The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era’s Dark Angel
Symbolism, Pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetic Movement—we’ve all enjoyed their productions. A Mucha poster on a dorm room wall, a favorite piece of Art Nouveau jewelry, a volume of Baudelaire or Rimbaud. Our fondness for such things usually dissipated with the cloud of pot-smoke that softened the contours of our teenage years, and it all seems a bit embarrassing now, like the rest of the shiny jetsam and debris of the hippie period, which included, among its improbabilities, a brief Renaissance of Decadence.
In 1890’s London, it seemed as though Western culture had assembled all its forces of phantasmagoria for a final battle against the armies of modernism, a conflict in which the bannered host made a display as splendid as it was brief—before its ignominious and utter rout.
Ever since, the age of Wilde and Beardsley has been a wee bit difficult to take seriously—which is why the poetry of Lionel Johnson, the greatest of the English decadent writers, has appeared only in limited doomed editions, at roughly forty year intervals, since his death. A few of his poems are often anthologized, but the present volume is the only collection of his work presently in print.
There is a certain justice in this. Modernism showed with coldest clarity the shortcomings of post-Renaissance Western culture, an exhausted tradition which finally expired in the 1890’s in a puff of frankincense smoke. It had excluded everything that hadn’t been reduced to a pretty and limited set of symbols and tropes centuries before. For us today, there can be no going back. The Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist painters are fun, but they’re mere illustrators compared to the Impressionists. The artists, writers and musicians of the twentieth century lifted every censorship, and the poetry of an Allen Ginsberg is more full of life and reality than anything in English since Chaucer, and indeed makes Chaucer sound stuffy. So what does a closeted, overly precious poet like Johnson offer us that a modern gay poet can’t?
First of all Beauty. Beauty was the first casualty of Modernism. Art critics of today would snort at the suggestion they were aesthetes—after they looked it up in a dictionary. And for the modern artists, beauty is not their affair. But what is ? “Bananas is my business,” sang the divine Carmen Miranda.” Evidently it’s Maurizio Cattelan’s as well.
Though modern art is beautiful in its way, it’s a harsher, more arduous loveliness. The goal of modernism was never beauty per se: rather, it strove (and achieved) power and authenticity, earning its own stern magnificence. But the beauty that comes from harmony and order, aesthetic pleasure never tempered by irony—that’s something we have unfortunately lost, and if we mean to recover it, the last place it was seen was in the writing of poets like Johnson.
Johnson and the decadents also offer us meaning. Their commitment to myth and symbol, taken in Johnson’s case from Catholicism and Celtic folklore, hint at a world of spiritual insights. Now we could never arrive at that meaning if we pursued it as literally as Johnson did, but after a century of psychology and comparative religion, we can find in his struggle towards inner truths clues and guides to a transfigured world.
Incurable begins with a fifty page account of Johnson’s life. Nina Antonia, author of, the classic 1987 Johnny Thunders . . . In Cold Blood, among other feats of rock ‘n’ roll journalism, has impeccable credentials as a chronicler of the ill-starred, drugged out and androgynous. She is the ideal recording angel here, for her sense of poetry, her sympathy with the subject, and her understanding of life’s other side.
Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) attended Winchester College. Momentously for him: His first book, the 1895 Poems, is dedicated to the college and has as its frontispiece a woodcut of its fourteenth-century founder, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. The book opens with Winchester, a five page hymn to the school and its literary alumni. Such an attachment to one’s high school may seem incredible today, but if one views the promotional video “a beautiful location” at the website of this very exclusive school in the south of England, one easily understands Johnson’s lifelong attachment to the place. It’s a wooded, rivered, medieval dream of halls and cloisters, a fabulous castle of learning in its own enchanted forest. Here he was given a loose rein, which permitted him to indulge his insomnia, ponder Buddhism, devoutly study Baudelaire and Whitman, and acquaint himself with alcohol and sex with other boys. There he met Lord Alfred Douglas, three years his junior, with whom he had some romantic involvement and who became his lifelong friend. Johnson, a slight, effeminate young man with a precious genius for verse, was by no means an alienated outsider at Winchester. He was a well liked eccentric feature of the social landscape—in his senior year, as editor of school newspaper, he replaced the cricket scores with decadent poems
He went on to Oxford—though his refusal to concern himself with math nearly cost him his admission. There he became friends with Ernest (“they are not long, the days of wine and roses”) Dowson, and was mentored by Walter Pater, the great theorist of English aestheticism, through whom he met Oscar Wilde, who in turn introduced him to the gay pubs.
After Oxford, he met Yeats, was a founder of the Rhymers’ Club, and became a poetic voice of the Celtic Revival.
In 1891, at age twenty-four, he converted to Roman Catholicism. This was a trend among the decadent writers. In France, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Verlaine finally restored relations with Rome, while in England, Dowson, Beardsley and Alfred Douglas converted to Catholicism.
Wilde’s conviction in 1895 put an end to the brief decadent homosexual renaissance of the “mauve decade.” It was about then that Johnson began his final alcoholic decline, which cost him the company of Yeats. The English decadents all perished at the onset of the twentieth century—Beardsley died in 1898, Dowson in 1900, Johnson in 1902. It was as though the wind from the wing of the Modern had blown their candles out one by one.
Antonia’s account concludes on a fascinating supernatural note. Johnson’s second to last address, at Lincoln’s Inn, was by the grounds of an infamous execution grounds and notably haunted. After numerous and documented manifestations of a phantom in his chambers that left great strange avian footprints in flour spread on the floor, he moved to new quarters where he collapsed, to remain bedridden for the next eighteen months. He rallied briefly, only to wander in an alcoholic daze that ended in a series of strokes that knocked him from a bar stool to his death.
Johnson is usually regarded as a mere footnote to the biographies of Yeats and Wilde. In putting him at center stage, Antonia shares the admiration felt for him by his contemporaries. Yeats brought out a posthumous selected poems in 1908 and Ezra Pound wrote the introduction to his collected poems in 1915.
The biographical preface is a well paced narrative, crammed with interesting characters and incidents, and serves well as an introduction to her judicious selection from his works. All the poems quoted in this review appear in Antonia’s book.
These are preceded by three short prose pieces, the first of which, Incurable, gives the book its title. This is the entertaining account of an unsuccessful suicide attempt by an even less successful poet. Then come two humorous essays on how to cultivate an aesthetic attitude: advice on etiquette for aesthetic dandies. These are particularly valuable for the insight they give into the everyday life of the decadents, the stratagems they used to keep vulgar modernity at bay, to negotiate the real world for necessary forays from an ivory tower of art and intoxicants.
Which brings us to the poem Vinum Daemonum “Wine of Demons.” These lines, which describe the burning taste and all-condoning warmth of alcohol, will give some impression of it,
One sting, and then but joy:
One pang of fire, and thou art free.
Though this is his only poem about intoxicants, it is writ with the unerring pen of long experience. Substance abuse is part of what defined the decadents. Drink surely undid Dowson and at the very least it hastened Johnson’s end. As a rule, people find famous drug addicts intriguing, either because they enjoy the squalid stories of their decline, or because they themselves have a habit and like to see it glamorized in the lives of the great.
Addicts are frequently people for whom everyday reality is simply not enough. It’s not that they can’t handle it, it’s that it bores them. Drug experiences actually are mystical states, just not very high quality ones, and are finally neither edifying nor sustainable. But the seeking of enlightenment, even by such illegitimate means as drugs and magic, is the mark of a potentially noble soul. For Johnson, alcohol and absinthe were not a spiritual path—which is why they make so little appearance in his poems. They were anesthesia for his emotional pain, which we will examine below.
The easiest case to make for Johnson’s importance is his share with Yeats in the Celtic Revival. He expressed, with Shelleyan verbal excesses, his sincere attachment to all things Celtic, and he connected infallibly with the landscapes of Wales and Cornwall which he knew well, as in these lines from Gwynedd
We will not wander from this land, we will
Be wise together, and accept our world
This world of the gray cottage by the hill.
This gorge, this lusty air, this loneliness:
The calm of drifting clouds; the pine-tops whirled
And swayed along the ridges. Here distress
Dreams, and delight dreams: dreaming, we can fill
All solitary haunts with prophecy,
All heights with holiness and mystery . . .
or these from A Cornish Night (dedicated to Yeats)
Above the ancient isles of the old main.
The spray leaps on the hidden rocks of doom:
The ripples break, and wail away again
Upon the gathering wave: gaunt headlands loom
In the lone distance of the heaving plain.
Decadent and Symbolist poetry usually shows a yearning for occult knowledge and metaphysical adventure, the drive, as Johnson says, “to scale the secret sky” and to “prepare immortalizing draughts” from “moonlit dew” This is wonderfully attested in his poem Magic, which ends with an invocation to which the gods turn a deaf ear “For all the witchery of the world is fled, nor chilled stars fall, all things remain the same.”
Likewise magical is Mystic and Cavalier, in which Johnson’s identifies with a cavalier adherent of the Stuart cause which faltered and failed before Cromwell’s ineluctable “ironsides” cavalry. The hero of the poem looks into a crystal ball, unable to peer through the inscrutable mists that conceal his fate. He feels there are occult purposes in play, and demands of his divination, “beneath, what angels are at work, what powers?”
Johnson’s cavalier persona takes its most splendid and memorable form in his By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross, which is possibly his greatest, and certainly his most often anthologized poem, here given in full,
Sombre and rich, the skies;
Great glooms, and starry plains.
Gently the night wind sighs;
Else a vast silence reigns.
The splendid silence clings
Around me: and around
The saddest of all kings
Crowned, and again discrowned.
Comely and calm, he rides
Hard by his own Whitehall:
Only the night wind glides:
No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.
Gone, too, his Court: and yet,
The stars his courtiers are:
Stars in their stations set;
And every wandering star.
Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal king:
Dark night is all his own,
That strange and solemn thing.
Which are more full of fate:
The stars; or those sad eyes?
Which are more still and great:
Those brows; or the dark skies?
Although his whole heart yearn
In passionate tragedy:
Never was face so stern
With sweet austerity.
Vanquished in life, his death
By beauty made amends:
The passing of his breath
Won his defeated ends.
Brief life, and hapless? Nay:
Through death, life grew sublime.
Speak after sentence? Yea:
And to the end of time.
Armoured he rides, his head
Bare to the stars of doom:
He triumphs now, the dead.
Beholding London’s gloom.
Our wearier spirit faints,
Vexed in the world’s employ:
His soul was of the saints;
And art to him was joy.
King, tried in fires of woe!
Men hunger for thy grace:
And through the night I go.
Loving thy mournful face.
Yet, when the city sleeps;
When all the cries are still :
The stars and heavenly deeps
Work out a perfect will.
Another deftly melancholy evocation of the age the cavalier is in the programmatic The Age of a Dream, from which I will quote a few lines,
Imageries of dreams reveal a gracious age:
Black armour, falling lace, and altar lights at morn.
The courtesy of Saints, their gentleness and scorn.
Lights on an earth more fair, than shone from Plato’s page:
The courtesy of knights, fair calm and sacred rage:
The courtesy of love, sorrow for love’s sake borne.
Vanished, those high conceits! Desolate and forlorn.
We hunger against hope for that lost heritage.
We cannot understand Johnson’s poetry without frankly taking account of his homosexuality. In the poem Beyond, which he wrote at twenty-two, we get a glimpse of love nuanced by fear, and shame, that must be overcome. The simple yielding to pleasure is a victory over an entire upbringing. This provides the poignance of the lines,
You still were mine, and I yours only:
Then on my breast lay down your head,
Triumphant in its dear surrender:
The a more exultant mood appears in A Dream of Youth, dedicated to Lord Alfred Douglas. Here his aesthetic stance, with its claims to spiritual purity, emboldened Johnson to produce a homoerotic hymn to handsome young men,
Their dignity of perfect youth
compels devotion, as does truth.
The poem proceeds, an exuberant mural of youths, done in the chaste pastel-classical style of a painting by Puvis de Chavannes. Is it kitsch? Quite possibly, but very enjoyable, as kitsch tends to be.
The influence of Whitman is strong in Bagley Wood. The grove named here was a cruising ground, and Johnson poetically suggests the natural beauty of his passion matches the natural beauty of this trysting place. The poem begins,
The night is full of stars, full of magnificence:
Nightingales hold the wood, and fragrance loads the dark.
Behold, what fires august, what lights eternal! Hark,
What passionate music poured in passionate love’s defence!
Breathe but the wafting wind’s nocturnal frankincense!
It was Johnson who introduced his schoolmate Alfred Douglas to Wilde, already then a very celebrated author. Douglas was sixteen years Wilde’s junior. Johnson’s poetic record is contradictory but deeply revealing. He wrote a Latin hymn to Wilde, In Honor of Dorian and His Creator Prudently not published in Johnson’s lifetime, it is a sodomite psalm, written in wickedly correct metrical Church Latin, with impishly perverse word choices. Antonia gives a full literal translation of the poem as a guide to this giddy send-up of Church liturgy. Then there is the celebrated The Destroyer of a Soul,
I hate you with a necessary hate.
First, I sought patience: passionate was she:
My patience turned in very scorn of me,
That I should dare forgive a sin so great,
As this, through which I sit disconsolate;
Mourning for that live soul, I used to see
Soul of a saint, whose friend I used to be:
Till you came by! a cold, corrupting, fate.
Why come you now? You, whom I cannot cease
With pure and perfect hate to hate? Go, ring
The death-bell with a deep, triumphant toll!
Say you, my friend sits by me still? Ah, peace!
Call you this thing my friend? this nameless thing?
This living body, hiding its dead soul?
It is dated 1892, and was printed without the dedication to Wilde, so it can’t be an attempt to dissociate himself from Wilde after the trial, which took place three years later. Part of the motivation was jealousy and hurt pride. Wilde, who couldn’t resist a bon mot, poked some ill considered fun at Johnson’s diminutive stature and his taste for the bottle—remarking one evening when Johnson came reeling out of a pub, “Someone get him a cab—or perhaps a pram.” This is one surviving record of many a mean and merry saying at the expense of Douglas’ tipsy, envious ex. Douglas, under the spell of Wilde’s wit and charisma, joined in the scorn. Though he couldn’t muster a response with Wilde’s speed, Johnson finally replied with Destroyer of a Soul, a solemn, and indeed chilling, poetic sentence of excommunication, ringing out “with a deep, triumphant toll.”
The homophobic condemnation of Douglas “corruption” is a monument to homosexual self-hate. We find this again, in tones of sorrow rather than anger, in the often anthologized poem, The Precept of Silence, with its penitential evocation of “desolate passions” and “aching hours.” Johnson describes the dread of divine condemnation which, makes the heavens “starry spaces, full of fear.” He ends by saying he can only reveal his meaning to God and his confessor. One could view this either as the noble record of a soul striving for purity, or the inquisitorial torture of a heart by moral demands that had no sympathy with, or understanding of, human sexuality. Before one dismisses the former explanation as sad delusion, one should recall this was what Johnson himself sincerely and consciously believed. He was a devout Catholic, and his own existential choice deserves respect.
The supreme expression of his erotic torture—or his final transcendence of the flesh, if one reads it from a Catholic perspective and in accord with its explicit meaning—is the poem Dark Angel. Here the undercurrent of ferociously repressed homosexual desire flows through all experience, subtly signaling its inescapable presence with every warm pulse of blood.
When music sounds, then changest thou
Its silvery to a sultry fire:
Nor will thine envious heart allow
Delight untortured by desire.
One’s compassion for Johnson should not lead us to discount the Catholicism which was integral to his most beautiful self expression, and which gave him so full a spiritual life that he didn’t have to follow Yeats into Hermeticism or Dowson into distilled spirituality.
Still, Johnson’s attempt to change his own nature with the help of God and the Church was pursued at a terrible price. His alcoholism was a part of his mortification. If suffering undergone for God could do it, he achieved a kind of sainthood. The beautiful poems of Catholic piety, Ash Wednesday, the Latin liturgical poem Satanas, which is a personal Dies Irae, the beautiful Our Lady of the May and The Church of a Dream, are ample evidence of his attainment. For English Catholic devotional poetry, Johnson’s only rival is Richard Crashaw.
A very unexpected and winning note is struck by the Lines to a Lady upon Her Third Birthday with its playful mock formality and charming contrasts between country and city, innocence and experience. It is addressed to Johnson’s niece Dorothy, who is
And yet, no flower of woodlands wild,
but overwhelming London’s child!
This recalls the tone of the three essays at the beginning of the book. Johnson also had a merry, playful side—which explains why he was so well liked at school. This aspect of his nature finds its most winning expression in Sancta Silvarum (Holy Things of the Forest).
Through the fresh woods there fleet
Fawns, with bright eyes, light feet:
Bright eyes, and feet that spurn
The pure green fern.
Headed by leaping does,
The swift procession goes
Through thickets, over lawns:
Followed by fawns.
Over slopes, over glades,
Down dells and leafy shades,
Away the quick deer troop:
A wildwood group.
Under the forest airs,
A life of grace is theirs:
Courtly their look; they seem
Things of a dream.
Some say, but who can say?
That a charmed troop are they:
Once youths and maidens white!
These may be right.
Fantasy literature is the very living descendant of Fin de Siècle culture, and those who are fond of magic, cavaliers, medievalism, and like their erotic somewhat exotic, will find much to enjoy in this beautifully produced presentation of Lionel Johnson and his poetry. It is the delight of the intelligent and would make a rare gift for any cultivated friend.