Monday, April 27, 2015

The adorner of my tomb, the minstrel of mine epitaph - Lionel Johnson, minor poet

Now, Lionel Johnson, this is the poet on whom I overdid it.  Just two books of poems, the 1895 Poems and the 1897 Ireland, with Other Poems, but they were too much.  Too much repetition, too many bad poems, especially his Catholic poems (“Leo!  Vicar of Christ, / His voice, His love, His sword,” etc., from “To Leo XIII,” pure kitsch), although they did help me focus my attention on Christina Rossetti’s superior religious poems.

                                     Answer, O saddened souls!
Who mourn the death of beauty and the age of grace.  (from “The Age of a Dream”)

Johnson, one of many followers of Walter Pater and the pre-Raphaelite poets, was the epitome of the pale aesthete who “lived on eggs in the morning and nothing but tea and cigarettes during the rest of the day”; in his room at Oxford “[t]here was always conspicuous on a centre table a jug of Glengarry whisky between two open books: Les Fleurs du Mal and Leaves of Grass.”  Johnson is – or was, see below – best known as an important early influence on William Butler Yeats.  Turning from Johnson to Yeats was a strange experience.  I think of Yeats as having a strong voice, but his early poems, the ones in the Collected Poems under the titles “Crossways” (1889) and “The Rose” (1893), now made Yeats look like a promising Johnson imitator.  The latter section is even dedicated to Johnson.

Here should be none but Muses bright,
Whose airs go delicately sweet:
With swallow wings, and faery feet,
       Eager to dance or fly.  (from “Upon Reading  Certain Poems”)

Johnson, who was not Irish, began writing poems about Welsh and then Irish mythological subjects, suggesting  the idea to Yeats, who was Irish.  Yeats is responsible for a perfect way to read Johnson, the 1905 XXI Poems Written by Lionel Johnson.  It does not have every good poem from those two volumes of Johnson’s, but it omits all the bad ones.  It climaxes with “Dark Angel,” Johnson’s best poem:

Apples of ashes, golden bright;
Waters of bitterness, how sweet!
 O banquet of a foul delight,
Prepared by thee, dark Paraclete!

Thou art the whisper in the gloom,
The hinting tone, the haunting laugh:
Thou art the adorner of my tomb,
The minstrel of mine epitaph.  (from “The Dark Angel”)

My old 5th edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature omits Johnson – it in general treats the 1890s strangely, as is fitting, since they were strange – but there are three poems (pdf) in the current 9th edition, including “The Dark Angel.”  The notes make it clear that Johnson is included as a gay poet, and the poems chosen are about his homosexuality.  Johnson, to extend his biography, had the misfortune to introduce Wilde to the loathsome Bosie.  “The Dark Angel” and the other two poems are not solely about Johnson’s homosexuality, but the editors are not over-interpreting.

When gracious music stirs, and all is bright,
And beauty triumphs through a courtly night;
When I too joy, a man like other men:
       Yet, am I like them, then?

From “Mystic and Cavalier” (perhaps this is his best poem), which is also about being a poet.

Johnson’s best poems are all from his early 20s.  He converted to Catholicism and spent several years attempting to commit suicide with alcohol.  He failed for a while, then succeeded, age 35.  These poets.

I must mention this curiosity from Lionel Johnson’s Wikipedia entry:

"The Dark Angel" also served as one of the influences for the Dark Angels chapter of Space Marines in the Warhammer 40,000 fictional universe.  Their Primarch, Lion El'Jonson, is also named after the poet.

The Complete Poems of Lionel Johnson, ed. Iain Fletcher, Unicorn Press, 1953, p. xxiv.  The writer of those lines is George Santayana.


  1. Lion El'Jonson!

    Eggs and booze does sound like a difficult diet.

    Some interesting rhymes--Paraclete / sweet, laugh / epitaph. And it is an interesting thing, how Yeats was transformed from a sort of Celtic-twilight romancer.

  2. How I hope that the spirit of Lionel Johnson knows that his name survives among hobbyists who paint little metal space orcs.

    There were times, reading Johnson in bulk, where I thought I could guess the quality of the poem - imagery, everything - by the interest of the rhymes. Conventional rhymes meant a conventional poem, and Johnson became more conventional as he drank more and his life fell apart. But early on, when his poems had his full attention, he could be surprising.

  3. I am glad you wrote this post. My first thought was that Johnson's influence over Yeat's early poetry was the source of some weak poems, all that Irish-for-Irishness-sake stuff. Then last night I opened my collected Yeat's and looked again at the early poems and by gosh, every one of them is better than I remembered them, every one of them has at least one surprising and magical line. It was a swell way to spend some time, looking over those poems. I did not go looking for any Johnson in any of the collections we own. I'd forgotten all about him.

    1. I don't know why I keep writing "Yeat's" instead of "Yeats'."

    2. The early poems have a real sense of lyric springing-forth that I love. If he had written nothing else, he would be remembered for them.

    3. I'll mention here that although the dates look screwy, most of the poems in Johnson's 1895 book are from the 1880s, many written while he was in college, so they do in fact precede Yeats's early poems. Just barely, though. Yeats really sponged them up fast, while the ink was wet, so to speak.

      I still can hardly believe that Yeats had to be shown that he could write poems about Irish mythology. But that is what happened.

  4. Yes, a fine way to spend time. A real treat for me, too, having Johnson as an excuse to return to Yeats.

  5. One needs no excuse to return to Yeats.