Johnson, Lionel (Pigot) 1867-1902
JOHNSON, Lionel (Pigot) 1867-1902
PERSONAL: Born March 15, 1867, in Broadstairs, Kent, England; died of a skull fracture, October 4, 1902, in London, England; son of William Victor (an army captain) and Catherine Delicia (Walters) Johnson. Education: Attended Winchester College; New College, Oxford, B.A., 1890. Politics: "Interested in Irish nationalistic politics." Religion: Catholic.
CAREER: Journalist for Academy, National Observer, Spectator, Athenaeum, and Daily Chronicle, c. early 1890s. Lecturer on Irish affairs, 1894.
MEMBER: Century Guild, Rhymers' Club.
Poems, Copeland & Day (Boston, MA), 1895.
Ireland with Other Poems, Copeland & Day (Boston, MA), 1897.
Twenty-one Poems, selected by W. B. Yeats, Dun Imer Press (Dundrum, Ireland), 1904.
(With W. B. Yeats) Poetry and Ireland: Essays by W. B. Yeats and Lionel Johnson, Cuala Press (Churchtown, Dundrum, Ireland), 1908.
Post Liminium: Essays and Critical Papers, edited by Thomas Wittemore, Elkin Matthew's (London, England), 1911, Kennerley (New York, NY), 1912.
Some Poems of Lionel Johnson, edited by Louise Imogen Guiney, Elkin Matthews (London, England), 1912.
Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson, edited by Ezra Pound, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1915.
The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson, Burns & Oates (London, England), 1916.
Some Winchester Letters of Lionel Johnson, edited by J. F. Russell, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1919.
Reviews and Critical Papers, edited by Robert Shafer, Dutton (New York, NY), 1921.
The Complete Poems of Lionel Johnson, edited by Iain Fletcher, Unicorn (London, England), 1953, published as The Collected Poems of Lionel Johnson, Garland (New York, NY), 1982.
Three Poets of the Rhymers' Club: Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Davidson, selected and introduced by Derek Stanford, Carcanet Press (Cheadle), 1974.
(With Walter Burgess and Richard Le Gallienne) Bits of Old Chelsea, Garland (New York, NY), 1978.
Poetry and Fiction: Reflections on Three Nineteenth-Century Authors: Herbert P. Horne, Hubert Crackanthorpe, William Johnson Cory, Tragara Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1982.
Selected Letters of Lionel Johnson, edited by Murray Pittock, Tragara Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1988.
Three Decadent Poets: Ernest Dowson, John Gray, and Lionel Johnson, Garland (New York, NY), 1990.
Poems, Woodstock Books (Oxford, England), 1993.
Also contributor to The Prose Writings of James Clarence Mangan, AMS Press (New York, NY), 1978.
SIDELIGHTS: Like so many of his fellow writers of his era, Lionel Johnson was a tragic figure who produced works of poetry that showed brilliant promise, all the while cutting his life short with bouts of alcoholism and hard living. Johnson's homosexuality was in direct conflict with the structured and strict confines of the Catholic Church that he admired. This led to the production of what some critics call the best work of that generation and would indirectly also lead to his death.
Johnson was born on March 15, 1867, to William Victor Johnson, a captain in the light infantry and Catherine Delicia (Walters) Johnson. Born in Broadstairs in Kent, England, Johnson was the third son of a Protestant family of Welsh descent. However, a distant ancestor of the family was of Irish descent and fought in an uprising against the Catholics. This ancestor sparked Johnson's interest in Ireland and Irish politics, and later in life he would lecture on the subject. As a member of a military family, Johnson was subjected to a structured upbringing that he found unbearable. From an early age, he expressed an interest in converting to Catholicism, something his family strongly opposed.
Johnson was schooled at Winchester College, where he won numerous prizes for his poetry and where he was named editor of the Wykehamist. In 1885 he won a scholarship to New College Oxford. It was while at Oxford that he made the acquaintance of W. B. Yeats and other members of the Rhymers' Club. Called the "tragic generation" by Yeats, this group and other members of the literary community at the time were all marked by moments of great literary success and lives that contained mental illness, homosexuality, and sickness. It was also during this time that Johnson began to drink heavily and his friends noted that he was never without a bottle of whiskey in his hands. He also published several poems in two small volumes of work by the Rhymers' Club in 1892 and 1894. In 1890, Johnson graduated from Oxford with a degree in classical moderations and litterae humaniores.
After graduation, Johnson moved to London to pursue a literary career full time. He wrote critical essays for the Daily Chronicle, the Academy, and the National Observer. Johnson fulfilled his childhood ambition to convert to Catholicism in 1891, when he was admitted to the Roman Catholic Church. It was here that the structural restraints of the world that Johnson craved again came into direct conflict with his own lifestyle. After converting to Catholicism, Johnson renounced his homosexuality. It was also the catalyst for some of his best poetry. "The struggle between spiritual aspiration and the wayward flesh is the theme of Johnson's best poetry. For the most part it is a conflict which, in spite of its melodramatic potential, he nonetheless handles with a curious kind of dignity, in much the same way as Johnson himself behaved, maintaining a courtly demeanor and striving always to face the world in clean linen, while stumbling around in an alcoholic haze," commented John Munro in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
The Art of Thomas Hardy further secured Johnson's position as a serious literary critic. His other critical writings were collected and posthumously produced in Post Liminum and Reviews and Critical Papers. "From the day of its first publication in 1894 this book has had a very special place in the field of literary criticism; not so much, perhaps, for its restrained, clear-sighted estimate of Hardy's genius as from the fact that in its pages one is initiated into the very quintessence of the author's own refined and solitary temper," wrote Llewlyn Powys in Freeman.
In 1895 Johnson published Poems and two years later produced Ireland with Other Poems. Many critics believe that Poems contains some of his best works. Among the collection were the poems "The Dark Angel" and "Mystic and Cavalier." In the "Dark Angel," Johnson again shows the anguish between the temptation of his lifestyle and his attempt to abide by the codes of the Catholic Church. "Mystic and Cavalier" begins with Johnson's famous line, "Go from me: I am one of those, who fall." It is the poem of a man who believes he will fail at what he tries to attain. "The Destroyer of a Soul," written in 1892, is a poem addressed to Oscar Wilde and in it, Johnson denounces Wilde's lifestyle. Ironically, it was Johnson who had introduced Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, the man whose relationship with Wilde would lead to Wilde's trial and imprisonment.
Johnson also returned to his preoccupation with Ireland in his poems, in his book Ireland with Other Poems. He had visited Ireland for a year in 1893 and soon after began lecturing on Irish politics. For Johnson, his admiration of Ireland was another way for him to restore order in his chaotic personal life. During his time in London, he continued to drink heavily and found himself in debt, being evicted from his home on several occasions. "Lionel Johnson had two passions that controlled his life—his Catholic faith and his love for Ireland. In his short life he dreamed perpetually about these realizations of his spirit. They were the whitest dreams expressed in the poetry of his day," said W. S. Braithwaite in the Boston Transcript of Johnson's poetry.
In the latter part of the 1800s and into the early 1900s, Johnson continued his downward spiral into alcoholism and poverty. He became a paranoid recluse who suffered a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed. On October 4, 1902, at the age of thirtyfour, Johnson suffered a fatal stroke. His death took on a mythical quality when Ezra Pound reported that Johnson had actually died after falling off a stool in a local tavern. His tragic persona was further vilified by W. B. Yeats' portrayal of Johnson in his poem, "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory," in which he called Johnson a man "much falling," who "brooded on sanctity." This sort of portrayal caused Johnson's work to be rounded up with other "Decadent" artists. The Decadent movement was based on the mantra "art for art's sake."
However, technically, while Johnson's lifestyle was similar to those characteristics of what defines an artist from the Decadent movement, his technical prose sets him apart. While some of his works such as "Oxford," rely heavily on repetition of words that do not add much importance to his prose, other works showed successful structure of verse. "Generally speaking, however, Johnson's poetry is tightly controlled. It is as if he felt keenly the disorderliness of his life and recognized the necessity of constraining the tumultuous energies of his frustrated soul in carefully sculpted, marmoreal meters," stated Munro. Ironically, Johnson, a man seeking structure through Catholicism and Ireland for his chaotic life and bouts with alcoholism, was at his best when writing of the complexities and hardships of living with the conflicts of those two worlds.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Boyd, Ernest, Ireland's Literary Renaissance, revised edition, Knopf (New York, NY), 1922.
Charlesworth, Barbara, Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature, University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 19: British Poets, 1880-1914, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Halladay, Jean R., Eight Late Victorian Poets Shaping the Artistic Sensibility of an Age: Alice Meynell, John Davidson, Francis Thompson, Mary Coleridge, Katherine Tynan, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, E. Mellen Press, 1993.
Pound, Ezra, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot, New Directions, 1954.
Scott, Dixon, Men of Letters, Hodder & Stoughton, 1923.
Thornton, R. K. R., The Decadent Dilemma, Edward Arnold, 1983.
Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Volume 19, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Academy, October 20, 1894, p. 297.
Antigonish Review, spring, 1973, pp. 95-109.
Bookman, June, 1895, pp. 343-344; February, 1898, pp. 155-156; October, 1912, pp. 179-185.
Boston Transcript, December 11, 1911, p. 3.
Dublin Review, Volume 142, number 283, 1907, pp. 327-344.
Freeman, November 23, 1921.
New York Times Review, September 1, 1912, pp. 469-470.
Poet Lore, summer, 1953, pp. 140-160.*