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.