Of the one thing that Lionel Johnson was certain, it is that we all fall under the heel of history to be as mist. Even in life, Lionel was particularly misty and acutely morbid, haunting boneyards as a schoolboy, not out of any ghoulish proclivity but to find the answers to eternity: ‘I have tried, oh, so earnestly tried, in utter faith to make the dead hear me, feel for me, comfort me.’ Thankfully, he was met with silence, aside from his footsteps echoing on ancient stone in the mausoleum and charnel houses of Winchester & Oxford. Only the best for Lionel! One senses through his poems and letters that he had presumed always to be ill-fated. Perhaps a doctor had muttered bleak predictions on encountering a child so unbelievably ethereal in comparison to his robust brothers, who like their father, would achieve military renown. Alas, Lionel because of his drinking, didn’t achieve literary longevity although he was well-regarded, no lesser than his old friend and associate, W.B Yeats publishing a selection of his poetry whilst T.S Eliot was an admirer but then Johnson simply petered out, like one of those candles he carried on his midnight cemetery flits.
In part, the Wilde juggernaut has driven rough-shod over any awkward blips in the myth making, Lionel Johnson, enigmatic and fey, elusive and reclusive, has been the will-o’-the-wisp in the drawing room at Oscar’s house in Tite Street. But it’s not easy pinning down someone who was a ghost in life. The theft of a considerable amount of correspondence between Lionel and Lord Alfred Douglas would have gone some way to redressing the balance, of fleshing out their ‘special’ friendship as well as possibly giving a different perspective on ‘Bad Boy Bosie’ who couldn’t help be what he was – a fraught, spoilt, love-hungry, profligate aristocrat. That which made him appealing to Oscar Wilde, also made him appalling.
The secrets that Douglas and Johnson shared will most probably remain that way. Thankfully, Lionel Johnson can still speak to us, through his poetry and essays. Which is why Alan Contreras’ generous and thoughtful write up in no lesser publication than The Gay & Lesbian review is all the more important, for it gives Lionel, silenced by time and circumstances, a voice once again.
Read the review – https://glreview.org/article/short-reviews-28/