Two Poems by Lionel Johnson

These two poems of Lionel Johnson, included by his friend William Butler Yeats in a little volume of 20 Poems of Lionel Johnson, attest to Johnson’s deep sense of the sacred.  Best known for his beautiful poem on the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross, Johnson was a Catholic convert who survives into postmodernity, only by the cruel depiction of his death by Ezra Pound.  If you find the phrase "without them..." in "Lucretius puzzling, remember that without can mean outside, in contrast with within.


King of men, that are 

No more  they think, than men: 

Who, past the flaming walls afar, 

Find nought within their ken: 

The cruel draught , that wildered thee, 

And drove thee upon sleep, 

Was kinder than Philosophy, 

Who would not let thee weep. 

Thou knowest now, that life and death 

Are wondrous intervals: 

The fortunes of a fitful breath, 

Within the flaming walls. 

Without them, an eternal plan, 

Which life and death obey: 

Divinity, that fashions man, 

Its high, immortal way. 

Or was he right, thy past compare, 

Thy one true voice of Greece 

Then, whirled about the unconscious air, 

Thou hast a vehement peace. 

No calms of light, no purple lands, 

No sanctuaries sublime: 

Like storms of snow, like quaking sands, 

Thine atoms drift through time.


Sadly the dead leaves rustle in the whistling wind, 

Around the weather-worn, gray church,l ow down the vale: The Saints in golden vesture shake before the gale; 

The glorious windows shake, where still they dwell enshrined; 

Old Saints, by long dead, shrivelled hands, long since designed: There still, although the world autumnal be, and pale, 

Still in their golden vesture the old saints prevail; 

Alone with Christ, desolate else, left by mankind. 

Only one ancient Priest offers the Sacrifice, 

Murmuring holy Latin immemorial: 

Swaying with tremulous hands the old censer full of spice, 

In gray, sweet incense clouds ; blue , sweet clouds mystical: 

To him, in place of men, for he is old, suffice 

Melancholy remembrances and vesperal. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Joshua Teske says:

    The later lines of The Church of a Dream remind me of Dowson’s Benedictio Domini. I looked up the date for both men and found an almost 100% overlap – both born in 1867, Johnson died two years after Dowson in 1902. I’m not familiar with Johnson so this similarity (perhaps to be expected) I found noteworthy.

    From Benedictio Domini:

    Dark is the church, save where the altar stands,
    Dressed like a bride, illustrious with light,
    Where one old priest exalts with tremulous hands
    The one true solace of man’s fallen plight.

  2. Harry Colin says:

    Johnson is another poet who rewards careful attention. I was thrilled to see this poem posted just as I was happily digging in to a book of Lionel Johnson’s poetry and prose. I was unaware of his noteworthy criticism until reading some in this volume.

    His knowledge of the classics and his erudition is evident in both poetry and prose. He is, if mentioned at all, is lumped with the Decadents, but he is so much more, given his religious sensibilities. I believe it was said of him that he ideally represented the dilemma that we have in our world…a choice between Aristotle and Nietzsche. ( Cannot remember from where I read that quote)

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Johnson was a very musical poet, and so were his contemporaries and friends like Yeats, Dowson, Gray. If he has a weakness it is a tendency toward a banal choice of words, often rather vague and abstract words. The so-called English Decadents are a mixed bag and were probably not focussed enough to form an actual movement. (Thank goodness). The implication of the term, of course, is that they sought sensation and were not stopped by everyday prohibitions on fornication, alcoholism, and drug use. In their “decadence” as in their pursuit of art for art’s sake, they were following the French from Baudelaire and Gauthier to Mallarmée. Much of what I have seen written about both the French and English poets is a kind of simple-minded reduction of talented if flawed writers to the low level on which literary critics operate. Dowson and Johnson drank too much; that did not make them followers of Huysman’s and Wilde’s descent into Hell.

    One way of looking at these so-called “aesthetes” is to see them as perhaps the last attempt to reject the implications of Liberal economics and industrialism.. Like Morris and Rosetti, they were seeking a non-prefabricated beauty from simpler ages. Perhaps it is a bit easier to understand through composers like Satie and Poulenc a little later. The Romantics, at their best, were pursuing nature as an alternative to a less grim and less regimented society. But enough of this. I leave the last word to someone who actually did appreciate them. A few relevant paragraphs from a famous poem:

    For three years, out of key with his time,
    He strove to resuscitate the dead art
    Of poetry; to maintain “the sublime”
    In the old sense. Wrong from the start—

    For two hours he talked of Gallifet;
    Of Dowson; of the Rhymers’ Club;
    Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died
    By falling from a high stool in a pub …

    But showed no trace of alcohol
    At the autopsy, privately performed—
    Tissue preserved—the pure mind
    Arose toward Newman as the whiskey warmed.

    Dowson found harlots cheaper than hotels;
    Headlam for uplift; Image impartially imbued
    With raptures for Bacchus, Terpsichore and the Church.
    So spoke the author of “The Dorian Mood,”

    “I was as poor as you are;
    “When I began I got, of course,
    “Advance on royalties, fifty at first,” said Mr. Nixon,
    “Follow me, and take a column,
    “Even if you have to work free.

    “Butter reviewers. From fifty to three hundred
    “I rose in eighteen months;
    “The hardest nut I had to crack
    “Was Dr. Dundas.

    “I never mentioned a man but with the view
    “Of selling my own works.
    “The tip’s a good one, as for literature
    “It gives no man a sinecure.”

    And no one knows, at sight a masterpiece.
    And give up verse, my boy,
    There’s nothing in it.”

    * * * *
    Likewise a friend of Bloughram’s once advised me:
    Don’t kick against the pricks,
    Accept opinion. The “Nineties” tried your game
    And died, there’s nothing in it.