Lionel Pigot Johnson.

Some poems of Lionel Johnson newly selected; online

. (page 1 of 3)
Online LibraryLionel Pigot JohnsonSome poems of Lionel Johnson newly selected; → online text (page 1 of 3)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook






indicated by an

post free on

may be had







other Poems,
ccted pieces.


Each Volume Sold Separately













Of Lionel Johnson ... ... ... ... ... 7

Winchester ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 25

Chalkhil! 32

Oxford ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 32

The Classics 36

Walter Pater ... ... ... ... ... ... 39

Cromwell ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 42

To Morfydd 45

Cadgwith ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 47

By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross ... ... ... 48

Glories 51

In Fahnoiith Plarbour 52

Magic ... ... ... .,. ... ... ... ... ... 54

To the Dead of 98 56

To a Spanish Friend ... .., ... ... ... ... ... 58

Brothers... ... ... ... ... ... ... ,. . . 61

A Friend 63

Ash Wednesday ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 64

To a Friend 65

The Age of a Dream 66

The Precept of Silence 67

The Dark Angel 68

Lucretius ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 7 1

Harvest... 72

A Stranger 74

Winchester Close 76

In Memory of M. B 77

A Proselyte 79


AN early death has lately robbed the world of
letters in England of its one critic of the first
rank in this generation. Poet-minds of the
Arnold breed, with what may be called the hush
of scholarship laid upon their full energies and
animations, must necessarily grow rarer and
rarer, in a world ever more noisy and more
superficial. They cannot expect now the foster-
ing cloistral conditions which were finally dis-
turbed by the great Revolution. Yet they still
find themselves here, in a state of royal dis-
possession, and live on as they can. Of these
was Lionel Johnson. In criticism, though he
seemed to care so little about acknowledging,
preserving, and collecting what he wrote, he
was nobly able to "beat his music out;" his
potential success lay there, perhaps, rather than
in the exercise of his singularly lovely and

austere poetic gift. But this is not saying that
he was more critic than poet. On the contrary,
he was all poet ; and the application of the
poet's touchstone to human affairs, whether in
art or in ethics, was the very thing which gave
its extraordinary elasticity and balance to his
prose work. Being what he was, a selfless
intelligence, to him right judgments came easy,
and to set them down, at the eligible moment,
was mere play. He had lived more or less
alone from his boyhood, but alone with eternal
thoughts and classic books. Whenever he
spoke, there was authority in the speech col-
oured by companionship with the great of his
own election : with Plato ; Lucretius and Vir-
gil ; Augustine ; Shakespeare. His capacity
for admiration was immense, although in his
choice of things admirable he was quite
uncompromising. Beyond that beautiful in-
ward exaction, " the chastity of honour," he
was naturally inclined to the charities of in-
terpretation. He gave them, but he asked
them not, and would not thank you for your
casual approval, except by his all-understanding
smile. Neither vanity, ambition, nor envy ever
so much as breathed upon him, and, scholar
that he was, he had none of the limitations

common to scholars, for he was without fear
and without prejudice.

A striking feature in the make-up of his
mind was its interplay and counterpoise of con-
trasts. Full of worship and wonder (and a
certain devout sense of indebtedness kept him,
as by a strict rubric of his own, an allusive and
a quoting writer), he was also full of an almost
fierce uninfluenced independence. Not wholly
blest is the poet who has historic knowledge
of his own craft ; for to him nothing is sayable
which has already been well said. Lionel
Johnson, even as a beginner, was of so jealous
an integrity that his youthful numbers are in
their detail rather scandalously free from par-
cntalia. Yet by some supernatural little joke,
his most famous line,

" Lonely unto the Lone I go,"

had been anticipated by Plotinus. With a
great vocabulary, his game was always to pack
close, and thin out, his words. Impersonal as
Pan's pipe to the audience of The Anti-Jacobin
or The Academy, he became intensely subjective
the moment he reached his fatherland of poesy.
His utterance, as daring in its opposite way as
Mr. John Davidson's, has laid bare some of

the deepest secrets of the spirit. And side by
side with them lie etched on the page the most
delicate little landscapes, each as happily con-
ceived as if "the inner eye" and "the eye on
the object," of both of which Wordsworth
speaks, were one and the same.

One might have thought, misled by Lionel
Johnson's strongly philosophic fibre, his habits
of a recluse simplicity, his faith in minorities,
his patrician old-fashioned tastes, that he would
have ranged himself with the abstract critics,
with Joubert and Vauvenargues, rather than
with Sainte-Beuve. But it was another of his
surprising excellencies that he was never out
of tune with cosmic externals, and the aspira-
tions of to-day. Into these his brain had a sort
of detached angelic insight. His earliest book,
written while he was very young, was not about
some subtlety of Attic thought: it was a masterly
exposition of The Art of Thomas Hardy. This
same relevance and relativity of our friend, this
open dealing with the nearest interest, was his
strength ; he not only did not shrink from con-
temporary life, but bathed in the apprehension
of it as joyously as in a mountain stream. How
significant, how full of fresh force, have been
his many unsigned reviews i Nothing so broad,


so sure, so penetrating, has been said, in little,
of such very modern men as Renan and William

It is perhaps less than exact to claim that
Lionel Johnson had no prejudices. All his
humilities and tolerances did not hinder his
humorous depreciation of the Teutonic in-
tellect ; and he liked well King Charles Il.'s
word for it : " foggy." Heine, that " Parisian-
ized Jew," was his only love made in Germany.
Non-scientific, anti-mathematical, he was a
genuine Oxonian ; a recruit, as it were, for
transcendentalism and the White Rose. His
studies were willful and concentrated ; he never
tried to get a thorough understanding of some
arts which he relished, music and sculpture, for
instance ; and, discursive as his national sym-
pathies certainly were, he was never out of the
British Isles. In all such lateral matters, he
saw the uses of exclusion, of repression, if his
calling was to be not a dilettante impulse, but
the sustained and unwasted passion of a lifetime.
Culture in him, it is true to say, was not mis-
cellaneous information ; as in Newman's perfect
definition, it was "the command over his own
faculties, and the instinctive just estimate of
things as they pass." He had an amazing and


most accurate memory for everything worth
while : it was as if he had moved, to some pro-
fit, in several ages, and forgotten none of their
" wild and noble sights." And the powers which
were so delighting to others, were, in a reflex
way, a most single-hearted and modest way,
sheer delight to the one who had tamed them
to his hand.

His non-professorial conception of the func-
tion of a man of letters (only it was one of the
thousand subjects on which he was sparing of
speech, perhaps deterred by the insincerities all
about him) amounted to this : that he was glad
to be a bond-slave to his own discipline ; that
there should be no limit to the constraints and
the labour self-imposed ; that in pursuit of the
best, he would never count cost, never lower a
pennon, never bow the knee to Baal. It was
not his isolated position, nor his exemption
from the corroding breath of poverty, which
made it easy for such an one to hold his ground;
for nothing can make easy that strenuous and
entire consecration of a soul to what it is given
to do. It extended to the utmost detail of
composition. The proud melancholy charm of
his finest stanzas rests upon the severest ad-
herence to the laws and by-laws of rhythm ; in


no page of his was there ever a rhetorical trick
or an underbred rhyme. Excess and show
were foreign to him. Here was a poet who
liked the campaign better than Capua. He
sought out voluntarily never, indeed, the fan-
tastic, but the difficult way. If he could but
work out his idea in music, he preferred to do
so with divers painstakings which less scru-
pulous vassals of the Muse would as soon
practice as fasting and praying. To one who
looks well into the structure of his poems, they
are like the roof of Milan Cathedral, "gone to
seed with pinnacles," full of voweled surprises
and exquisitely devotional elaborations, given
in the zest of service, and meant either to be
searched for or else hidden. Yet they have
the grace to appear much simpler than they are.
The groundwork, at least, is always simple :
his usual metre is iambic or trochaic, and the
English alexandrine he made his own. The
shortcoming of his verse lies in its Latin strict-
ness and asceticism, somewhat repellent to any
readers but those of his own temper. Its
emotional glow is a shade too moral, and it is
only after a league of stately pacing that fancy
is let go with a looser rein.

Precision clung like drapery to everything he


did. His handwriting was unique; a slender,
close slant, very odd, but not illegible ; a true
script of the old time, without a flaw. It seemed
to whisper : " Behold in me the inveterate foe of
haste and discourtesy, of typewriters, telegrams,
and secretaries ! " As he wrote, he punctuated : no-
thing was trivial to this " enamoured architect "
of perfection. He cultivated a half-mischievous
attachment to certain antique forms of spelling,
and to the colon, which our slovenly press will
have none of; and because the colon stands
for fine differentiations and sly sequences, he
delighted especially to employ it.

Lionel Johnson's gallant thoroughness was
applied not only to the department of literature.
He had a loving heart, and laid upon himself
the burden of many gratitudes. To Win-
chester, his old school, and Oxford, his uni-
versity (in both of which he covered himself,
as it happened, with honours), he was a
bounden knight. The Catholic Church, to
which he felt an attraction from infancy, and
which he entered soon after he came of age,
could command his whole zeal and furtherance,
to the end. His faith was his treasure, and an
abiding peace and compensation. The delicacy,
nay, the sanctity of his character, was the out-


come of it ; and when clouds did not impede
his action, it so pervaded, guided, and adjusted
his whole attitude towards life (as Catholicism
alone claims and intends to do), that his re-
ligiousness can hardly be spoken of, or ex-
amined, as a thing separate from himself.
There was a seal upon him as of something
priestly and monastic. His place, like his
favourite Hawthorne's, should have been in a
Benedictine scriptorium, far away, and long ago.

" Us the sad world rings round

With passionate flames impure ;
We tread an impious ground ;
We hunger, and endure."

But he would be " at rest with ancient victors,"
and ''with you imparadised, White angels
around Christ!" The saints, bright from their
earthly battle, and especially the angels, in
Heaven their commonweal, were always pre-
sent to the imagination of this aniina natura-
liier Christiana.

Again, his most conscious loyalty, with the
glamour of mediaeval chivalry upon it, was for
Ireland. He was descended from a line of
soldiers, and from the baronet of his name who,
in the ruthless governmental fashion of the
time, put down at New Ross the tragic in-


surrectlon of 1 798. Study and sympathy brought
his great-grandson to see things from a point
of view not in the least ancestral ; and the con-
sequence was that Lionel Johnson came to
write, (and even to lecture !) as the heart-whole
champion of hapless Inisfail. In the acknow-
ledged spirit of reparation, he gave his thought,
his time, and his purse to her interests. He
devoted his lyre to her, as his most moving-
theme, and he pondered not so much her
political hope, nor the charm of her streams and
valleys, as her constancy under sorrows, and
the holiness of her mystical ideal. His in-
heritance was goodly unto him, for he had by
race both the Gaelic and the Cymric strain, and
his temperament, with its remoteness, and its
sage and sweet ironies, was by so much more
and less than English. But he possessed also,
in very full measure, the basic English traits :
deliberation, patience, and control. It was
owing to these unexpected and saving qualities
in him that he turned out no mere visionary,
but made his mark in life like a man, and that
he held out for five and thirty years in that
fragile, terribly nervous body always so in-
adequate and perilous a mate for his giant


Next to the impersonal allegiances which had
so much claim upon him was his feeling for his
friends. The boy Lionel had been the ex-
ceptional sort of boy who can discern a possible
halo about a master or a tutor ; and at Oxford,
as at Winchester, he found men worth his
homage. The very last poem he sent forth
was a threnody for his dear and honoured Walter
Pater, honoured and dear long after death, as
during life. Like so much else from the same
pen, it is of synthetic and illuminating beauty,
and it ends with the tenderest of lyrical cries :

" Gracious God keep him : and God grant to me

By miracle to see

That unforgettably most gracious friend,
In the never-ending end ! "

Friendship, with Lionel Johnson, was the grave,
high romantic sentiment of antique tradition.
He liked to link familiar names with his own by
means of little dedications, and the two volumes
of his poems, with their placid blue covers and
dignity of margin, furnish a fairly full roll-call
of those with whom he felt himself allied :
English, Irish, Welsh, and American ; men and
women ; famous and unknown ; Christian and
pagan ; clerical and lay. It was characteristic
of him that he addressed but one or two poems


directly to a friend, but set apart this or that, in
print, as private to one or another whose heart,
he knew, would go along with it. As a proof
of the shyness and reticence of his affections, it
may be added that some who were fond of him
did not discover, for years after (and perhaps
some have not yet discovered), the page bearing
their own names, once quietly left to them
in most loyal remembrance, by the hand
which towards the last answered few letters,
and withdrew more and more from social con-

Alas, this brings us upon sad ground. We
all first began to be conscious of losing him
about 1899, when he shut himself up, and kept
obstinate silence, for weeks and months, in the
cloistral London nooks where he and his library
successively abode. Then, not quite two years
later, began a painful and prolonged illness, in
the course of which his hands and feet became
temporarily crippled; and for the ardent lover, in
any weather, of the open countryside, arrived a
dark twelvemonth of indoor inaction. It is to
be feared he was not properly nursed ; he had
never known how to care for himself, and had
lived as heedless of the flesh as if he were all
wings. It seemed ungenerous, that instinct to


go into the dark at times, wholly away from
wonted intercourse. Yet it was neither un-
generous nor perverse. Surging up the more
as his bodily resources failed him, a " mortal
moral strife " had to be undergone : the fight
in which there can be no comrades. The
brave will in him fought long and fought hard :
no victor could do more. He had apparently
recovered his health after all the solitude and
mental weariness, and had just expressed him-
self as "greedy for work," when he went out
from his chambers in Clifford's Inn, late on the
night of the 2Qth of September, for the last of
his many enchanted walks alone : for with
Hazlitt and Stevenson, this walker held that
any walk is the richer for being companionless.
He had a fall, and was picked up unconscious
and carried to St. Bartholomew's Hospital.
And there he lay, with his skull fractured (a
child's skull it was, abnormally thin, as the
doctors found), recognised and tended, but
always asleep, for four days and five nights ;
and then the little flickering candle went quietly
out. In the bitter pathos of his end he was not
with Keats, but with Poe. It was the 4th of
October, 1902, a Saturday of misted autumn
sunshine, sacred in the ecclesiastical calendar to


the Poverello of Assisi. Of that blessed fore-
runner his dead poet had once written :

" Thy love loved all things, thy love knew no stay,
But drew the very wild beasts round thy knee.
O lover of the least and lowest! pray,

Saint Francis, to the Son of Man, for me."

The only other Englishman of letters so
elfin-small and light was De Quincey. Few
persons could readily be got to believe Lionel
Johnson's actual age. With his smooth hair
and cheek, he passed for a slim undergrown
boy of sixteen ; his light-footed marches, in
bygone summers, over the Welsh hills and the
coasts of Dorset and Cornwall, were interrupted
at every inn by the ubiquitous motherly land-
lady, expostulating with him for his supposed
truancy. His extreme sense of humour forbade
annoyance over the episode ; rather was it not
unwelcome to one who had no hold on time,
and was as elemental as foam or air. Yes, he
lived and died young. It was not only simple
country folk who missed in him the adult
" note." And yet a certain quaint and cour-
ageous pensiveness of aspect and outlook ; a
hint of power in the fine brow, the sensitive
hands, the gray eye so quick, and yet so
chastened and incurious, could neither escape a


true palaeographer, nor be misconstrued by him.
Lionel Johnson must have been at all times
both a man and a child. At ten years old, or
at the impossible sixty, he must equally have
gone on, in a sort of beautiful vital stubborn-
ness, being a unit, being himself. His manners,
as well as his mental habits, lasted him through-
out ; from the first he was a sweet gentleman
and a sound thinker. His earliest and his
latest poems, in kind altogether, and largely in
degree, were of a piece. A paper produced at
Winchester School, on Shakespeare's Fools, is
as unmistakably his as his final review of
Tennyson. To put it rather roughly, he had
no discarded gods, and therefore no periods of
growth. He was a crystal, a day-lily, shown
without tedious processes. In his own phrase,

" All that he came to give
He gave, and went again."

He had a homeless genius : it lacked affinity
with the planetary influences under which he
found himself here, being as Sir Thomas
Browne grandly says, "older than the elements,
and owino' no homage unto the sun." He
seemed ever the same because he was so.
Only intense natures have this continuity of
look and mood.


With all his deference, his dominant com-
passion, his grasp of the spiritual and the un-
seen, his feet stood foursquare upon rock. He
was a tower of wholesomeness in the decadence
which his short life spanned. He was no pe-
dant, and no prig. Never poet cared so little
to "publish his wistfulness abroad," and here
was one gentle critic, at least, whose head was
as clear as any barbarian's concerning the
things he would adore, and the things he would
burn. He suffered indeed, but he won manifold
golden comfort from the mercies of God, from
human excellence, the arts, and the stretches of
meadow, sky, and sea. Sky and sea ! they
were sacrament and symbol, meat and drink, to
him. To illustrate both his truth of perception
when dealing with the mao-Jc of the natural

o o

world and his rapturous sense of union with it,
take certain lines, written at Cadgwith in 1892,
" Winds rush and waters roll " ; an Oxford
poem of 1889, " Going down the forest side " ;
and one (with its lovely opening anticipation of
Tennyson), dating from Falmouth Harbour, as
long ago as 1887, "I have passed over the
rough sea, And over the white harbour bar."

Surely no pity need be wasted upon one who
resolved himself into so glorious a harmony


with all creation and with the mysteries of our
mortal being. To be happy is a feat, nowa-
days, nothing less than heroic. Lionel John-
son, after all and in spite of all, dared to be
happy. As he never worried himself about
awards, the question of his to-morrow's station
and his measure of fame need not obtrude upon
a mere character-study. Memorable and ex-
hilarating has been the ten years' spectacle of
him in unexhausted free play, now with his
harp, now with his blunted rapier, under the
steady dominion of a genius so wise and so
ripe that one knows not where in living com-
panies to look for its parallel. Well : may we
soon get used to thinking of our dearest guild-
fellow in a safer City, where no terror of defeat
can touch him ! " And he shall sing there
according to the days of his youth, and according
to the days of his going up out of the land of
Egypt r


(From The Atlantic Monthly,
December, 1902.)



To the fairest !

Then to thee

Consecrate and bounden be,
Winchester ! this verse of mine.
Ah, that loveliness of thine !
To have lived enchaunted years
Free from sorrows, free from fears,
Where thy Tower's great shadow falls
Over those proud buttressed walls ;
Whence a purpling glory pours
From high heaven's inheritors,
Throned within the arching stone !
To have wandered, hushed, alone,
Gently round thy fair, fern-grown
Chauntry of the Lilies, lying
Where the soft night winds go sighing
Round thy Cloisters, in moonlight
Branching dark, or touched with white


Round old, chill aisles, where moon-smitten
Blanches the Orate, written
Under each worn old-world face
Graven on Death's holy place !

To the noblest !

None but thee.

Blest our living eyes, that see
Half a thonsand years fulfilled
Of that age, which Wykeham willed
Thee to win ; yet all unworn,
As upon that first March morn,
When thine honoured city saw
Thy young beauty without flaw,
Born within her water-flowing
Ancient hollows, by wind-blowing
Hills enfolded ever more.
Thee, that lord of splendid lore,
Orient from old Hellas' shore,
Grocyn, had to mother : thee,
Monumental majesty
Of most high philosophy
Honours, in thy wizard Browne :
Tender Otway's dear renown,


Mover of a perfect pity,
Victim of the iron city,
Thine to cherish is: and thec
Laureate of Liberty;
Harper of the Highland faith,
Elf, and faery, and wan wraith ;
Chaunting softly, chaunting slowly,
Minstrel of all melancholy ;
Master of all melody,
Made to cling round memory ;
Passion's poet, Evening's voice,
Collins glorified. Rejoice,
Mother ! in thy sons : for all
Love thine immemorial
Name, august and musical.
Not least he, who left thy side,
For his sire's, thine earlier pride,
Arnold : whom we mourn to-day,
Prince of song, and gone away
To his brothers of the bay :
Thine the love of all his years;
His be now thy praising tears.


To the dearest !

Ah, to thee !

Hast thou not in all to me
Mother, more than mother, been ?
Well toward thee may Mary Queen
Bend her with a mother's mien ;
Who so rarely dost express
An inspiring tenderness,
Woven with thy sterner strain,
Prelude of the world's true pain.
But two years, and still my feet
Found thy very stones more sweet,
Than the richest fields elsewhere :
Two years, and thy sacred air
Still poured balm upon me, when
Nearer drew the world of men ;
When the passions, one by one,
All sprang upward to the sun ;
Two years have I lived, still thine :
Lost, thy presence ! gone, that shrine,
Where six years, what years ! were mine.
Music is the thought of thee ;
Fragrance, all thy memory.
Those thy rugged Chambers old,
In their gloom and rudeness, hold


Dear remembrances of gold.
Some first blossoming of flowers
Made delight of all the hours ;
Greatness, beauty, all things fair
Made the spirit of thine air :
Old years live with thee ; thy sons
Walk with high companions.
Then, the natural joy of earth,
Joy of very health and birth !
Hills, upon a summer noon :
Water Meads, on eves of June :

1 3

Online LibraryLionel Pigot JohnsonSome poems of Lionel Johnson newly selected; → online text (page 1 of 3)