Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Johnson, Lionel Pigot

1529541Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Volume 2 — Johnson, Lionel Pigot1912Campbell Dodgson

JOHNSON, LIONEL PIGOT (1867–1902), critic and poet, born at Broadstairs, Kent, on 15 March 1867, was third son of Captain William Victor Johnson of the 90th regiment light infantry (1822–91) by his wife Catherine Delicia Walters. The father was second son of Sir Henry Allen Johnson, second baronet (1785–1860), and grandson of General Sir Henry Johnson, first baronet [q. v.]. During Lionel's boyhood his family resided at Mold, Flintshire, and afterwards settled at Kingsmead, Windsor Forest. He was educated at Durdham Down, Clifton, and at Winchester College, where he gained a scholarship in 1880 and remained six years. He rose rapidly in the school, and won the prize for English literature in 1883, the prize for an English essay in 1885, and the medal for English verse in 1885 and 1886, the subjects being 'Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower' and Julian at Eleusis.' He edited the school paper, 'The Wykehamist,' from 1884 to 1886, and converted it, so far as he dared, into a literary review, with articles on Wykehamical poets and discussions of the technique of verse. From early boyhood he was a writer of verse, mainly imitative, and an omnivorous reader, with a retentive memory and an inveterate habit of quotation. At Winchester he wrote his first critical essay of any importance, on the 'Fools of Shakespeare,' which was published in 'Noctes Shakesperianæ' (1887). Small in stature and of frail physique, he took no exercise save walking, making vacation tours in Wales, the Lake country, and Cornwall.

In December 1885 Johnson won a Winchester scholarship at New College, Oxford, and in July 1886 he gained the Goddard scholarship for proficiency in classics. He went up to New College in October 1886, taking a second class in classical moderations in 1888 and a first in literæ humaniores in 1890. At Oxford, as at Winchester, he was something of a literary dictator. There he formed his prose style by the study chiefly of his namesake, Samuel Johnson, and was profoundly influenced by Walter Pater.

On leaving Oxford in 1890 he entered on a literary career in London, at first living at 20 Fitzroy Street with a little group of artists and men of letters. The publisher Charles Kegan Paul [q. v. Suppl. II] helped to start him in journalism, and he was soon hard at work reviewing for the 'Academy,' 'Anti-Jacobin,' 'National Observer,' 'Daily Chronicle,' and 'Pall Mall Gazette.' His ambition to become known as a poet was delayed by the necessity of earning money to free himself of debts contracted at Oxford by lavish expenditure on books and prints. This he had accomplished by the end of 1891; but his first eagerness for publication had passed off, and he continued to write and revise. While preparing his first prose book, on Thomas Hardy, he walked for a month (June 1892) in Dorset. Some of the best of his early poems made their first appearance in the 'Century Guild Hobby-Horse' and the first and second 'Book of the Rhymers' Club' (1892-4). Even before he went to Oxford Johnson had grown sceptical about the validity of Anglican claims, and, though he still conformed outwardly to the Church of England, he read deeply in Roman catholic theology and cultivated the acquaintance of priests as well as poets. On 22 June 1891 he was received into the Church of Rome, and talked for a time of taking orders. Asceticism, reverence for catholic tradition, sympathy with catholic mysticism, and a love of the niceties, rather than the splendours, of ritual — catholic puritanism, as he called it — became henceforth prominent in the subject-matter of his poems, of which a first collection came out in 1895. Another leading factor of his poetry, his love for Ireland, was of later growth, and tells especially in his second volume, 'Ireland and other Poems' (1897). His interest in nationalist politics and in the Irish literary revival was fostered by a visit to Ireland in September 1893, which he often repeated, but his own alleged Irish origin was a literary pose, and Celtic influences had reached him first through Wales.

In October 1895 Johnson removed to 7 Gray's Inn Square, Gray's Inn, a few years later to New Square, Lincoln's Inn, and again to Clifford's Inn, where the close of his life was spent in illness and absolute seclusion. His health had been undermined by intemperance and the habit, formed in boyhood, of working late at night. On 22 Sept. 1902 he sent his last poem, on Pater, to the editor of the 'Academy.' A week later he fell in Fleet Street, fractured his skull, and died in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, without recovering consciousness, on 4 October. He was buried at Kensal Green. A tablet to his memory was placed in the cloisters of Winchester College in 1904. He was unmarried.

Johnson published: 1. 'The Gordon Riots' (No. 12 of Historical Papers, edited by John Morris, S.J.), 1893. 2. 'Bits of Old Chelsea' (letterpress written by Johnson jointly with Richard Le Gallienne), 1894 fol. 3. 'The Art of Thomas Hardy,' 1894. 4. 'Poems,' 1895. 6. 'Ireland, with other Poems,' 1897. His scattered critical essays, among which an essay on Walter Pater in the 'Fortnightly Review,' September 1894, is especially worthy of mention, were collected as 'Post Liminium; Essays and Critical Papers,' with an introduction by Thomas Whittemore, in 1911. Selections of Johnson's poems appeared at the Dun Emer Press, Dundrum, 1904, and in the 'Vigo Cabinet' series, 1908.

Johnson's best work, both in prose and verse, was done in the decade of 1886-95. The brilliant promise of his youth was hardly fulfilled. But his criticism was acute and based on profound learning, even if the omniscience that he was apt to affect sometimes provoked distrust. As a poet he had a genuine though limited inspiration. Often ornate, almost always felicitous in language, he knew how to be simple, but was rarely passionate. There are lyrics, however, like 'The Dark Angel,' that spring from profound inward experience and are faultless in expression.

[Academy, 11 Oct. 1902; Athenæum, 18 Oct. 1902; Wykehamist, Oct. 1902; Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1902; Rolleston's Treasury of Irish Poetry; Memoir by Clement K. Shorter in Vigo Cabinet series, No. 34 (Elkin Mathews), 1908; private information.]

C. D.