The bad and better days of Thomas Good
Thomas Good by Matthew Smith (detail)
Once there was a joy which filled heaven and earth and woke me in the night and refreshed me by day. But never knowing the source of this joy, I could not give it a name, nor did I understand that it was joy. It was so complete that it covered the mountains and the sea and the green meadows. The trains which passed and the trams on the hill were too good to be true. Then there came spikes in the dark.
(“Once Upon a Time”)
In me two countries meet
Fused in the void
Severed by a sordid history …
Thomas Alfred Good was born in 1901 into an “almost mid-Victorian” household in Beeston, Nottinghamshire. His father Francis Henry Good, an ex-actor, latterly confined to a position in the family firm of grain importers, lost heavily in financial speculations and died abruptly, reducing his family to “genteel poverty”. Good’s childhood was mostly spent “energetically and idyllically,” but with frequent periods of “anaemia and nervous exhaustion.” His time at All Saints’ School at Bloxham, a Woodard and Oxford Movement institution, moulded his Christian faith into a high Anglican stance, leading him to Pembroke College, Oxford and then to theological college to train for the ministry.
I was of another clay, born in the dank and the flat
Stumbled on lilies of the valley and the stickleback;
To find a world’s a world, a thought a shape;
Pranced like the rest on bicycles, made my good communions, honey
Strangled the juicy seed, and made myself go phony.
Then was it merciful to breathe
Conventual silence, reluctant hours
When doctrine baffled, but the soul
Restrained the body …
An “unconsummated love-affair” then pushed him, “with the aid of an illusory suspicion of impotence,” into an unfortunate vow of celibacy; with “the healthy flow of the rising instincts all diminished,” he adopted a heavily ascetic and contemplative lifestyle.
What oracle of innocence or black-letter saint
Enforced delay, sharp torture of restraint.
He was ordained in 1925 to a parish on the edge of Nottingham where, despite his pastoral care for the local mining community, his “Romanizing” improvements were not well received. Moving to a more sympathetic curacy in East London, he fell for a girl in his bible class; they agreed to become “lovers in the platonic sense.” The resulting torment induced “six months’ insomnia and a general fear of life,” the shattering of his sense of vocation and the agony of prolonged “institutional treatment”:
With Freud to his father he battered his head against the wall
Of complexes and accidy engendered by the fall
Acquitted himself of grief in isolation from the written word
By a circuitous route made up his debt to mammon and the flesh …
The physical pain of a male virgin with normal instincts was incredibly extenuating, like being stretched on a rack with constant pulsation of all the sexual glands which caused frantic restlessness. Drugs and douches were administered for several months, and from the shock I emerged bewildered, anxious, exhausted. In this state I continued for two years, until one day when I was in a state of unusual dejection, a male nurse threw a magazine with a cover-girl on the bed. I reacted well, and from that moment determined to enterprise the life of the instincts … I had never felt so gloriously well …
Retiring immediately from the church, Good married Mary, his bible class pupil.
She was my bird of hospitality in whitest winter
She was my goose of spring, pools in her green eyes,
Won me and warned me, gave me the faithful itch, and the smart
You get at the swing-boat climax of sense when love curdles
A happy singing in my ears, seepage of oblivion in the soothing street.
The couple settled in leafy Godalming in Surrey, Good to a life of writing, supporting himself by reviews and lit crit. Finding his attempts at novels “weary,” he decided to embrace poetry; though “only just emerging from a long spell of Swinburne and the pre-Raphaelites,” he moved on swiftly to Pound and Dylan Thomas, and then to the French symbolists and modernists, particularly Apollinaire, Paul Eluard, Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy. A relapse into anxiety in 1937 prompted a move, with wife and young son, to convalescence in Aix-en-Provence. Here he read profusely in French and developed his writing, contributing to Les Cahiers du Sud and transition, and befriending the poet Joë Bousquet (“the invalid Cathare of Carcassonne”).
War and invasion brought the Good family back to England, Pimlico, the Blitz and the sympathetic acquaintance of Michael Hamburger, Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne. These and other Fitzrovian contacts of the early ‘forties brought him closest to an established reputation, and his poems, translations and articles on Jacob, Reverdy, Apollinaire and Aragon appeared in Poetry Quarterly, Poetry London, New Road and Transformation, all broadly neo-romantic in stance.
His poems of this period were collected in his Overture, published in 1946 by the obscure and short-lived Oxford magazine Counterpoint. In a rather crowded review of new poetry collections in Poetry Quarterly for Summer 1946, Roland Gant picked out from Overture the “terse, bitter imagery” of Good’s observations of “Westminster”:
Once again in the park, consider the lilies,
The blackcoat’s rebate, the typist’s small trauma,
The pregnant sweetheart on the kerbstone of victory,
Muffle the cadenza of grief from the script of memory.
Despite the encouragement and recognition, Good found Soho boho less than congenial, and in poems such as “Ballad of the Coffee An’” (“a notorious London night haunt frequented by spivs, other undesirables, and aspirants to the arts”) he recoiled at “the tortuous faces / Gathered in a basement den”; “the lecher and the looter / Haunted by the world’s indifference”; “The Jazz fiends crooning to each other, / Nonchalant lackeys of the future” and “poets with furred tongues / Who flew in droves and pecked each other’s parings.” Yet in this poem he is happy enough to find himself in the Coffee An’ in pursuit of “a girl familiar, unexpected,” who “suddenly bequeathed a smile,” only to be warned the next night: “She’s not here tonight, so beat it, / There’s a Black Maria outside.” But Good does not count himself, you understand, among the lechers and looters. And apparently marriage did not preclude occasional sexual adventures.
While his critical writings of the time are perceptive and convincing, they sometimes disclose flashes of personal resonance. Aragon, writes Good, “… has succeeded in clarifying the issues between the opposing forces in himself and, paradoxically, discovered in the midst of social disruption, his social function as poet.” Max Jacob’s advocation of austerity and meditation is defended as “redeeming the notion of poetry from that of a sort of occupational therapy for social misfits,” while Reverdy is introduced as one “who renounced his surrealist affinities for the contemplative life.”
In 1946 Good returned alone to Aix, developing the collection of poems that would be published later as Out of Circumstance, giving private lessons and working as an assistant teacher. In 1950 he came back to London, where he found himself regarded as an “old” poet, but also spent some time in Lebanon. He had made the acquaintance of the painter Augustus John, probably in Provence just before or after the war, as indicated by the slightly fawning inscription in my copy of Out of Circumstance; now he became friendly with the painter Matthew Smith – a fellow Francophile – who made three portraits of him. In 1954, at the close of this “arid” period, Out of Circumstance, rejected by T S Eliot at Faber’s, was published by that old faithful, The Fortune Press.
In the gradual move away from the gnomic but extended rhapsodies of the earlier ‘forties, his poems become more open, meditative. To my mind there is, in some places, a small loss of force. The pieces in Out of Circumstance are, for me, less effective the more they approach a kind of historical-geographical reportage of French landscape. But they can still be very beautiful:
Across the ruffled estuary
Waters where the hog-fish spawned
The triremes poured,
Seeking a sanctuary for fire and the graven image
Awoke the lovers sleeping in the sedge
Entered the new air like heroes
The sunburnt city inlaid like a crescent
On the blue vase of the world.
Under a positive moon which warms the blood
Summer undresses behind the poplar
Leaving the evil and the good unsatisfied,
The owl’s firm headlights in the holly
The hamlet shrinking in the valley
The wild boar tracking through the forest;
All that winter has wasted
All that the earth cannot yield
Dawn will recover with the violet,
All that lies lovely now
Like bones of saints in consecrated ground,
As the stars swoop, the comets brood.
At their best, the poems of this period hold together a more generous, open view with some of the earlier concerns. The slightly Audenesque “This Surrey Village” – meaning Godalming? – is about landscape, England, nostalgia, but also about love and grace that in some sense abide:
This Surrey village like a joint in the landscape
Once on a Sunday hid the truant lovers,
As in a vice held what God had joined together
Hurrying from bells which in the valley summon
Summer’s haul of pilgrims to consider heaven.
Etched in excess of beauty and unresolved
Like hurricane words of travellers between trains,
So distant in our zones we confined the present,
Discerning the actual only in the sensual,
Through eyeholes of bracken saw only a green world turning,
When like a doll among the meadowsweet you lay.
Occasionally, and interestingly, descriptive moments are hardened into aphoristic placards:
Between the imperative and the derivative
The heart’s short history invents an alternative.
Between the moonless snow the Pyrenean torrent pours
Analogies of winter, effect involving cause.
(“Prelude to the Pyrenees”)
In 1955 Good left the country with £10 in his pocket, to work at the British Institute in Florence, and later at the Cambridge School in Verona. In 1956 his son John died suddenly at a tragically early age, and in 1957 Thomas and Mary Good were legally separated. Not surprisingly, “nervous prostration” still hindered his creative work, though in 1963 this was succeeded by a three year “phase of spiritual illumination” that produced in 1968 the bilingual collection The Mirror and the Echo, published by Il Campo Editore in Florence. The book is punctuated by a few line drawings by G Cilio, an artist I haven’t been able to trace elsewhere.
In 1959 Good was corresponding with Robert Graves; their topics of discussion included The White Goddess, Dante, the Gospel of Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. During this period individual poems were published by Le Botteghe Oscure, La fiera letteraria and the Irish Times, while from the late ‘forties to the ‘sixties he contributed articles on Sartre, Robert Graves, Shelley, Eliot and Max Jacob to Focus, The Listener, Cahiers du Sud and European Judaism. It’s noticeable, as before, that his characterisation of Jacob, a convert to Catholicism, is in places very much a coded account of his own concerns and dilemmas:
There have been other instances in modern times of artists who were able to combine the spirit of contemplation with that of recklessness … his scrupulosity urged him into a series of spiritual adventures which although they at times extenuated the conflict and appear never to have yielded the peace he coveted, … illuminated his poetic talent …
Drawing by G Cilio from ‘The Mirror and the Echo’
The work of these later years is simpler, quieter, less expansive, more syntactically coherent. At its best it achieves a metaphysical serenity, a tranquillity that lifts it above the banal. Even an occasional prose poem, on the model of Max Jacob, makes an appearance.
By 1969 Good was back in England, staying at the Hotel Stuart in Richmond, Surrey, but unable to face the demoralising prospect of life in an old people’s home he drowned himself in the Thames in January 1970. His body was not found for several weeks.
… the eyes of death
So elegant and coifed but her hands how cold they are …
(“The American War Cemetery at Luynes”)
Among his few but well ordered effects was the typescript of a collection of last poems, titled “The Diamond Path.” From these, Michael Hamburger later selected eighteen for inclusion in the 1973 Selected Poems.
In addition to essays and reviews, Good completed some prose fiction and verse drama. A novel titled “The Seated Woman” was rejected by Wrey Gardiner’s Grey Walls Press in 1946. (This may have been the “novel about life as a priest” that Good mentions as written before the war.) By 1950 he had completed a prose piece, “Death is a Red Berry,” which as late as 1969 was submitted to Penguin Books, without success. In 1954 a dramatic poem “Supper in the Garden” was rejected for broadcast by BBC Drama. During the same period his second unpublished novel, “Rhapsody in a Minor Key,” was refused by at least fifteen publishers, including by Eliot at Faber. None of these works have appeared in print.
Matthew Smith, ‘Portrait of Thomas Good’ III
Images of Thomas Good – the Smith portrait in middle age, the more elderly cover photo to The Mirror and the Echo – show a high, finely boned, sensitive face, unsmiling, in which we might read the physiognomy of self-denial, if not that of self-indulgence. These polarities, sense and spirit, are the horns of Good’s “existential dilemma,” his struggle to find a secure centre. They inform, to some degree and at some level, virtually every poem.
In his late “Autobiographical Note” Good concluded:
Now I have experienced poetry as another dimension, I can value and understand it as a form of religion. I believe in the surreal but not in “surrealism” … In general I am certain that we are well in the grip of the “savage god” and I am out of sympathy with modern trends in writing …
Though it’s bracketed with “savage”, I am not sure what he may here have considered “modern”. Strongly influenced by the preceding generation of French fellow travellers of surrealism, Good was no antiquarian, nor did he exalt any preoccupation with “tradition” or form. In fact Michael Hamburger notes a “peculiar stylistic uncertainty,” an “unevenness of diction and intensity” running through much of his work, finding it symptomatic of Good’s greater “existential dilemma”. Hamburger justifiably regrets this as a flaw, but at least this uncertainty can keep the work on its toes.
Over the decades Good habitually maintained workbooks of notes, quotes, thoughts, dreams and sporadic journal entries, whose purpose he described as “useful references for one’s moods, discoveries, taste-fluctuations.” From this bank he was able to pull out those disjointed pairings that surprise but gratify. Even when Good threatens to settle into the predictable, he immediately hits back with something that jolts by its against-the-odds rightness:
The dancer sighs in troubled wings
Invited to the chasm,
The last scenario before the electronic shock
With audience of geckos, mosquitoes
And a limping cat.
The fire burns as of old,
But the flames, unique as babies’ faces …
Good in 1968: jacket photo from ‘The Mirror and the Echo’
Even when the initial impulse is romantic introspection or bewilderment, or the cataloguing of sense impressions, Good splices his experiences and appearances with the arbitrary, wrenching and knocking them into an abstracted, transvalued vision that, while its grounding is never in doubt, now exists within poetic time and space, as language that will last.
So, not in single petrifaction
To remain, nor studied wastage,
If the secure thought, the here and now,
The poem, which is eternity,
Should wriggle through
The labyrinth of age and sleep,
I shall awake to you.
For a selection of poems by Thomas Good go here.