hospital infection in 1965; John Keats Memorial Lecturer, Guy's Hospital, London, 1973; visiting professor of medical microbiology, University of Aston, Birmingham, 1979. Awards: University of Birmingham research fellowship, 1957. Hon. D.Sc.: University of Aston, Birmingham, 1977; LL.D.: University of Birmingham, 1980. Fellow, Royal College of Pathologists, 1963; honorary fellow, Royal College of Physicians, 1977, and Royal College of Surgeons, 1978. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1974. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1979. Address: 79 Vernon Road, Birmingham B16 9SQ, England.



Fire: A Symphonic Ode. Oxford, Blackwell, 1934.

Port Meadow. Oxford, Blackwell, 1936.

Crossing the Line. London, Hutchinson, 1947.

Metamorphoses. Privately printed, 1955.

Time for Sale. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1961.

New Poems. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1965.

Daylight Astronomy. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, and Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

Figures of Eight. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1969.

Green Magic (for children). London, Chatto and Windus, 1972.

Two Confessions. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1973.

The Night Watchman. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1974.

Poetry and Paradox: An Essay, with Nineteen Relevant Poems. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1976.

Troika, with John Press and Michael Riviere. Stoke Ferry, Norfolk, Daedalus Press, 1977.

Selected Poems. Aberystwyth, Celtion Press, 1978.

The Ring. Birmingham, Pardoe, 1979.

A Letter from Masada. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1982.

Goldrush. Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, Celandine Press, 1983.

Masada; Byzantium; Celle: Apocryphal Letters. Bristol, Sceptre Press, 1985.

Birmingham! Birmingham! Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1985.

Flowering Cyprus. Hereford, Pointing Finger Press, 1986.

Variations on Aldeburgh. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1987.

A Letter from Hampstead: A Doctor Remembers His Patient, Bernard van Dieren. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1987.

Selected and New Poems. Frome, Somerset, Hippopotamus Press, 1990.

First Light: Eleven Poems. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1991.

Collected Poems. Salzburg, University of Salzburg Press, 1993.

Recording: The Poet Speaks 2, Argo.


Facing North (miscellany), with Terence Heywood. London, Mitre Press, 1960.

Thomas Campion: Poet, Composer, Physician, with Timothy Salter and Alison Young. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1970.

Drug Resistance in Antimicrobial Therapy, with G.A.J. Ayliffe. Springfield, Illinois, Thomas, 1974.

Physic Meet and Metaphysic: A Celebration For Edward Lowbury, edited by Yann Lovelock. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1993.

Hallmarks of Poetry: Reflections on a Theme. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1994.

Editor, with others, Control of Hospital Infection: A Practical Handbook. London, Chapman and Hall, 1975.

Editor, Widening Circles: Five Black Country Poets. Stafford, West Midland Arts, 1976.

Editor, Night Ride and Sunrise: An Anthology of New Poems. Aberystwyth, Celtion Press, 1978.

Editor, with Alison Young, The Poetical Works of Andrew Young. London, Secker and Warburg, 1985.

Editor, with Alison Young, To Shirk No Idleness: A Critical Biography of the Poet Andrew Young. Salzburg, University of Salzburg Press, 1997.

Editor, with Alison Young, Selected Poems of Andrew Young. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.


Manuscript Collections: University of Birmingham Library; State University of New York Library, Buffalo.

Critical Studies: "Edward Lowbury," in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), spring 1970, and "The Poetry of Edward Lowbury," in Agenda (London), 26(4), winter 1988, both by John Press; "Edward Lowbury Issue" of Outposts (Frome, Somerset), 164, spring 1990; by Anthony Selbourne, in Agenda (London), 31(3), fall 1993.

Edward Lowbury comments:

Poetry is an obsessional activity through which, at intervals in my medical life, I have been able to work off accumulated tension. It is for me an exploration through words of various experiences and in particular of painfully or pleasurably exciting or disturbing or conflicting experiences—love, hardship and loss, the attritions of time, childhood and age, nature and the unknown, experiences in my medical work. Situations that cause laughter as well as those that cause emotional responses seem to me suitable material for poetry. In the poem I discover verbal, visual, and metrical equivalents to represent the conflicts and ambiguities of the world about which I write. When the components shape themselves into structures, i.e., poems, with an inner tension, with what I judge to be the correct balance of thought and feeling, of harmony and discord, and when the structures give me—and others—a simultaneous feeling of surprise and inevitability, I feel I have found whatever it was I was looking for in my exploration. I usually take many wrong turnings before I find, if I ever do find, the right one. I think I can recognize when I have struck the right path and the place where I should stop, but I realize that neither the writer nor any individual critic can make categorical judgments.

*  *  *

Edward Lowbury's first collection of poems, Port Meadow, published when he was twenty-two, is graceful and pleasing but no more. His next collection, Crossing the Line, appeared in 1947, having won a competition organized by Hutchinson and judged by Edmund Blunden and Louis MacNeice. It represents a considerable advance on Lowbury's earlier work, two of the most interesting poems being "Tapiola," dedicated to Sibelius, and "The Dark Languages," written in Basic English, an early example of Lowbury's delight in tackling a technical problem.

It was not until 1961 that Lowbury brought out Time for Sale. During the war he had spent three years in East Africa as an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and some of the poems in this collection take as their theme various aspects of East African life. "The Huntsman," for example, recounts a Swahili legend, and "Mua Hills" evokes with power and unsentimental sympathy the realities of tribal life:

       Black eyes, black heads—Kamba, Kikuyu, Nandi
   Sprout like grapes, expert at hanging round
   And doing nothing; were they warriors once,
       Now gone to seed?

The remaining poems in Time for Sale display Lowbury's delight in the visible world, delicacy of perception, and compassion for men and women, especially for those who suffer the extremes of pain.

The sequence Metamorphoses, written in terza rima with lines of six syllables (Lowbury's own invention), explores with precision and wit a variety of objects: windmills, bombed buildings, a nightingale, and, most exquisite of all, a swan:

   From bill to breast a snake,
   From nape to tail a cloud
   Resting upon the lake,
   Puffed up rather than proud
   The swan in any place
   Attracts a little crowd.

One poem, "Surgery of a Burn," draws on Lowbury's experience of the operating theater. He not only describes the operation with clinical accuracy but also portrays the shock and agony experienced by those who return after surgery to the world of consciousness:

   Now sutures, bandages—the amen;
       A spider in the brain
   Tugs at its web; returning light
       Is flanked by fear and pain.

"Night Train" shows Lowbury's art at its finest. The setting is the carriage of a train in which the travelers are transfigured by the light of the moon. Lowbury sets great store by paradox, believing it to be not an ingenious verbal trick but rather a means of penetrating into the heart of the ambiguity and mystery in which our lives are shrouded. In Greek mythology the Gorgon turned men to stone, but in Lowbury's poem the moonlight that whitens and petrifies also reveals the soul. The poet's wit and acute observation are raised to the power of lyrical delight, and the poetic imagination is, like the moon, a source of illumination:

   The prosperous upstart, insolent
        To those less certain of their goal,
   Becomes a statue, shares the fate
        Of Lot's wife, draws the Gordon's eye
   And, petrified, reveals a soul.

Since Time for Sale there has been no revolutionary change of direction in Lowbury's verse, but the range and depth of his imagination have steadily increased. We may note the entrance of new themes: married love, the world of childhood, the majesty of nature, the sickness of our society, the death of men and women dear to the poet. In some of his later poems Lowbury commands a grave music appropriate to the prevailing mood of sadness, nowhere more eloquently than in "Departure," one of the most impressive poems in The Night Watchman. The mourners at the funeral of a friend and colleague

                              take away
   More of you than we leave: a restless memory
   Of sentences unfinished, kindnesses
   Never requited, moments in the sun
   Or the green valley; these rather than ashes
   And something more remote than outer space
   Compel my tears, require my requiem.

In the 1980s Lowbury published two collections inspired by places and by those associated with their history. Birmingham! Birmingham!, a celebration of the city that has been Lowbury's home for half a century, is marked by dry humor and an easy, colloquial intimacy. "Mr Hansom's Pantheon" (the Town Hall where concerts have been held for more than one hundred years) is an example of Lowbury's deftness. This is the place

   Where spring-water Sibelius conducted
   The Swan and, in the Interval,
   Asked for his double-Scotch to be topped-up—
   With whisky.

The anecdote, while not invalidating Lowbury's earlier "Tapiola," does set it in a wider perspective.

The second collection, Variations on Aldeburgh, portrays diverse facets of this small Suffolk fishing port and the surrounding countryside: buildings such as the Moot Hall, Snape Maltings, and the churches of Aldeburgh and of Blythburgh; inhabitants past and present—George Crabbe, for example, who told the story of Peter Grimes, the protagonist of Britten's opera; and some of those who created and sustained the Aldeburgh Festival. More romantic than Birmingham! Birmingham!, this volume combines the formal and the conversational with unobtrusive skill.

Another venture is a series of what Lowbury called Apocryphal Letters, the first three of which were published under the title Masada; Byzantium; Celle. They describe, respectively, the siege of Masada by the Romans in A.D. 72, the blinding of fifteen hundred Bulgar prisoners in 1014 by Byzantine Emperor Basil II, and the fate of Caroline Matilda, the youngest sister of King George III and the former queen of Denmark, who was imprisoned in a castle in Jutland. Lowbury's powers of narration and his ability to depict historical dramas and those who took part in them are equally impressive.

Lowbury's Collected Poems (1993) reprints all of the poems in the volumes published between 1961 and 1991, together with a selection from four volumes published between 1934 and 1957. The book ends with thirty-eight uncollected poems written in every decade from the 1930s to the 1990s. The final poem in the book, "79 Vernon Road," is one of Lowbury's finest achievements. In a celebration of love and a contemplation of death the poet asks,

       do I see
   A snowman we once made
   For the children? Today it looks
   Translucent, seems to move inscrutably
   Towards the window, but can't quite decide
   When it will tap the glass
   And beckon one of us to follow
   Through to the spaceless, timeless world outside.

Lowbury's devotion to his art for well over half a century has produced a substantial body of work distinguished by technical accomplishment and imaginative richness. Although his narrative and philosophical poems are of high quality, it is perhaps his lyrics and his meditations on personal themes that constitute his finest achievements.

—John Press