Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Laurence Binyon
Lionel Johnson (18671902)
[Lionel Picot Johnson was born at Broadstairs, March 15, 1867. He was a scholar of Winchester College and afterwards of New College, Oxford. In 1890 he settled in London, and wrote much criticism. His first prose book, The Art of Thomas Hardy, was published in 1894. Two books of poems appeared in his lifetime: Poems, 1895; and Ireland, 1897. In 1891 he was received into the Church of Rome. In later years an enthusiastic interest in Ireland absorbed him more and more. He visited Ireland but never travelled outside the British Isles. He was small and frail in physique. At the end of September, 1902, he had a fall in Fleet Street which broke his skull, and he died on October 4, in St. Bartholomews Hospital. Three different selections from his poetry appeared in 1904, 1908, and 1916, and his Poetical Works were published in 1915 by Elkin Mathews.]
ONE might say that scholarship was the abiding passion of Lionel Johnsons life; but scholarship interpreted in a gracious and a genial sense, imaginative scholarship, the devotion to humane letters, not learning pursued merely for learnings sake. Dear human books, he writes in one of his poems. His books and friends were his most prized possessions; and the books because they were friends. Though he was anything but a typical English schoolboy, no one has celebrated so ardently and abundantly as Johnson his love for his school and his college. Winchester and Oxford, homes of learning, homes of immemorial tradition, with their ancient beauty of buildings and gardens, yet in their atmosphere renewed continually by the companionship of youth; these venerable places inspired some of his happiest verse. He loved the landscape in which they are set, both for its own sake and still more for its associations. When he came to live in London it was the yet richer and more august traditions of its streets which made them, too, enchanted ground. Yet he was no mere dweller in the past who averts his face from the present. He relished his own day and all its interests. He was a humanist, like Pater, who, with Arnold and with Newman, deeply influenced him; and human history was to him a kind of immense cathedral, the shrine of heroes, saints, and poets, in which one could wander still and listen to the music of the immortals.
With such a temperament, it was natural that Johnson should be drawn to Catholicism. His love of comely order, his intense attachment to tradition, no less than deeper instincts of his nature, were satisfied in the Church of Rome. His finest poems are religious, or have a religious tinge. He uses language as a kind of ritual. He wrote ecclesiastical Latin poems admirably and with ease. No English poet indeed belongs more closely than Johnson to the Latin tradition. He wished to be, and even persuaded himself that he was, Irish; he loved Celtic things; but his verse echoes Virgils wistfulness rather than the immaterial melancholy of the Celt. True child of Oxford, he was drawn to lost causes. His best known poem celebrates Charles I. Yet it is characteristic of Johnsons wide imaginative sympathies that he could write of Cromwell hardly less finely, in the poem which begins
Now on his last of ways
The great September star
That crowned him on the days
Of Worcester and Dunbar,
Shines through the menacing night afar.
Johnson used a considerable variety of metres, but was happiest in the more formal types. He was fond of writing sonnets in Alexandrines, and made a pensive languid beauty of his own out of this unusual form. But many of his best pieces are in short measures, like the Charles I. The astringent brevity of these strengthened his style: for with all his nicety and exactness, he was sometimes seduced by a love of language for its own sake, a love of beautiful and sonorous words, so that the diction seems like a rich, stiff vestment over the thought rather than moulded closely on its form. He had a weakness for words like magnifical, perdurable, roseal; epithets that a younger school would recoil from, in virtuous horror of literary language. Johnson, moved by no such feeling, preferred consecrated words, rich in associations of the past. He was inclined to write too much, and not always with quite adequate motive. But if he failed of true Latin terseness, he was never rhetorical in the sense of being merely sounding or insincere. Most of his verse, it must be remembered, was written when he was a very young man; in his later poems, such as the memorial lines on Walter Pater written just before his own death, the note of a deeper emotional experience is heard, and the poetry gains thereby. In the best of his poems there is a mingling of austerity and ornateness, of ardour and discipline, which gives them a peculiar distinction. And at the core of them is a spiritual fire burning clearest in that poem (omitted from our selection for lack or room) which ends with the cry: