Just before Christmas, the Rylands acquired the archive of poet Herbert Lomas (1924-2011), who was born 90 years ago today.
- Portrait photograph of Herbert Lomas taken by Tom Southern in 2009. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Southern.
Although Lomas lived for the last 29 years of his life in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, he was born in Todmorden, West Yorkshire (where his parents ran the Black Swan pub), and educated in Southport and Liverpool. His northern childhood formed the subject matter of some of his most memorable poems, published in Vale of Todmorden (2002).
His archive, presented to the Library as a gift by his family, contains material reflecting the whole of Lomas’s career – as a soldier in the Second World War, a lecturer in Finland and later the UK, an acclaimed translator of Finnish poetry, and a prize-winning poet in his own right. His poetic career began relatively late in life: initially encouraged in his writing by figures like W.H. Auden and Robert Graves, he was 45 before his first major collection appeared in 1969, the same year in which six of his poems appeared in Michael Horovitz’s famous anthology, Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain. Lomas became active in the small press and poetry-reading scene, and published in many little magazines. In particular he developed a strong and enduring connection with the London Magazine and its editor Alan Ross, who became a lifelong friend; their extensive correspondence is preserved in the archive.
Lomas’s work was wide-ranging, in form, tone and subject matter. One of his best-received poetry collections was A Useless Passion (1996). It includes a sequence called ‘Death of a Horsewoman’ consisting of elegies to his wife Mary, who died suddenly in 1994 at the age of only 54, while out riding. This sequence was greatly admired by Ted Hughes, who was prompted to write to Lomas about it; in one of his letters in the archive, he regrets his failure to respond in poetry to the death of his own wife, Sylvia Plath, commenting ‘I was chastened to see you do what I didn’t have the wisdom (or gut) to do back in the sixties’. Lomas’s poems may have had some influence on Hughes’s decision to publish Birthday Letters in 1998.
‘Writer’s Workshop at Lumb Bank’, one of Lomas’s Todmorden poems, reflects on the industrial heritage and changing landscapes of his childhood home in West Yorkshire, and on what has grown up in its place. Lumb Bank, near Heptonstall, was originally a mill owner’s house, subsequently purchased by Ted Hughes, who later leased it to the Arvon Foundation, which runs creative writing courses. Click on the image for a closer look at the poem.
Lomas – always known as Bertie to his friends – was hugely prolific, and the archive contains many drafts of poems, plays and stories, as well as an unpublished autobiography. Amongst the earlier papers, there are notebooks dating back to the 1950s which include diaries, dream diaries, drafts of essays and reviews, notes towards poems, novels and plays, and random ideas or jottings, ranging from the sublime to the hilarious (one of my favourites being ‘The Cat’s Book of Etiquette’, attributed to ‘Amelia’, feline companion to a member of the aristocracy). From the other end of Lomas’s life, there are notebooks containing rough ideas and drafts of poems dating from as late as 2011, shortly before his death.
Lomas was an enthusiastic adopter of computer technology, often printing out his poems and amending them by hand. Several different versions of this poem, in which Lomas reflects on his wife’s death, are included in the archive. It is taken from his final (unpublished) collection Nightlights; the version which appeared in his Collected Poems takes his minor handwritten amendment here into account, omitting his initials from the fifth stanza. Click on the image for a closer view.
We have already embarked on listing the collection so it can be made available to researchers. Thanks are due to Lucy and Matthew Lomas for donating the archive to the Library, Professor Peter Dickinson for taking such good care of the collection and donating further related material, and Christopher Matthew, who has also donated some papers relating to Lomas.