Thomas Good (1901 - 1970)

by Michael Peverett

[Image source:]

From Thomas Good's poem "Chronometer" (published in 1944):


Give me the mid-ocean of a dream
I’ll settle with Apollo
Till the flood of fear, the false equation seem
Vanished in a mirror sandwiched in the dunes.

We have left you, earth to groan, cancelled your riper song
With the tinkling of bones, the inverted stones
Of impalpable wishes, shapeless shells
Of stubborn homes, fleeced fields, phallos of the petrol-pump
To be mined, and divined, and defaced like a skull in a mask.


But the cool instance of a forgotten glove
Moaned in the crazy oven of my hell
No one could lift her through the mustard-clouds
Across the foreshore of the insulated infinite
Or leave her nailed where the god impaled
Ripens the greengage hours.

Fancy painted a thrifty courtship, post-card praise
Love’s barter in the oast, her laughing premium paid
With never a yes or no to say, buds and berries of positive days
An almanac happiness, in violent sepulchral ease
The book tossed away for a boy, in a cesspool of sense, on a dungheap of joy.

Better beget in the peak of the hour, near the weeds grow the flowers
Than in a chapel of fools slouch away from the too fertile worm
And to live on a spring, for a whim, not to stink with a too moist outhouse happiness
Ignoring the breeze of a birth and the bellowing breasts.


Wolverhampton-based Richard Warren's valiant researches into the obscurer reaches of British art and literature, 20th century vintage,  have thrown up another distraught gem in the work of Beeston-born Thomas Good, a 1940s poet who reminds me somewhat of Peter Yates, who I wrote about recently. But Good is less controlled,  more unpredictable.

These two short extracts from the 24 stanzas of  "Chronometer" give an idea of the breadth of  content allowed into the poem, the navigation so perilously close to the edge of losing us completely, the sometimes thrilling sensuousness of "greengage hours", "moist outhouse happiness", "bellowing breasts" etc.

Typical of the era are its unfettered judgmentalism (both condemnatory and self-condemnatory), its disillusioned world of "fools" (a term much-used in those days, now less so), and its peculiarly exclusive focus on male experience.  And, characteristic of '40s poetry in particular, lots of unlocated use of "the" ("the flood of fear", "the mustard clouds", "the insulated infinite").

You wouldn't guess it from these extracts, but "Chronometer" mainly springs from thoughts of the South of France, then under Occupation (Nov 1942-Summer 1944).  (Good and his family had moved to near Aix-en-Provence in 1937, hoping to relieve a fresh onset of Good's recurrent nervous anxiety. They returned to England near the start of the war.)

That war-time background is overt in e.g. "Let the almonds and the vines of Prussia bend and bleed / In reparation" ; though it's of course rather a perverse way of putting it, Prussia not being known for its vines and almonds. The poem doesn't do war reportage. Perhaps it even disdains so small a topic. What it laments is not so much war as modernity.  The poet's anguish about Provence is confessedly absorbed into Good's own personal-universal psychological journey, "his wound a turgid jewel in the brain"; quite a bit of the poem is slightly-reshaped autobiography. Good has been called an uneven poet, and "Chronometer" comes to rest in old-fashioned apostrophe ("O France, O England.."), a very long way from the arresting thicket of syntax in its opening stanza:

I have an inkling that the taste of forgotten lemons
Skins unsalvaged, returning near the ebb of summer-time
Now the dioxide fastens my sorrow, conjures a city, shapes a song
From a crucified chaos opens a circle, deflects the borrowed wheel
Of futility, which even the partially blessed are said to feel.

(Though even here, the thought did cross my mind that inside every extraordinary poem there's an ordinary one trying to get out.)

But still, "Chronometer" is a motley kind of triumph, its torrent of askew images enlivening pretty much every stanza; it's a poem you want to keep on re-reading.  And here, in 1944, Good was already trying to deal with a pressing issue that now affects most poets in a globally-conscious world. Culture happens here, war there. Yet the poetry cannot operate in happy ignorance. (We know, for example, that Aleppo is happening now.) The poet's mind is strung to a distant conflict but without real involvement and therefore without resolution. Or is there a defensible way of articulating how our own psychological or spiritual experience bears on larger movements of violence and suffering?

A Selection of Thomas Good poems:

Profile of Good's life and work:

Accompanying blog post:

Thomas Good's "Carrion":

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