The Poets' Chantry/Lionel Johnson
The news of Lionel Johnson's early and tragic death brought to friends a keen sense of personal loss and to the literary world a consciousness that his place would be difficult to fill, yet could not, save with serious detriment, be left empty. He had stood for something definite and something high. As poet, he had clothed conceptions of delicate and poignant loveliness in the robe of an almost classic austerity. As critic, he had shown himself a master of sure judgment and wide sympathies; possessing, in his own words, "preferences but no prejudices"—if one except that fundamental prejudice against the vulgar, the perverse or the insincere in art. All things pure and noble, and not a few forgotten or despised, found shelter in Lionel Johnson's heart: and then, that heart ceased beating. Even now it is difficult to think dispassionately of the young poet, with his childlike face and his words of memorable wisdom, of reticent yet compelling pathos. Still more difficult is it to reach any satisfying analysis of the mingled defeat and victory which made up his life's brief conflict. His aloofness, to the very end, was majestic as well as melancholy.
Strangely enough, it is in the vivid yet unconscious self-portraiture of his final poem, the lines to Walter Pater, that the truest comment upon his own life and work is found:
Gracious God rest him, he who toiled so well
Secrets of grace to tell
Graciously . . . . Half of a passionately pensive soul
He showed us, not the whole:
Who loved him best, they best, they only, knew
The deeps they might not view;
That, which was private between God and him;
To others, justly dim.
· · · · · ·
At Broadstairs, Kent, in the March of 1867, Lionel Johnson was born into a family of Protestant faith and military predilection; a family, indeed, which had seen much service and owned to Irish affiliations. Perhaps it was the old Gaelic and Cymric strain in his blood which kept the boy so free from hostile influences and planted in his heart an early love of Nature and of the past, a certain mystic kinship with the Beautiful Unknown. Then it was his great good fortune to be educated at Winchester, where were passed six years of deep content and inspiration. The memory of Arnold was still redolent there; further back, the memories of Collins, of Otway, of Sir Thomas Browne, and dreams of "half a thousand years" of scholarship. There were the natural beauties, too, of that rich and rural England—Twyford Down, the near-by hills and woodlands, "walks and streets of ancient days," and that "fair, fern-grown Chauntry of the Lilies," white beneath the moonbeams.
Music is the thought of thee,
Fragrance all thy memory,
Lionel later wrote; and there is scarcely a spire or cranny of the old place on which he has not dwelt in loving veneration. At Winchester, very largely, his character was formed and his future taste determined; there the bent toward scholarship, toward solitude and toward Catholicity became inalienable parts of his life.
When Johnson passed on to New College, Oxford, he was scarcely the usual freshman. He had written and had written well; already a curious maturity of intellect was united to that curious youthfulness of physique which endured even to the end. Several of his published poems date as far back as 1887, 1885, even 1883, albeit their author was but little inclined to rest upon these tentative laurels. The educational process seems to have been in the nature of a triumphal march all along for Lionel Johnson, and the poem "Oxford Nights" is a charming commentary upon his early love of the classics—"dear human books" to him, and nowise formidable. In spite of all this, he very nearly missed his first degree because only one member of the entire examining board could decipher his handwriting!
Shortly after attaining his majority, Lionel Johnson was received into the Catholic Church. The step implied no sudden change of faith, for he would seem to have been Catholic almost from the first by right of intuitive yearning. His instinct was all for legitimacy and orderly development on the one side—on the other, all for the mystical and unworldly, for the human fired with a touch of the divine: and it is this very inevitability which imparts such grace to the story. Here was the return of a son into the arms of his Mother, a great yet simple act; and, beyond a prayer that his beloved England might so return to allegiance, Lionel appeared quite unconscious that the matter could be made one of controversy. It is said that about this time he had thoughts of entering the priesthood. In his "Vigils" (written at Oxford in 1887), one recognises a spiritual concentration very like that of the young Crashaw, lone watcher "beneath Tertullian's roof of angels":
Song and silence ever be
All the grace life brings to me:
Song of Mary, Mighty Mother;
Song of Whom she bore, my Brother
Silence of an ecstasy Where I find Him, and none other.
Lionel Johnson's vocation to what Faber has called "the mystical apostolate of the inward life" was, to the last, unwavering; but with characteristic self-criticism he deemed himself better suited to a literary than to a priestly career. Thenceforth he served his art with almost cloistral consecration, finding in the long and painful service a "blessedness beyond the pride of kings."
The first publication of Johnson's poems seems to have been in 1892, when a selection of the earlier ones appeared in the Book of the Rhymers' Club. The beautiful lines "By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross" were included in the number, and attracted some attention from the poetically hopeful. That same year he completed his searching and admirable prose work on The Art of Thomas Hardy. The publication of this volume was delayed until 1894, but its final appearance was the signal for Lionel Johnson's immediate welcome. The name of the youthful critic (he was then only twenty-seven) was coupled with those of Arnold and Pater, and his words were thenceforth prized by the foremost literary journals of London.
The passing of another year added new laurels, for in 1895 his first complete volume of Poems was issued. The power of verses like "The Dark Angel" was recognised on all sides; but Johnson's intense subjectivity, his preoccupation with spiritual ideas and ideals, made the critics somewhat guarded in their praise. Meanwhile, with serene indifference, our poet was preparing a new volume, to appear in 1897 under the title Ireland, with Other Poems. This contained some of his most exquisite work; religious lyrics that soared up straight as the tapers upon an altar, songs of hapless Innisfail, and chastened meditations upon life and love. And it proved, beyond all doubt, that here was a poet of Other-world fealties, with no intention of conciliating the practical English public. With heart-whole sincerity Johnson followed the gods of his affection—and for the most part, they were neglected divinities. Yet his poet's insight had prophetic clearness; looking backward now, one is almost amazed at the number of public movements which shared his sympathy. There was, first of all, the Catholic reaction in England, admittedly one of the great phenomena of nineteenth-century thought; and Lionel Johnson was as distinctively its product as the Westminster Cathedral. Again, he was one of the first to give ardent support to that Celtic Renaissance which has since proved itself a reality. As an early member of the Irish Literary Society, he mourned with Douglas Hyde over the decline of the Gaelic tongue; while, with his friend William Butler Yeats, he shared hopes for the future of Irish drama. So, too, did Johnson raise his protest against a certain decadent literary influence from across the Channel, and against various native "professors of strange speech" and stranger graces, who "suffer under the delusion that they are very French."
But throughout these years when his critical activity brightened the pages of the Academy, the Daily Chronicle and other papers, Johnson's health was perceptibly failing. His body, always frail, grew less and less able to support the continued mental strain. Even those long, wondrous rambles through Wales and Cornwall, which brought the poet so close to Nature's meanings, were powerless to wrest the secret of physical health. Every normal stimulant seemed at last ineffective; and so it happened that the sad, immemorial story was repeated—the story of which Edgar Poe furnished an even more tragic instance. There is slight call to dwell upon the warfare of these later years, or to remember the darkness which for a time eclipsed the star. For full twelve months before his death Johnson appears to have published nothing; from his nearest friends he became a recluse, and all letters and solicitations were met by silence. But scarcely anyone realised the full pathos of his situation until, on 22 September, 1902, the following note came to the editor of the Academy.
"You last wrote to me some time, I think, in the last century, and I hadn't the grace to answer. But I was in the middle of a serious illness which lasted more than a year, during the whole of which time I was not in the open for even five minutes, and hopelessly crippled in hands and feet. After that long spell of enforced idleness I feel greedy for work."
Accompanying this precious evidence of the star's enduring and prevailing brightness were the lines before mentioned, to the memory of his "unforgettably most gracious friend," Walter Pater. One week later—on the night of 29 September—he left his lodgings at Clifford's Inn for a solitary walk. He never returned. Death, by some inscrutable irony, waited tryst with this high and solitary soul in all the vulgar glare of a way-side "public house." There was a slight fall (slight, indeed, for any other, but not for this tabernacle of wrought ivory), and when the unconscious form was raised, the skull was found hopelessly fractured. Mr. Yeats had said the word: it was all part of the old world's tragedy that
So many pitchers of rough clay
Should prosper and the porcelain break in two.
So Lionel Johnson was carried to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where he whom the world had taught weariness slept for four long days and nights. Then, early in the morning of 4 October, 1902, he awakened in Eternity.
Were it not for the poems, it would be difficult to connect this reticent, fragile struggler with life—always a pathetic and lovable figure—with the serenely impersonal man of letters known to London journalism. But his own hand has bridged the abyss; through his poetical work may we trace the author's spiritual pilgrimage with no great incompleteness. It is not that the pages are frequently autobiographical—it is simply that both choice of theme and treatment are essentially characteristic. Some of the earliest of these poems show the strong influence of Classical literature: "Sertorius" is one instance, and "Julian at Eleusis," that plaintive elegy upon the death of pagan worship, is another. But "The Classics," with its brief and trenchant appreciation of the Greek and Latin writers, is the most complete expression of a culture which very largely moulded Johnson's own literary style. Upon every page of his work lies this stamp of scholarship; one recognises it in the exquisite, unobtrusive chiselling of his verse-effects, but even more fundamentally in his graceful ordering of ideas and his masterly control of passion and imagination. Considering his poetry as a whole, in matter rather than form, we may safely define the mainsprings of inspiration as Nature, Celtic Memories and Catholic Faith. A glorious trio it was, falling into subdivisions of almost equal majesty: exaltation of sky and sea and earth, musings upon the immemorial tragedy of life and death, chivalrous loyalty to Ireland, deep love and reverence for the past, for pagan culture and mediæval mysticism, with wistful visions of eternity. Even in poems of personal or reminiscent origin, such as "Winchester" or the series to "Malise," most of these elements are discoverable, blended into a harmony which is our poet's very own—his characteristic message to the world.
Because of the universal potency of external beauty, it may be that Johnson's widest appeal will be made through his Nature poems. "Sancta Silvarum," written as early as 1886, expresses in lines of powerful cadence the youth's passionate sympathy with the Nature world, his quick response to the
music of the mystery, that embraces
All forest-depths, and footless, far-off places,
his awed recognition of one mighty Will that shapes the course of star and blossom, of wind and sea. For the most part it was the wilder and more desolate aspect that he loved to contemplate—Nature upon rain-driven moors, where "the wet earth breathes ancient fair fragrance forth," rather than in "vineyard and orchard, flowers and mellow fruit."
Great good it is to see how beauty thrives
For desolate moorland and for moorland men;
To smell scents rarer than soft honey cells,
From bruised wild thyme, pine bark or mouldering peat;
To watch the crawling grey clouds drift, and meet
Midway the ragged cliffs. O mountain spells;
Calling us forth, by hill, and moor, and glen!
Such is the exalting burden of "Gwynedd"; but the author of "Gwynedd," be it remembered, had never known the lotus land of Italy.
The blending of abstract and concrete throughout these poems is peculiarly interesting: Lionel Johnson's ideal beauty is not invariably wrapped in cloud or dazzling in the splendour of sunrise—it is both sought and found beneath some actual, earthly symbol. Hence this poet was increasingly given to the painting of word pictures, little vignettes of an almost Cowper-like nicety, which crystallise some momentary aspect of Nature with the soulful simplicity of Wordsworth himself. "In England" abounds in these sketches, as of
A deep wood, where the air
Hangs in a stilly trance,
or again of:
Wind on the open down,
Riding the wind, the moon.
A thousand intimate recollections of Johnson's own rambles intensify the personal note, and very charmingly; he sings of the sea-gulls wheeling off in "a snowstorm of white wings," and of the shy rabbits who hopped away at his approach, the sunlight glowing "red their startled ears." Our poet once wrote that while he could but ill understand the temptation to worship the sun, he found entirely comprehensible that other temptation toward worship of the earth—"not with a vague, pantheistic emotion, but with a personal love for the sensible ground beneath his feet." It is impossible not to feel this tenderness, this sense of omnipresent kinship throughout his Nature pictures; in his love of the "freshness of early spray," and of sky and field and moor. The reality of it all reaches final expression in those poignant lines of "Cadgwith":
Ah, how the City of our God is fair!
If, without sea, and starless though it be,
For joy of the majestic beauty there,
Men shall not miss the stars, nor mourn the sea.
There has been a general acceptation of Johnson as a poet of the Irish revival which is both true and false. The heart has its own fatherland; and, while as fundamentally English in many ways as Newman himself, Johnson did throw in his lot unhesitatingly with the fortunes of the Celt. It was at first, no doubt, a poetical and devotional attraction (albeit blood, too, called, on the paternal side); the response of a keenly imaginative nature to the half-revealed magic of Celtic lore—that magic of fire and of tears. Out of this grew Lionel's passion for Ireland; albeit the glamour of her romance and her mystery, her thirst for freedom and her unnumbered woes, eventually won from him the allegiance of a very son. That fine and masterly poem which forms the title of his second volume is probably the richest fruit of this self-dedication. From the elemental pathos of "Ireland's" opening stanzas, through the bitter story of wrong and martyrdom, and the cold, terrible arraignment of the land's oppressors, the music sweeps with the majesty at once of death and of victory:
How long? Justice of Very God! How long?
The Isle of Sorrows from of old hath trod
The stony road of unremitting wrong:
The purple winepress of the wrath of God.
Is then the Isle of Destiny indeed
To grief predestinate;
Ever foredoomed to agonize and bleed,
Beneath the scourging of eternal fate?
Yet against hope shall we still hope, and still
Beseech the eternal Will;
Our lives to this one service dedicate.
And at last comes the plaintive tenderness of that call to Mary:
Glory of Angels! Pity, and turn thy face,
Praying thy Son, even as we pray thee now,
For thy dear sake to set thine Ireland free:
Pray thou, thy little Child!
Ah! who can help her, but in mercy He?
Pray then, pray thou for Ireland, Mother mild!
There are numerous shorter poems in both volumes treating of the same subject: notably those powerful lines "To Parnell," and the elegy beginning,
God rest you, rest you, rest you, Ireland's dead.
But "for a' that and a' that," Lionel Johnson was no Celtic poet. One critic has asserted that in him the Irish revival lost "its poet of firmest fibre and its most resonant voice—the only voice in which there was the cordial of a great courage." But when all is said, it was a voice from without. Perhaps the clearest way to draw this distinction is to set side by side Johnson's treatment of a Celtic theme with, for instance, that of Mr. Yeats. The latter's poem on the "Death of Cuhoolin" ends thus:
In three days' time, Cuhoolin with a moan
Stood up, and came to the long sands alone:
For four days warred he with the bitter tide;
And the waves flowed above him, and he died:
This is by no means a superlative example of the Irish poet's work, but it has caught something of the crude, epic, dream-like simplicity of a primitive saga. Now in "Cyhiraeth," Johnson has embodied the story of Llewellyn of Llanarmon and the strange summons that came to him from the Ghostly Gate. In lines of weird beauty he describes the "dolour and the dirge" which swept upon the land one cold midnight, the "bitterness of wounding fire which pierced the chieftain's heart." Then
While wailed the herald cry
Upright he sprang, and stood to die,
So, Lion of Llanarmon!
Lion soul and eagle face
Fought with death a splendid space;
Oh, proud be thou, Llanarmon!
Not man with man, but man with death
Wrestled: thine hoariest minstrel saith
No greater deed, Llanarmon!
The power of such poetry is undeniable: but is one not conscious of the long vista of time and art through which our bard looks back upon his subject? The Celtic inspiration was in truth a precious and powerful factor in Lionel Johnson's poetry; one is not so certain that it was an inevitable or an inalienable one.
On the other hand, any divorce between the poet and his religious lyrics would be quite inconceivable. His early lines to "Our Lady of the Snows" are one of the most beautiful expressions of the contemplative ideal to be found in English poetry: while his "Visions" of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are notable alike for extreme delicacy of touch and extreme power. But it was reserved for the second volume to prove this scholarly young convert one of the loveliest of our devotional poets. It is seldom possible to wander far among the lily-beds of English sacred lyrics without meeting traces of Crashaw, the ever-fragrant; and in Lionel Johnson the affinity is quite manifest. Indeed, many of his Catholic poems are altogether worthy of a place beside the master's. Such is that hymn of exquisite beauty, "Our Lady of the May":
O Rower of flowers, our Lady of the May!
Thou gavest us the World's one Light of Light:
Under the stars, amid the snows, He lay;
While Angels, through the Galilean night,
Sang glory and sang peace;
Nor doth their singing cease,
For thou their Queen and He their King sit crowned
Above the stars, above the bitter snows;
They chaunt to thee the Lily, Him the Rose,
With white Saints kneeling round.
Gone is cold night: thine now are spring and day:
O Flower of flowers, our Lady of the May!
And this is scarcely more beautiful than a dozen others which follow or precede. "Te Martyrum Candidatus" has been one of the most frequently quoted; and lines like—
These through the darkness of death, the dominion of night,
Swept, and they woke in white places at morning tide:
They saw with their eyes, and sang for joy of the sight,
They saw with their eyes the Eyes of the Crucified,
illustrate how admirably its metre reproduces the triumphant onward rush of those White Horsemen, the "fair chivalry of Christ." All this is merely a further instance of the poet's mastery over technical form; this time in a department where, perhaps more than in any other division of verse, purely artistic excellence is prone to be neglected. Yet every reader must be aware that the religious sincerity of Johnson's poems did not suffer by his formal precision. What could be more tender, more straightforward, than "Sursum Corda," lines addressed to his contemporary poet, Francis Thompson?
Lift up your hearts! We lift
To God, and to God's gift,
The Passion Cup.
Lift up your hearts! Ah, so
Through storm of fire or snow,
We lift them still. . . .
But as an expression of pure spiritual yearning, Lionel Johnson has scarcely left us a gift of more haunting beauty than the short poem, "De Profundis":
Would that with you I were imparadised,
White Angels around Christ!
That, by the borders of the eternal sea,
Singing, I too might be.
· · · · · ·
Where reigns the Victor Victim, and His Eyes
Immortally your music flows in sweet
Stream round the Wounded Feet;
And rises to the Wounded Hands; and then
Springs to the Home of Men,
The Wounded Heart: and there in flooding praise
Circles, and sings, and stays.
So far, we recognize the spiritual exaltation, the lyric loveliness of Crashaw and the older Catholic hymnists. But listen:
My broken music wanders in the night,
Faints, and finds no delight:
White Angels take of it one piteous tone,
And mix it with your own!
Then, as He feels your chanting flow less clear,
He will but say: I hear
The sorrow of My child on earth.
There we catch the voice of our own Lionel Johnson, the poet of austere ideals, bruised and forespent by the battle; the poet of faith through an age incredulous. Bravely he faced the conflict, but no longer joyously: the maladie du siècle had touched him.
In approaching his more personal poems, we shall have to face the most serious charge ever brought against Johnson's poetry—the charge that it is lacking in true emotional quality. We are told that his lyrics spring from and express a thought rather than a feeling; and to admit this unreservedly is to imply that Johnson should have confined himself to prose. But can one admit it? The plaintive, eerie melody of " Morfydd " goes sighing through the mind:
A voice on the winds,
A voice by the waters,
Wonders and cries:
Oh! what are the winds
And what are the waters?
Mine are your eyes!
One remembers, too, the splendid climax of those later lines, "To Morfydd Dead"—
Take from me the light,
God! of all thy suns:
Give me her, who on the winds
and they do not seem to speak of frigid formalism. Neither do the odes to "Winchester," nor the wonderfully tender poems on friendship to be found in both volumes. The truth of the charge is probably this: all the world loves a lover (at least, theoretically), and Lionel Johnson did not show the usual predilection toward interpreting this master passion. His love poems are few in number. But if any reader be tempted to doubt this poet's capacity for the very white heat of emotion, we would commend to his perusal "The Destroyer of a Soul," or those passionately beautiful lines, "A Proselyte":
Heart of magnificent desire:
O equal of the lordly sun!
Since thou hast cast on me thy fire,
My cloistral peace, so hardly won,
Breaks from its trance:
From thee hath all its joy undone!
Deeper still may we pierce to the heart-pleading of that early and tragic poem "Darkness"—even to the vehement self-revelation of "The Dark Angel," and its companion-piece, "To Passions":
That hate, and that, and that again
Easy and simple are to bear:
My hatred of myself is pain
Beyond my tolerable share.
Such lines are more convincing to some of us than the melodramatic outpourings of a Byron. As for "The Dark Angel"—perhaps the most famous of all Lionel Johnson's work—that is a poem of quintessential power, a very flash-light upon the bitter and eternal conflict which had its rise in Eden:
Dark Angel, with thine aching lust
To rid the world of penitence:
Malicious Angel, who still dost
My soul such subtle violence!
Because of thee, no thought, no thing
Abides for me undesecrate:
Dark Angel, ever on the wing,
Who never reachest me too late!
There is something well-nigh intolerable in the verisimilitude of the poem, in its frightful arraignment of this "venomous spirit" who broods over the world of Nature and art, tormenting the land of dreams, blackening the face of spring and youth and life itself. The lines would be almost sinister were it not for the splendid courage of those final stanzas:—
I fight thee in the Holy Name!
Yet, what thou dost is what God saith:
Tempter! should I escape thy flame,
Thou wilt have helped my soul from Death.
· · · · · ·
Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
Dark Angel! triumph over me:
Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
Divine, to the Divinity.
The man who wrote those lines felt, indeed; but upon his lips lay the seal of culture and of temperamental repression. This was the veil of his heart's inner sanctuary—that "Precept of Silence" which one of his most characteristic poems has immortalised:
I know you! Solitary griefs,
Desolate passions, aching hours!
I know you: tremulous beliefs,
Agonised hopes, and ashen flowers!
· · · · · ·
Some players upon plaintive strings
Publish their wistfulness abroad:
I have not spoken of these things,
Save to one man, and unto God.
By no means insignificant is the "criticism of life" throughout this poetry. Lionel Johnson was one of a little band who through all the turmoil of late nineteenth-century thought—through the storms of rationalism and materialism and so-called realism—kept their faces steadfastly toward the East. Truth and Beauty shone as twin stars before his quiet gaze; it was his supreme achievement to create works of art which "suffice the eye and save the soul beside." His message, all along, was one of reconciliation. He contrived to be at once the apostle of culture and of devotion, of art and of nature, of modernity and of the ancient. His love for Catholicity and for Ireland nowise lessened his joy in England; nor did his exultation in the forest wilds dull his ears to the call of London's thoroughfares. One marvels, seeing the gracious harmony of his pages, where the imagined hostility could have lain. Now, of course, one cause of this comprehensive view was the aloofness of his attitude. His sensitiveness was very exquisite, his sympathy with human experience was very keen; but he stood a little apart from life. His was the attitude of philosopher and contemplative; although never that of the mere academician. Perhaps his own interior struggle served to obviate a natural tendency toward exclusiveness, and to unite the poet with his great labouring and suffering brotherhood. It is never easy for a temperament like Johnson's to overcome its intolerance for many aspects of human nature. It is never easy to recognise that the spirit is willing and the flesh weak, without despising the flesh. But if there be one line of development perceptible throughout our poet's work, it is an increasing tendency toward the human and concrete. It is a long, long cry from the "proud and lonely scorn" of temptation that goes singing through his youthful "Ideal," to the humbled yet resolute wrestling of his "Dark Angel." For the rest, we shall have to admit that Lionel Johnson's song was for the few rather than the many—that the nun-like delicacy and austerity of his muse made any popular recognition quite improbable.
As critic, Johnson has met with a more liberal appreciation. The Art of Thomas Hardy, upon which that reputation rests mainly, is universally recognised as one of the sanest and most scholarly pieces of work called forth by recent fiction. The subject of this first volume testifies very clearly to its author's singular openness of mind: "I remember," he says, "but few of Mr. Hardy's general sentiments, about the meaning of the unconscious universe, or of conscious mankind, with which I do not disagree . . . his tone of thought neither charms nor compels me to acquiesce; but it is because I am thus averse from the attitude of a disciple, that I admire Mr. Hardy's art so confidently." Here, in truth, is the perfect critical temper—leading the artist to whom spiritual laws were the prime realities to lay his tribute at the shrine of another artist, of another philosophy. But in Hardy, Lionel Johnson recognised the essential humanist, the legitimate descendant of a noble line of English novelists, a master of constructive art, and a truthful portrayer of Wessex life and thought.
"He dwells, in a dramatic meditation, upon the earth's antiquity, the thought of the world's grey fathers,' and, in particular, upon certain tracts of land, with which he has an intimacy . . . old names, and old houses lingering in decay . . . pagan impulses, the spirit of material and natural religion, the wisdom and the simplicity, the blind and groping thoughts of a living peasantry still primitive. . . . He loves to contemplate the entrance of new social ways and forms, into a world of old social preference and tradition; to show how there is waged, all the land over, a conflict between street and field, factory and farm, or between the instincts of blood and the capacities of brain; to note how a little leaven of fresh learning may work havoc among the weighty mass of ancient, customary thought . . . to build up, touch by touch, stroke upon stroke, the tragedy of such collision, the comedy of such contrast, the gentle humour or the heartless satire of it all, watched and recorded by an observant genius."
Such passages, as sonorous as they are sympathetic, bring all of us to the deeper understanding of Hardy's work. But the book is even broader in scope, tracing the history of the English novel from the time of Defoe, and characterising with rare insight its different developments. "The modern novel," observes Johnson, "differs from its predecessors mainly in this: that it is concerned, not with the storm and stress of great, clear passions and emotions, but with the complication of them: there is a sense of entanglement. . . . Psychology, to use that ambitious term, supplies the novelist with studies and materials; not only the free and open aspect of life itself." A sense of entanglement! Could any other one phrase so aptly have summed up the strength and weakness of latter-day fiction, from George Meredith or George Eliot to Henry James?
It was characteristic of Lionel Johnson that his appeal should have been ever to the past. "That inestimable debt of reverence, of fidelity, of under-standing" which modern scholarship owes antiquity—less a debt, after all, than "a grace sought and received"—was never far from his consciousness. Classicist he always was, from those days at old Winchester; "purist and precisian" in style, with slight interest in spelling-reform or other utilitarian devices. Inevitably then, past greatness, the best that had been known and thought, became for him, as for Arnold, the touchstone by which to try all present achievement, "About contemporary voices there is an element of uncertainty not undelightful, but forbidding the perfection of faith." Johnson wrote in one of his sage little articles in the Academy: "We prophesy and wait." Yet, although the personal equation inclined thus to the "serene classics," the critic's attitude toward a living genius was one of wistful appreciation. His every sense was keen in the search for beauty, and he welcomed it in whatever guise: Lucretius and Fielding, Pope and Wordsworth, Renan and Hawthorne—all of these shared his sympathy and his comprehension.
The discerning had great hopes of Johnson, with his Celtic dreams, his scholarly and exquisite methods, his unwavering faith in spiritual realities. And they were never fully realised. Without pain—at least, without protest—he passed on to the mansion prepared from eternity for these "inheritors of unfulfilled renown." Of that supreme work which he had contemplated, a beautiful, final, reconciling study of Catholic art and Catholic life, a philosophy merging ethics and æsthetics into one harmonious whole, no word whatever remains. But is there not a danger of carrying this regret too far—of urging the artist's possibilities at the expense of his actual achievement? The work Johnson has left is superlatively excellent: it needs neither apology nor explanation; it simply needs to be read. That, indeed, is the prime difficulty; for the world is busy about many things, and Lionel Johnson spoke with so gentle a sweetness, so modest a serenity. In prose and verse alike, he was stranger to the jealousies and impatiences of mere ambition. Securus judicat orbis terrarum, he was fond of quoting— "sure and sound is the whole world's judgment"; and to Time, that judge so deliberate and so infallible, he committed all. It is pleasant and reassuring to remember Lowell's words concerning the two kinds of literary genius. "The first and highest," he tells us, "may be said to speak out of the eternal to the present, and must compel its age to understand it; the second understands its age, and tells it what it wishes to be told."
Lionel Johnson, quite obviously, was not of this latter type; but one has strong hope that his place is with the higher company.