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  • Lionel Johnson’s Modern Ruins
  • Gabriel Lovatt (bio)

Palaces tremble down, or reel To ruin, while the stars in dread

Fade far into their quiet deeps, Before the deep destroying roar: Heavenward the costliest incense leaps, And madness falls from Heaven the more.

Lionel Johnson, “Dawn of Revolution” (1888)1

Lionel Johnson’s “Dawn of Revolution” conjures a dream vision of the world in violent flux, where the end “that shall begin new earth” has already begun to arrive. Revolution becomes naturalized, taking the form of a gale force that seeks to “storm life out” and leaves us to “wander the waste through” (ll. 46, 62, 80). These apocalyptic presentiments exhibit the same agitation that powers much of Johnson’s poetry. I argue that alongside all of Johnson’s anxieties about the future, the past figures in distinctly modern terms as “the wreck of immemorial years” (l. 44)—that is to say, as ruins.

The ruins of Decadence collude with other savage forces of modernity, such as contagion and fragmentation, but where the fragment or transmission typify destruction in a relatively abbreviated span of time, the ruin involves longer stretches. Entailing history and memory, generational and epochal ends, the ruin excels in its existence as the benchmark of time.2 If the creation of the fragment denotes an explosive energy that obliterates all contexts and the remnants lack any aesthetic unity that would offer a stable relationship between parts, then the ruin retains the traces of its past. Georg Simmel theorizes the ruin as an aspect of “our general fascination with decay and decadence,” where the contradictions inherent to the ruin work out through “the rich and many-sided culture, the unlimited impressionability, and the understanding open to everything, which are characteristic of decadent epochs.”3 Paul Zucker perceives ruins as heterogeneous monuments to the assembling powers of art and the disassembling capacity of nature that “can no longer be considered genuine works of art, since the original intention of the builder has been more or less lost.”4 With the fabricator’s original [End Page 679] stamp lost, the ruin becomes a blank ready to be imprinted by another, however “there always remains an aesthetic unity dominated by whatever has been preserved as fragments of the original architecture” (p. 3). More recently, Robert Ginsberg has delineated the aesthetic experience of ruin as a precise engagement with a “newness or freshness” constituting “genuine innovation in the face of the familiar” as “[t]he ruin invents and not merely endures.”5 Peter Fritzsche also addresses a theory of ruin accounting for its variations, distinguishing between the ruins of nature, which are a part of the “natural cycle of degeneration and regeneration,” and the ruins of history, which are the sites of human destruction witnessed in social, economic, or political catastrophe.6

Johnson’s expressions of ruin involve both the natural cycle and what Fritzsche terms the historical cycle, but the capacity of the ruin as literary emblem renders it impossible to separate these two functions—after all, the material substance of the architectural ruin becomes dematerialized through language. Consequently, Johnson’s writings often mediate the nostalgia generated by natural ruin with awareness that the turn-of-the-century’s volatile social landscape engenders its own devastation. Thus Johnson’s depictions of natural ruin are always entwined with anxieties about the present and future. Though critical work on Johnson remains relatively sparse, it is widely agreed that his poetry reveals a complex relationship between antiquity and modernity. James G. Nelson attributes this to a strain of autobiography running through Johnson’s work, writing how, even at fifteen, he removed himself from “the crass and feverish world of his day, losing himself in books, a small group of literary friends, and his dreams of more comely ages.”7 In the introduction to his edition of Johnson’s poems, Ian Fletcher contends the poet constructs a country out of the past by blending Classical and Celtic, ritual and legend, into a textual space offering “refuge” (p. xviii). While Murray G. H. Pittock reasons that Johnson’s “fear of existence” is a “surprisingly modern phenomenon,” ultimately the poet reveals a certain “desire to detach himself...


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