Lionel Johnson: The greatest English poet and critic you’ve never read

“I believe that neglect of his work…”, says Robert Asch of Johnson (1867-1902), “has deprived students of English literature, and especially of the Catholic Revival, of familiarity with an author of great value and a personality of singular charm.”

Robert Asch, editor of Saint Austin Press, compiled and edited the volume "Lionel Johnson: Poetry and Prose". (Images: saintaustinpress.com)

Robert Asch is co-founder, with Joseph Pearce, of the Saint Austin Review, a British-American magazine devoted to Catholic culture, and the editor of the Saint Austin Press. He edited, compiled, and wrote the notes for the new volume Lionel Johnson: Poetry and Prose.

Asch recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the mysterious Lionel Johnson, whose short and tragic life produced a wealth of poetry and criticism that influenced T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, among many others.

CWR: Many readers are likely unfamiliar with Lionel Johnson. Who was he? And why do you think he deserves more attention?

Robert Asch: Johnson was a poet and critic, indeed, a poet-critic. The poetry of such writers is often characterised by critical thought, and their criticism, in turn, has a poetic resonance. They are a rare breed, like Dryden, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold. I believe Johnson was the finest poet-critic between Arnold and T.S. Eliot.

Hitherto, Lionel Johnson has been most famously associated with the Decadent movement of the 1890s, and particularly for introducing Lord Alfred Douglas to Oscar Wilde. As I point out in my book, however, Johnson can only be considered decadent in a limited way: in the tragedy of his short life and the poems he wrote which immortalised some of the struggles which afflicted his gifted generation. Johnson was also a close friend W.B. Yeats and was effectively literary mentor to the older Irish poet. In their work together, Yeats recruited Johnson to the cause of Irish independence and the Irish Literary Revival, to which Johnson made lasting contributions.

As I mentioned above, Johnson is a tragic figure in some ways: he suffered from same-sex attraction, loneliness, and insomnia, for the latter of which he was prescribed whiskey by his doctor at university and became an alcoholic. After his conversion, he practised his faith heroically but was unable to overcome his alcoholism and died – fortified with the sacraments – at the age of 35. He was a man of remarkable gifts, high intelligence, the most learned writer of his generation.

To Catholic readers, he is perhaps most interesting as a very serious convert, whose Catholicism is profoundly reflected in his work. In this respect, he belongs in the company of Christian humanists such as Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Russell Kirk.

Until recently, the 1890s have been comparatively neglected. In many ways it was a period with a foot in the Victorian age and another in the 20th century. Students of the Catholic Revival have been wary of the decadent element, while non-Catholics have generally ignored the significant role conversion to Catholicism played (both Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley were received on their deathbeds). Lately there has been renewed interest in Wilde, but much remains to rediscover.

It was a brilliant decade, featuring not only some of the finest work of Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Wilde, William Morris, Walter Pater, Kipling, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Francis Thompson, but witnessing the earliest productions of Yeats, Chesterton, Belloc, Shaw, H.G. Wells, J.M. Barrie, and Bertrand Russell.

Yet Johnson – whose genius was acknowledged by his contemporaries – has been neglected even in comparison to many of the writers of the 1890s, writers who, in my opinion, have much less to offer. He is also a key figure in the English Catholic Revival, linking the era of Hopkins (and before him, Newman) to that of Chesterton, Belloc, Knox, Dawson & co.

Here is a man of wider and deeper reading than Pound, whose best poetry can bear comparison with Yeats and whose criticism is on a par with Eliot. And he was a devout Catholic, living out his faith tenaciously, often in conditions of painful difficulty. I believe that neglect of his work – largely the result of circumstance (his early death and the changing of literary tastes shortly thereafter, along with the uncollected condition of many of his writings, especially his critical prose) – has deprived students of English literature, and especially of the Catholic Revival, of familiarity with an author of great value and a personality of singular charm.

CWR: How and why did you become acquainted with his work and decide to compile and edit this impressive volume?

Robert Asch: I discovered his work by accident at university in the 1980s, along with that of some of the members of his, and Yeats’s, circle. I was fascinated by the way in which their idiom and subject matter seemed simultaneously Victorian and modern. But Johnson made the most lasting impression on me, and what was more tantalizing was that his writings were the hardest to find and his life the least documented (there were even disagreements about how he had died and, at the time, no more than three photos of him known to exist). I continued to come across his work periodically, always wanting to know more.

Many years later, when I became the editor of the St. Austin Press, I determined to rectify the situation and produce a critical anthology, if only for myself and any others like myself, so that I might resolve the enigmas of his life and possess a volume truly representative of his best work. It was a bit like something C.S. Lewis once said: when he was young he had wanted to read something like the Narnia tales, but nothing like them had been written and he found he had to compose them himself. There was also a challenge in this that appealed to me: Johnson’s life remained something of a mystery waiting to be researched, and the fragmentary condition of his criticism – most of which remained uncollected in old newspaper archives – had in some sense to be reconstructed. I wanted to see Johnson’s work and life as a whole, something which, as I increasingly found, to my delight, significantly altered the scale and significance of his achievement.

CWR: Johnson was, as your opening essay demonstrates, a rather mysterious, eccentric, and brilliant man, who died at a very young age. What is unique about Johnson as a poet and critic?

Robert Asch: There is a combination of range of subject and tone (from scholarly to humorous to polemical), a depth of scholarship, intelligence, charm of style, personal tragedy, and deep spirituality, which are unique. From the beginning of his career, contemporaries recognised Johnson as a prodigy of literary knowledge. But it is even more unusual to be so respected and balanced a critic and yet write poetry that is so personal and devotional.

Another aspect of Johnson that stands out – especially in the 1890s, a decade which set a premium on subjective experience, especially among the Decadents – is his heteronomy, which is to say his emphasis on the other, the objective, the external, the extra-personal standards by which religion, morality, civilisation, and great art must measure themselves. His poetry is intensely personal, yet it is also elaborately intertextual, always in dialogue with the major poets and achievements of the great tradition. His critical prose is judicial, magisterial, comprehensive – yet without losing the personal touch. And the voice that resonates in the poetry and prose are alike unmistakable, the former hauntingly so, unforgettable.

CWR: You note that a number of famous authors, including Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, expressed deep admiration for Johnson’s work. Why and how was he influential with certain writers?

Robert Asch: He exerted a formative influence on Yeats, for starters, more so than any other writer, and Yeats never forgot him. Yeats was fascinated by his personality, which was magnetic and powerful, if reserved in public, and immortalised him in his autobiography and poems. Pound and Yeats both valued the beauty and technique of his verse.

Pound also appreciated the way in which he stood out from what he saw as late 19th century poetry’s softness and blurriness, in thought and language, as well as his comprehensive knowledge of the great Western literary tradition. He wrote of Johnson that “he was [a traditionalist] in the finest sense of that term. He really knew the tradition”. Pound goes on, “[h]e would…have welcomed good vers libre; he would have known how the Greeks had used it. You could have discussed with him any and every serious problem of technique….He might have differed from your views of good writing but he would have believed in good writing. His hatred of slovenliness would have equalled your own.”

Eliot felt as Pound did in these matters, but must in addition have been impressed with Johnson’s moral and religious commitment, his intellectual maturity and sophistication. When Eliot, in the 1940s, wrote “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago”, he was pointing back specifically to the 1890s, with Johnson surely in mind. And traces of Johnson’s spiritual quest can be discerned in Eliot’s Four Quartets.

CWR: Johnson had an interest in Buddhism and other esoteric belief systems, but ended up converting to the Catholic Faith. How did that come about? And how did it affect his thought and writing?

Robert Asch: Johnson began as an unconvinced Anglican, unhappy with the moralistic, shallow religious practice which had become hardly more than a social reflex for many. He had and retained a deep love of Jesus Christ, but wanted to see what alternative belief systems had to say for themselves, how well Christianity stood up to them in unprejudiced comparison – one early result of which was his growing admiration for Roman Catholicism, which emerged from such comparisons far more robustly and credibly than different shades of Protestantism. He was also deeply impressed with a sense of the mystery and spirituality of Eastern religions, as well as their metaphysical dimension.

However, he had nagging reservations about Eastern religions which became more pronounced during his spiritual quest. Compassion for his fellow man was a deep and abiding element of Johnson’s character. Where he found Eastern religions wanting (and esoteric belief systems, for that matter) was in their quasi-inhuman spiritual, ascetic, and intellectual demands, and an aloofness from the needs and lives of ordinary men and women. Johnson had a very deep attachment to Western civilisation, its works and values. The authors most important to him were Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil, St. Augustine, Pascal, Dr. Johnson, Newman…the great Christian sages and their closest Graeco-Roman precursors. But all of this was not enough to convert him on its own.

Johnson experienced a kind of epiphany towards the end of his undergraduate years, or possibly in his first year as a man of letters in London, when all the different strands of his interests came together, and they did so in the Roman Catholic Church with its tradition linking all of them into a coherent, overwhelmingly profound and beautiful, convincing whole, rather than the disconnected fragments evoked in, say, Eliot’s Wasteland. He found the Catholic Church logically, historically, and doctrinally coherent, and yet it spoke intimately to the deepest needs of men and women. Unlike various flavours of Anglicanism, it was not a theory but a great historical and existential reality.

Consequently, Johnson’s writing exhibits an integrated character, bringing authors, themes, and cultures together in a way that sheds light on each of them and the world. Finally, Johnson’s critical work is inspired by a number of notes – pietas, heteronomy, authority, order, hierarchy, tradition, and catholicity – which are together the foundation of a truly Catholic and civilised vision of life.

CWR: Any additional thoughts or remarks?

Robert Asch: I thoroughly enjoyed writing this book. It enabled me to dispel a number of myths and resolve some of the lingering mysteries clinging to Johnson’s life and work. It is the only book of its kind, giving full play to his poetry, prose, and correspondence, and with a complete critical apparatus. I was initially apprehensive that reading through Johnson so regularly and exhaustively would make me tire of him, but I found, to my delight and surprise, that wasn’t true in the least.

Above all, Johnson is a brilliant, unforgettable figure once you get to know him.


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About Carl E. Olson 1178 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

4 Comments

  1. Lionel Johnson apparently was among those philosophic persons who expressed their thought in a different idiom. His poem Dark Angel reflects his contest with his own vices, as a Catholic, perhaps his conflict with attraction to men. Asch gives an informative overview personally pleased the poet died with the sacraments.

    DARK Angel, with thine aching lust
    To rid the world of penitence:
    Malicious Angel, who still dost
    My soul such subtile violence!

    Because of thee, no thought, no thing,
    Abides for me undesecrate:
    Dark Angel, ever on the wing,
    Who never reachest me too late!

    When music sounds, then changest thou
    Its silvery to a sultry fire:
    Nor will thine envious heart allow
    Delight untortured by desire.

    Through thee, the gracious Muses turn,
    To Furies, O mine Enemy!
    And all the things of beauty burn
    With flames of evil ecstasy.

  2. What I excerpted is a segment. Faith as alluded by Asch was apparently integral to his life. His ending verses.

    Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
    Dark Angel! triumph over me:
    Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
    Divine, to the Divinity.

  3. The interview Robert Asch gives to CWR is an eloquent and persuasive introduction to Johnson’s work. His enthusiasm is infectious!

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