Although we tend to think of the poets of the 1890s as a freethinking, even blasphemous lot, there was at least one traditionalist in the group. Lionel Johnson, whose lyrics often put me in mind of the urbane rationalist discourse of Augustan verse, was a fervent and largely orthodox Roman Catholic, and this aspect of his life was not absent from his verses.
The poems in which Johnson celebrated his faith were interspersed with more secular verses in his collections, Poems (1895) and Ireland (1897), but in 1916, Wilfrid Meynell and George F. Engelbach introduced and edited a volume consisting entirely of the religious verse. It is to this volume, The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson (New York: Macmillan & Co.), that page and line numbers for the poems quoted below refer. Devotees of Johnson's work are indebted to them, for it is only by reading these poems en mass that Johnson's real distinction as a man of faith becomes evident.
It would doubtless be more exciting for commentators had Johnson been some sort of wild dissenter with a variety strange opinions to air, but such is not the case. The 1916 volume opens with a hymn of praise to the poet's old college Winchester, then immediately follows with a hymn of praise to Pope Leo XIII in which the poet praises the then-reigning Pontiff as "lover of men" and closes with the fervent wish
Leo! God grant this thing:
Might some, so proud to be
Children of England, bring
Thine England back to thee! (2; 21-24)
In the lyric "Christmas and Ireland," first published in the collection Ireland, Johnson manages to unite his concern with the political situation in Ireland to the standard Christian iconography of Mary and Joseph seeking lodgings in Bethlehem.
Harsh were the folk, and bitter stern,
At Bethlehem, that night of nights.
For you no cheering hearth shall burn:
We have no room here, you no rights.
O Mary and Joseph! Hath not she,
Ireland, been even as ye? (10; 13-18)
But Johnson goes beyond supplication, to sound a note of indignation for the status quo:
And she, our Mother Ireland, knows
Insult, and infamies of wrong:
Her innocent children clad with woes,
Her weakness trampled by the strong:
And still upon her Holy Land
Her pitiless foemen stand. (11; 31-36)
Here faith informs and strengthens a political conviction that would hardly have been welcomed in England of that day. This is giving witness to a wrong and a splendid example of faith in action.
"The Dark Angel" is one of Johnson's most popular lyrics and its rhetorically charged presentation practically screams Decadence at the casual reader.
Dark Angel, with thy aching lust
To rid the world of penitence:
Malicious Angel, who dost still
My soul such subtle violence! (14; 1-4)
But beyond the words that lend themselves so well, in fact too well, to parodied recitation what is the poet saying to us? Well, through the next eight stanzas Johnson outlines a series of instances in which his so-called "Dark Angel" changes innocence into guilt. His tempter, his Dark Paraclete sounds a lot like a believer's version of what Arthur Hugh Clough described in "Dipsychus and the Spirit," namely, a sort of spiritually lukewarm state in which the poet can embrace neither the Yea nor the Nay. It is the snigger that turns every joke into a dirty one and every black or white into a gray. Johnson characterizes this malign condition thusly:
When music sounds, then changest thou
Its silvery into a sultry fire:
Nor will thine envious heart allow
Delight untortured by desire. (14; 9-12)
He concludes that his Dark Angel is "the whisper in the gloom, / The hinting tone, the haunting laugh." (14; 37-38) It is what makes every good thing seem somehow suspect, fallen or depraved. Though Johnson closes by bravely defying his tempter to do its worse, one suspects that the poet will only escape its power for a time. Although Johnson was an alcoholic, I do not consider "The Dark Angel" to be an addiction poem. It goes much deeper and concerns a spiritual rather than a physical condition. This is the antithesis of Francis Thompson's famous lyric "The Hound of Heaven." It is about a spiritual nature that is at war with itself. The Hound has not sought out and redeemed Johnson, so he remains tormented by "bad thoughts."
The next poem in the collection, "The Darkness," states the problem, more forcefully and without the baggage of all that Decadent rhetoric. This is a real cry of distress from a soul that fears for its ultimate safety.
Thy Saints in light see light, and sing for joy:
Safe from the dark, safe from the dark and cold.
But from my dark comes only doubt of light:
Disloyalty, that trembles to despair. (17; 11-14)
Further along, the poet cries out, "I have no rest, / No peace, but am afflicted constantly, / Driven from wilderness to wilderness." (17; 24-26) In words that remind us now of the psalms, now of the parable of the demon driven out of the man, Johnson implores for his deliverance from the darkness, from the Night, from the talons of his Dark Angel.
To me, it is in "The Darkness," and to a lesser extent in "The Dark Angel" that Johnson attains a timeless validity as a poet. His poems about the Irish situation are admirable, but the Irish situation itself has now retreated into history. Party line praises of pontiffs and ecclesiastic authorities likewise age badly. But the sincere believer who tries to put his beliefs into practice will experience the aridity, the sense of spiritual deadness that Johnson addresses in these two poems. They are Johnson's "keepers."
Johnson seems to be reaching back to his great poetic forebear in the faith, Richard Crashaw in his poem, "A Descant Upon the Litany of Loretto," whose very title recalls to us the Age of the Baroque. Here we have a lovely invocation of the power of prayer, invoked by Johnson as "A flood of chaunted love, / Love white and virginal" (31; 1-2). Far from the Litany being mere words spoken into, and perhaps at, a void, Johnson envisions the process of chanting it as a spiritual journey.
But here the glory of our holy song,
Sorrowless flies along
Reaches of Heaven adoring and adored:
Where Angels worship; whither men aspire,
Wielding their faith, a sword
Tempered and tried in fire. (31; 14-19)
The destination is Mary, "To thee our music flows, / Who makest music for us to thy Son" (33; 66-67) who will intercede for sinners before the throne of God. Thus the Litany is the antidote to the Dark Angel's dire promptings. In an interesting poem entitled "To My Patrons," Johnson lists the saints of the Catholic Church for whom he holds special veneration: Saints Longinus, Alban, John the Baptist, Louis, Francis of Assisi and Charles. Considering the presence on the list of Louis IX, King of Francis and Francis of Assisi, one wonders whether Johnson may have been a Franciscan Tertiary. But that is a problem for another day.
Johnson will always be considered a leading light among the poems of the1890s and the poets associated with The Rhymers' Club. But his work lacks the interesting proto-modernist touches found in the work of his colleagues Arthur Symons and John Davidson. Nor is it as purely lyrical as that of his friend Ernest Dowson. In fact, a good bit of Johnson's secular poetry seems like occasional verse striving to attain a measure of greater significance. Then there are those poems that read like essays converted to verse in the best eighteenth-century manner. (Again, I find him to be the most Augustan of the Decadents.) Because Johnson is the weakest of the major Decadent poets in terms of the impact his poetry makes upon the modern reader, I find it especially delightful to discover him to be, when are is said and done, the great religious poet of the group. (As opposed to the great mystical poet, a role that has always been filled by Yeats.) For those readers who have had trouble getting a handle upon the corpus of Johnson's work as represented in the Collected Poems, let me recommend a perusal of the Meynell/Engelbach selection. It may open your eyes as it did mine.
Created 17 September 2002
Last Modified 4 June 2022