Herbert Lomas was born on 7 February 1924 in Todmorden, West Yorkshire; his parents, Mary and Bertram, managed the Black Swan pub in the town. He attended King George V School in Southport, Lancashire, from 1935 to 1942. Many years later, his northern childhood and the life and landscape of Todmorden would form the subject matter of some of his most memorable poems.
Lomas obtained a place to read English at Liverpool University, but had to take time out from his education when he was called up for military service during the Second World War, serving as Lance-Corporal in the King's Liverpool Regiment (1943-4) and subsequently as Second-lieutenant and Lieutenant in the Royal Garhwal Rifles, Indian Army, stationed on the north-west frontier of India (1944-6). After the war he was able to resume his formal education, earning a BA (Hons) First Class in 1949, followed by an MA in 1952. He taught English for a year at Anargyrios School on the Greek island of Spetses, and then moved to Finland as a lecturer at the University of Helsinki. His mastery of the Finnish language, combined with his own skills as a poet, resulted in his acclaimed translations of work by major Finnish writers of the twentieth century, including Paavo Haavikko and Eeva-Liisa Manner - two of the most prominent post-war Finnish poets. However, his translations were not published until some time after his return to the UK; he left Finland in 1965 to take up a lecturing post at Borough Road College, Isleworth, Middlesex, which subsequently became West London Institute of Higher Education and is now part of Brunel University.
Lomas's own career as a published poet also began relatively late in life - he was 45 before his first major collection appeared. In 1961, he submitted a poem called 'The Fear' as an anonymous entry for the annual Cheltenham Festival Guinness Poetry Competition, winning second prize (the first place going to Sylvia Plath). This poem was never reprinted - as was the case with much of his early poetry, which he suppressed despite having received encouragement in the early days from both W.H. Auden and Robert Graves.
The first six poems Lomas published in the UK appeared in Michael Horovitz's anthology, Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain, published in 1969 with a dedication to American Beat writer Allen Ginsberg. He became active in the small press and poetry-reading scene, often reading his own work at events associated with the Lamb and Flag pub in Covent Garden. He developed a particularly strong and enduring connection with the London Magazine, as a major contributor of poetry and criticism; the magazine's editor, Alan Ross, became a lifelong friend. Over the years he contributed to many other literary journals and little magazines, including Ambit, the Hudson Review, Encounter, PN Review, and the Spectator.
His first full-length poetry collection, Chimpanzees are Blameless Creatures, appeared in 1969; between this and his next collection, Private and Confidential (1974), he found time to publish a non-fiction work called Who Needs Money? (1972) - an analysis and critique of capitalism from a Marxist perspective.
His poetry collection Public Footpath (1981) appeared the year before his retirement and move to Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where he lived for the rest of his life; he was active in the local creative community, and acted as President of the Suffolk Poetry Society for nine years. In 1982 he also received the Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
His collection Fire in the Garden (1984, praised by Peter Porter for its satire and sardonic humour) was followed by Letters in the Dark (1986); the latter was comprised of 52 verse meditations on faith, linked by allusions to Southwark Cathedral, which formed an exploration of faith in post-Christian times. Although this work received mixed reviews, it became an Observer book of the year, which is unusual for a poetry collection, and some claimed it as an achievement placing him within the tradition of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Always religious, he explored various forms of Christianity, ultimately being received into the Catholic Church just two years before his death.
Three poetry collections appeared in the 1990s: Trouble in 1992; Selected Poems in 1995; and A Useless Passion in 1996. The latter was one of his best-received books. It includes poems drawing on his experiences of military service during the Second World War. As he commented in the book's introduction, 'I had a cushy war', but he hoped that his poems might 'remind others of the tomfoolery, the comradeship, the cruelty, and fun, and what it was like to be young then'.
A Useless Passion also includes a sequence called 'Death of a Horsewoman', comprised of elegies to his wife Mary, who died suddenly in 1994 while out riding. This sequence was greatly admired by Ted Hughes, who was prompted to write to Lomas about it and to reflect on his failure to respond to the death of his own wife, Sylvia Plath, in writing. In one of the letters preserved among Lomas's papers, Hughes comments "I was chastened to see you do what I didn't have the wisdom (or gut) to do back in the sixties". It appears that Lomas's poems may have had some influence on Hughes's decision to publish Birthday Letters, dealing with Plath's death and their relationship, in 1998.
Hughes also admired Lomas's 2003 collection The Vale of Todmorden, which drew on his West Yorkshire childhood (some of the poems had earlier appeared in Public Footpath). Simon Hoggart wrote of the 2003 publication, "I don't know when else a time and a place have been so beautifully evoked" and it received enthusiastic reviews from other poets.
The 2009 publication, A Casual Knack of Living: Collected Poems, gathers together Lomas's nine published full-length collections and also a previously unpublished collection called Nightlights.
Overall, Lomas is difficult to categorise as a poet: according to Joanna Blachnio, "his work is remarkable for the versatility of both its form - ranging from free verse to traditional stanzaic patterns - and subject matter, where conversational poems about quotidian events appear alongside sophisticated religious meditations. This diversity makes it difficult to place him within any contemporary poetic style or school".
In her 2012 survey of contemporary poetry, Fiona Sampson groups Lomas with Dannie Abse, Alan Brownjohn, Ruth Fainlight, Elaine Feinstein, Anthony Thwaite, and Fleur Adcock, as one of the 'Plain Dealers', while Janet McCann, exploring his work from a religious perspective, suggests that his "mixture of faith in God and skepticism about the world, of exaltation and humor, of sublime and ridiculous have strong appeal for a wide swath of readers of all faiths and none".
In the field of translation, Lomas's English translations of both poetry and prose by Finnish writers are widely admired. He translated at least 14 books by Finnish authors, and his Bloodaxe anthology, Contemporary Finnish Poetry (1991), brought the work of Finnish writers to a wider audience, winning Lomas the Poetry Book Society Biennial Translation award. Also in 1991, Lomas was named knight, first class, of the Order of the White Rose of Finland for his services to Finnish literature. He was a regular translator for the quarterly journal, Books From Finland.
He was married three times: he married first wife Marie Yvonne Wright in 1951; following their divorce in 1956 he married Annukka Partanen. They divorced in 1967, and in the following year he married Mary Marshall Phelps (b. 1940); they remained together until Mary's sudden death in 1994.
Herbert Lomas died on 9 September 2011. He is survived by a son (Jeremy) from his first marriage, and a son (Matthew) and daughter (Lucy) from his third.