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  • Resituating Lionel Johnson
  • Mackenzie Bartlett
Gary H. Paterson. At the Heart of the 1890s: Essays on Lionel Johnson. New York: AMS Press, 2008. xi + 175 pp. $84.50

In his Brief Lifetime, Lionel Johnson (1867–1902) gained a reputation as one of the greatest intellects of his day, and he was involved—both directly and peripherally—with many of the major social, political, and literary debates and movements of the fin de siècle. As a Decadent poet, literary critic, and member of the Rhymers' Club in London, he cultivated a circle of friends and mentors that included Walter Pater, John Gray, W. B. Yeats, and Oscar Wilde. Yet in spite of his public accolades, Johnson was also an outsider who struggled with loneliness and a debilitating drinking problem. Although a small number of his poems have been anthologised consistently, including "The Dark Angel," "Mystic and Cavalier," and "By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross," Johnson nevertheless has remained a murky figure on the fringes of late-Victorian literary studies. Today he is known less for his poetry than for introducing Lord Alfred Douglas to Oscar Wilde, and for Ezra Pound's (untrue) account of his death resulting from a drunken tumble off a barstool.

Gary H. Paterson's At the Heart of the 1890s: Essays on Lionel Johnson sets out to resituate our understanding of Johnson's life and works by placing the poet at the very centre of the cultural and literary landscape of the late-Victorian period. The eleven chapters that comprise Paterson's collection can be read as self-contained essays, but together they generate layers of comprehensive insight into not only Johnson's writing, but also his deeply conflicted personal life. Covering Johnson's poetics, humour, and aestheticism, as well as his complex relationships with religion, nationhood, and sexuality, Paterson's book casts a wide net in order to capture the many different facets of this contradictory figure.

After a useful introduction that provides an up-to-date bibliography of critical studies of his work, Paterson devotes a chapter to exploring Johnson's place within the cultural milieu of the 1890s. He specifically highlights Johnson's ties to two divergent yet interconnected movements of the period: Decadence and Roman Catholicism. Paterson points out that despite Johnson's avowed suspicion of the Decadent mantra of "art for art's sake," his poetry expresses much of the pessimism, individualism, and self-consciousness that were characteristic features of the Decadence movement. At the same time, his writings also embrace the spiritual devotion, confessional tone, and fascination [End Page 108] with medievalism associated with Roman Catholicism, the religion to which Johnson converted in 1891. Paterson investigates the tensions as well as the overlaps between Decadence and Roman Catholicism in the 1890s in order to lay the groundwork for his larger argument that Johnson's work can be more richly understood within this cultural context.

The three chapters that follow this preliminary discussion delve more deeply into the influence of religion on Johnson's poetic works. Paterson begins by tracing the development of Johnson's religious thought from his formative years at Winchester College to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, before moving on to offer insightful analyses of some of Johnson's religious poetry. Claiming that "[m]ore than any of the writers of the Decadent period, [Johnson] was attracted to the Church intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually," Paterson reads Johnson's religious poetry as not only historically significant accounts of Catholicism in late-Victorian Britain, but also as intensely emotional expressions of Johnson's personal relationship to God and the Church. The fifth chapter gives a brief account of Johnson's critical view of Arthur H. Clough's poetry and offers a compelling comparison of Johnson's "A Burden of Easter Vigil" and Clough's "Easter Day, Naples, 1849" in order to highlight what Paterson calls Johnson's "ironic debt" to Clough.

Chapters six and seven further underscore the tensions between Johnson's religious devotion and his aestheticism by discussing the ways in which Johnson invokes the body and the senses in his poetry. Although Paterson explores the repercussions of Johnson's personal struggles with sensualism—which are...


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pp. 108-110
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