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Decoration, Deviation, and the Selected Edition: Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912)

Décoration, Déviation, et l’édition sélective : Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912)
Jeremy Valentine Freeman


With the 1912 publication by Elkin Mathews of a selection from Lionel Johnson’s posthumous works titled Some Poems of Lionel Johnson, the complex representation, marketing, and intellectual inheritance of Victorian, late-Victorian, and fin de siècle lyric poetics are represented in a unique material and culturally specific form. By radically abridging the collected writings of Johnson and distilling them into a marketable form, Mathews constructs particular ways of reading the poetry book of the fin de siècle and of creating a poetry book that could function as a seductive short encounter for the reader. This essay explores the critical spirit informing the posthumous editions of Johnson’s poetic works and how such key figures of the period as Mathews, Yeats, and Pound articulated their critical revisions of fin de siècle poetic practices through the selective editing of Johnson’s complex poetic style. This essay argues that this kind of strategic revision of late-Victorian lyricism, decoration, and ritualized poetics does not merely function in relation to decorative publishing practices of the fin de siècle or as a denial of Johnson’s aesthetic sensibilities but that it points to a broader cultural criticism of Victorian aesthetic excess and of mid- to late-Victorian aesthetic ideology.

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1With the 1912 publication by Elkin Mathews of a selection from Lionel Johnson’s posthumous works entitled Some Poems of Lionel Johnson, the complex representation, marketing, and intellectual inheritance of Victorian, late-Victorian, and fin-de-siècle lyric poetics are represented in a unique material and culturally specific form. In this selected collection of Johnson’s works, Mathews distils Johnson’s poetic concerns into a marketable form that attempts to include both Johnson’s ‘basic English traits’ (Guiney 16) and his interest in the dark, the pagan, the erotic, and the transgressive. This small selection of poems acts as a fascinating pivot between late-Victorian poetic practices and publishing methods, on the one hand, and modernist conceptions and manifestations of the poetry book as well as modernist antagonism to decadence, effeminacy, and decorative printing, on the other hand. By issuing such a limited and slender representation of Johnson’s poetic works, Mathews reinforced particular ways of reading the poetry book of the fin de siècle and of attempting to create a poetry book that could function as an evocative short encounter for the reader, an encounter that would titillate and satisfy without causing alarm at the overly ornate nature of the works contained within. By placing Johnson’s work within a minimalist mode of publishing (and of reading and writing), Mathews attempted to diminish the negative influence of the Wildean 1890s’ transgressions while preserving readers’ interest in high art and mild-mannered modes of publishing and book selling. In this article, I connect Mathews’s work as publisher to the anti-decadent backlash that was spearheaded in fin-de-siècle attacks on Émile Zola and Oscar Wilde, suggesting that Mathews purposefully framed his publication of Johnson’s work in order to avoid the publication excesses that, for example, Charles Ricketts helped to construct in works such as John Gray’s Silverpoints (1893) or Wilde’s The Sphinx (1894). As I will show, Mathews’s rendering of Johnson’s poems demystifies and normalizes Johnson’s poetic works while retaining their commercial allure by capitalizing on Johnson’s early death.

2In this study, I investigate the material conditions of the publication of Some Poems of Lionel Johnson in relation to what Jerome McGann has termed ‘literature by design’ (10). With McGann, I attend to the intimate relations between the materiality of the poetry book and the ‘scripting of multiple presences’; as McGann writes in The Textual Condition, ‘Various readers and audiences are hidden in our texts, and the traces of their multiple presence are scripted at the most material levels’ (10). By investigating the material form of the text—including the publishing history that gave birth to Johnson’s posthumous works as well as the selection of poems and the choice of preface—I tie the fin-de-siècle poetry book as textual object to its cultural and material history, showing how it reflects the desire to popularize a caricatured vision of both late-Victorian poetry and decadent fin-de-siècle poetics as well as an attempt to profit commercially from the interest in Johnson’s death and his place as a member of the ‘tragic generation’ (Yeats 157). Here, the fin-de-siècle poetry book in its dense materiality and participation in market forces engages with John Davidson’s witty observation in a 1903 letter to Grant Richards: ‘Books are a luxury, and therefore they compete with everything for which money is paid, with cigars and soap, whisky and Cook’s tours, fur coats and kisses’ (qtd. in Townsend 326). Mathews’s publication of Johnson’s Some Poems of Lionel Johnson thus emblematizes the generation’s struggle to come to terms with the commercial power of decadent transgression while gelding the erotic performativity of material texts as they are placed within a standardized, mass-produced marketplace of literary conformity. I argue that this attack on late-Victorian lyricism, decoration, and aesthetic devotion goes much further than functioning merely in relation to a denial of Johnson’s aesthetic sensibilities or to decorative publishing practices of the fin de siècle. Rather, this attack points to a broader modernist criticism of Victorian aesthetic excess and the excessive sexualities, aesthetic visions, and lyric sensibilities of mid- to late-Victorian aesthetic ideologies.

  • 1 See article ‘The Ideal Book: An Address by William Morris, delivered before the Bibliographical Soc (...)
  • 2 ‘The newspaper holds the advantage here, for it is not exposed to such treatment. But it is nonethe (...)

3Such key figures of the late nineteenth century as William Morris and Stéphane Mallarmé recognized the imperilled nature of the fin-de-siècle poetry book and the ‘ideal’ book’s relation to the market, the newspaper, and the rise of mass publishing. As Morris stated, ‘By the ideal book, I suppose we are to understand a book not limited by commercial exigencies of price: we can do what we like with it, according to what its nature, as a book, demands of Art’.1 Similarly, Mallarmé noted that the ideal book was an ‘organism’ under attack by the vicious powers of the newspaper: ‘La sympathie irait au journal placé à l'abri de ce traitement: son influence, néanmoins, est fâcheuse, imposant à l’organisme, complexe, requis par la littérature, au divin bouquin, une monotonie—toujours l’insupportable colonne qu'on s'y contente de distribuer, en dimensions de page, cent et cent fois’ (Divagations 278).2 Both Morris and Mallarmé recognized that the greatness of the ideal book was at odds with the commercial requirements of material publication and that the ideal book existed in a hostile marketplace of material objects and predatory economic forces.

4Holbrook Jackson recognized the 1890s’ publishing vogue for small-press ornate books as a resurgence of the printed text—a resurgence that provided a fascinating example of the complex relations between the text and its material embodiment in a saleable piece of merchandise. Jackson saw the crowning works of the period as the great works of Morris’s Kelmscott Press and those of Ricketts at the Vale Press, particularly emphasizing how the Arts and Crafts movement led to this desire for rare, ideal, and collectible fine books: ‘The Arts and Crafts movement had, as we have seen, set people of taste hunting for the lost threads of good craft tradition, and the fin de siècle revival of printing as an art-craft was one of the most successful results of its efforts’ (236). Jackson particularly emphasizes Ricketts’s use of ‘decoration’ in his finest work and lauds Ricketts’s work on Wilde’s The Sphinx as ‘the most remarkable of the books of this period’:

It is a small quarto in ivory-like vellum, with a rich design in gold, printed and decorated throughout in red, green and black. The exotic mind of Wilde is revealed in the decorations of this volume more than in any other: the strange vision of things, the imagination that moulds passionate ideas into figures which are almost ascetic and into arabesques which are in themselves glimpses and revelations of the intricate mystery of life. (263)

5This interest in decoration and decorative book publishing typified a reaction ‘against the Victorian book in the 1880s . . . along with a revival of interest in bookbinding, a revival of interest in antiquarian books and the growing emphasis on book building as an art and craft which had been sadly neglected since the rise of commercialism’, as James G. Nelson writes (The Early Nineties 71).

  • 3 Qtd in The Modernist Journals Project.
  • 4 Mathews writes poignantly of the end of the Bodley Head in a note that emphasizes the moral and aes (...)
  • 5 Nelson notes that Mathews’s primary interest in publishing poetry ‘lay in producing books of poetry (...)
  • 6 See also Peter McDonald’s discussion of Lane’s importance and his commercial acuity.

6John Lane and Mathews’s work as editors and publishers of the fin de siècle cannot be underestimated: they published The Yellow Book, the Keynotes book series, and works by most of the prominent figures of the period from Netta Syrett to Wilde; Lane published the ‘quintessential modernist little magazine’,3 Wyndham Lewis’s Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (1914–15); and Mathews published W. B. Yeats’s The Wind in the Reeds (1899), James Joyce’s Chamber Music (1907), Ezra Pound’s Personae (1909), and Johnson’s posthumous works. Lane and Mathews’s work radically altered, shaped, and managed how the fin-de-siècle poetry book would be made, marketed, and aesthetically and ideologically modelled. Operating in a period of intense and rapid alterations to production processes and media forms, Lane and Mathews’s work at the Bodley Head (and, after their separation, their independent publishing work) provides an important representation of aesthetic and ideological forces at work during this period.4 Indeed, Lane and Mathews would shape the posthumous reputation of the poets of the 1890s, and Mathews’s publication of several editions of Lionel Johnson in the years after Johnson’s death would radically define, and neutralize, Johnson’s (and the generic fin-de-siècle poet’s) ability to establish new markets, new poetic traditions, and the future growth of modern markets and literatures.5 Thus framed, the decadent 1890s were only a wayside stop on the greater migration toward modern, worldwide publishing endeavours. As McDonald notes of Lane and his wife (author, investor, and unofficial advisor, Annie Philippine King), ‘They had no children, but Allen Lane (1902–70), a distant cousin who served his apprenticeship with the firm in the 1920s, gave many of their ideals new life when he founded Penguin in 1935’ (McDonald par. 5).6 But in this movement from 1890s’ works of small, ornate, and sometimes transgressive aesthetics to modern publishing, certain aspects of decadent writing and publishing would be abandoned in favour of minimalist aesthetics and the embrace of both free markets and free verse.

  • 7 See Jerome H. Buckley’s study of William Ernest Henley for an important aid in coming to terms with (...)
  • 8 See Karl Beckson on the New Woman (129–59); the small-press and commercial literature (235–55); and (...)

7Lane and Mathews’s work as publishers cannot be fully understood without noting certain key moments in the publishing history of the fin de siècle such as the jailing of the publisher Henry Vizetelly for his edition of Zola’s La Terre in 1888, the significance of the Wilde trial in relation to the spirit of the age, the forces of counter-decadence led by Max Nordau, and the anti-New Woman and anti-Aesthetic rhetoric that called for a cleansing of decadent modes and the attempt to establish healthy, manly, and imperial nativist English literatures.7 In this context, Lane and Mathews’s commercially unique ventures must be understood as participating in a rich variety of ideological projects that mediate modern experience and subjectivity at the same historical moment as aesthetics became inextricably linked to moral and racial issues in fin-de-siècle literature and culture.8

8Johnson’s death in 1902 presented a complex embodiment of these struggles, as his poems were ‘selected’ by a variety of editors for publication in a variety of forms. Each of these editors possessed a unique vision of what constituted a Johnson poem and—perhaps as importantly—how it should be presented. As early as 1904, Yeats published a selection of Johnson’s work at the Dun Emer Press in Ireland—a selection that, coming immediately after Johnson’s death, framed Johnson’s work as primarily spiritual and nationalist. In titling the text, Yeats orients Johnson’s poems as a ‘selection’: Twenty One Poems Written by Lionel Johnson: Selected by William Butler Yeats. Using the powers of the colon and creative titling, Yeats thus adamantly infuses his own name, his authorial personality, and his unique Celtic vision into future attempts at understanding or appreciating Johnson’s work. While Yeats’s framing of Johnson on these terms is not surprising considering that Johnson’s second book of poetry (he published only two) was the collection Ireland and Other Poems (1897), Yeats’s desire to claim Johnson for a vision of Celtic folk identity is notable. Yeats made clear this claim by including at the end of his ‘selection’ the following brief, yet highly structured, declaration:

Here ends twenty one Poems,
written by Lionel Johnson, printed
upon paper made in Ireland,
and published by Elizabeth Corbet
Yeats at the Dun Emer Press,
in the house of Evelyn Gleeson at
Dundrum, in the county of Dublin,
Ireland, finished on All Hallow’s
Eve, in the year 1904. (31)

9This publisher’s note is executed in a deep red ink—the only passage of the book to receive any type of unique decoration. The note, with its line breaks and simple directness, reads almost as a modernist free-verse poem, something that Pound, William Carlos Williams, or e.e. cummings would shortly write. Its placement, just after the final quatrain of Johnson’s ‘The Dark Angel’, provides a fascinating contrast, chasing away the mystical vision and linguistic excess of Johnson’s Luciferian vision of the soul’s many deaths and its ultimate emancipation: ‘Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so, / Dark Angel! Triumph over me: / Lonely, unto the Lone I go; / Divine to the Divinity’ (31). Here the early modernist concern with a singular ideologically grounded origin and with the power of free verse meets the transgressive pagan spiritual struggle of fin-de-siècle decorative excess.

10In the years after his death in 1902, Johnson’s poems were presented to the reading public in a variety of forms that fashioned who Johnson was as a poet, how he functioned as a poet of the 1890s, and how his work articulated a unique vision of fin-de-siècle poetics. By staging Johnson’s work as separate from decadent, pagan, or overly eroticized literatures of the fin de siècle, each of these publications regulates potentially transgressive readings of Johnson’s themes and style. From Yeats’s 1904 selection of Johnson’s poems to Mathews’s publication of The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson in 1916—the collected poems of Johnson, with a forward by Ezra Pound in written 1915 (alongside a collection of Johnson’s criticism titled Postliminium)—and the crucial selection of Johnson’s work Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (published as part of Mathews’s Vigo Cabinet Series with a forward by the poet Louise Guiney, in 1912), the editing and selecting process established a generally anti-decadent vision of Johnson’s poetics in order to turn away from a dangerous point of cultural and aesthetic rupture.

11In 1916, Mathews published The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson: Being a Selection from his Collected Works, with a preface by Wilfrid Meynell. This edition of Johnson, originating proudly in ‘LONDON’, is again accompanied by the powerful deep red ink (used at the beginning of the text for the image on the frontispiece), the same colour used by the Dun Emer Press. Here, not only is Johnson presented to the fin-de-siècle reader as an essentially Christian and religiously traditional poet but the title is accompanied by the image of an august (and Augustinian?) bishop bearing in one hand a model of the city of God and in the other hand a crozier. From Yeats’s Irish Johnson to Mathews’s, Engelbach’s (who was responsible for making the selections), and Meynell’s religious Johnson, each vision of the poet is ratified by its ties to a vision of the printed page—through the use of deep red ink to accentuate a particular vision of the self—and to an attempt to mitigate the supposedly unwholesome aspects of Johnson’s poetic work. By separating the religious from the non-religious poems, Engelbach effectively neutered Johnson’s posthumous reputation and cleansed it of the mystical putrefaction, paganism, Satanism, and illicit aspects of the ‘Yellow Nineties’. By ordaining Johnson as a religious poet, this selection emphasizes a particular vision not only of Johnson’s poetics but also, more widely, of the decadent poetics of the fin de siècle itself. By means of a small act of selective editing and editorial titling, this edition ordains Johnson as a religious poet—purifying unsightly diction and grammar and morally questionable aesthetic forms. The limitation of the erotic, decadent, and pagan elements of Johnson’s ceremonial fin-de-siècle Catholicism is striking, for, as Murray states, ‘The return to Catholicism was for Johnson not simply political, but was a return to the pagan religions of ancient Briton which Catholicism had preserved’ (367). In the introduction to The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson, Meynell uses his editorial authority to situate Johnson’s work and to avoid any association with impurity by labelling ‘Lionel Johnson’ as a pure ‘traditionalist’: ‘the name of Lionel Johnson labels a traditionalist, not only in literature but in life’ (Religious Poems v). At the end of the introduction, Meynell returns to this theme, assuring the reader that Johnson (as well as his poetry) is free from shame, sin, or ‘aching lust’: ‘He did not need to make any recantations. His death was spared this pang. If its suddenness gave him no time to say even a goodbye, it found him with nothing to unsay’ (xi). Here Johnson, unlike Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Aubrey Beardsley, Leonard Smithers, Aleister Crowley, and a host of other questionable figures of the fin de siècle, meets death with a conscience free from corruption to be either regretted or recanted (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Title Page, The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson (1916)

Fig. 1: Title Page, The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson (1916)

Courtesy of Sophie Guignard

12We thus witness not just an editorial flight from sin and Nordauian degeneration but an attempt to understand what role modern poetry can and will perform in the opening global markets for literature in the twentieth century. As Lane and Mathews’s work helps give birth to such icons of anglophone twentieth-century publishing as Penguin, with its rich diversity of international outlets, so too the necessary realities of procuring important and fashionable titles that imply a degree of risk, cosmopolitan edge, and readerly sophistication, while avoiding the openly licentious or frankly transgressive, can be seen in the attempts by Mathews and by Yeats to remodel Johnson’s reputation and poems. The death of a young poet—any young poet, particularly one with a gift for mystical thought—was by the early twentieth century a highly marketable selling factor. From Thomas Chatterton and John Keats to Percy Bysshe Shelley, British publishing had already constructed the vision of the brilliantly gifted young poet-savant who, graced with a deep relation to the ‘mysteries of our mortal being’ (Religious Poems 23), possessed access to the divine. Yet in order for Johnson to fulfil this role, and to be a proper minister of this gospel, it was necessary to disentangle his work from the degenerative influences of Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Pater, Paul Verlaine, and other late-century cultural or artistic decadents with their ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Young’, as Wilde termed his list of guidelines for young would-be aesthetes. If Johnson’s place were to lie with Mallarmé and the anarchists or with Crowley and the occult masters, then his role as the ideal young martyred poet devoted to scholarship and to God would be threatened. Yeats’s attempt to place Johnson as the champion of spiritual Ireland and Mathews’s, Engelbach’s, and Meynell’s attempts to wed Johnson’s fame to God are acts of literary selection needed in order to prune away the excesses of decoration and aesthetic ardour presented by works such as those of the Vale Press. The key here is the desire to prune away excess while establishing continuity with what had proved to be a highly sellable aesthetic product: the decadent material objet d’art.

13Introducing The Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson that Mathews brought out in 1915, Pound states that his viewpoint on ‘the nineties’ is intensely prejudiced, but that he was

[c]hosen to write this Preface largely because [he is] known to hold theories which some people think new, and which several people know to be hostile to much that hitherto has been accepted as ‘classic’ in English poetry: that is to say, [he] reverence[s] Dante and Villon and Catallus; for Milton and Victorianism and for the softness of the ‘nineties’ [he has] different degrees of antipathy or even contempt. (vi)

14Pound attacks Johnson’s language directly: ‘His language is a bookish dialect, or rather it is not a dialect, it is a curial speech, and our aim is natural speech, the language as spoken. We desire the words of poetry to follow the natural order. We would write nothing that we might not say actually in life—under emotion’ (vi).

  • 9 Pound would continue this mode of criticism by stating that ‘[i]ncompetence will show in the use of (...)

15The occasion of prefacing Johnson’s poetry provides Pound with a window through which he may propose a modernist poetics founded on ‘natural’ language and decry the ‘inversions’, ‘bookishness’, ‘curial’ manner, and ‘softness’ (The Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson vi) of the 1890s—delimiting Johnson and his generation’s work as somehow inherently unnatural. As guardian of ‘natural speech’ (vii), Pound oversees what is good and bad language, good and bad poetry—and ultimately, good and bad culture—by dictating a lesson on artifice and artificial cultures.9 Here, a culture that is ‘inverted’, ‘bookish’, ‘curial’, and un-natural is loathsome and contemptible. Ultimately, Pound admires certain ‘imagismes’ of Johnson ‘in spite of his inversion, in spite of the few treasured archaisms, in spite of his “spelling it chaunted”’ (viii).

16In the ‘Uncollected Poems’ that make up the third section of The Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson, Mathews prints the elegy for Pater in which Johnson extols his love for his mentor and friend:

17Ended, his service: yet, albeit farewell

Tolls the faint vesper bell,
Patient beneath his Oxford trees and towers
He still is gently ours:
Hierarch of the spirit, pure and strong,
Worthy Uranian song. (288)

18In poems such as these and in the essays on Pater collected by Mathews in Postliminium (the collected critical writings of Johnson that was published simultaneously with Johnson’s poetical works in 1915), Johnson evinces such common fin-de-siècle themes as love, intimacy, affection, scholarship, and, perhaps most centrally, the importance of friendship and of shared aesthetic devotion to art. Where Mathews’s publication of Some Poems of Lionel Johnson intensely edits who and what Johnson was as a poet, the return to Johnson by Mathews in The Poetical Works, with the useful, belligerent voice of Pound barking in the background, emphasizes a deeper, more holistic, and more intrinsic study and love of Johnson’s work than would an interpretation of Johnson’s work for its cultural politics or its ideological effects. Unfortunately, by so intimately tying Johnson’s work to Pound’s dogmatic avant-garde pronouncements on natural and unnatural language and the manifest ‘softness’ of the 1890s as opposed to the powers of ‘natural language’ and the rare ‘hardness’ to be found in Johnson’s critical mind (if only rarely in the poetry), the collection associates Johnson’s work with this complex relation between the modernist imagination and its counter-decadent movement against its depraved, bookish, and decadent forebears.

19As part of the Vigo Cabinet series, Some Poems of Lionel Johnson belonged to a concerted field of fin-de-siècle literature and was marketed as an object that belonged to a specialized library for the discerning reader or consumer of rare books. By mixing prose and poetry, select choices of the past, and a variety of adventurous, young, and mildly controversial authors, the Vigo Cabinet series could successfully market a poet like Johnson while avoiding works that would bring adverse attention to the press or otherwise endanger the series’ role as supplier of high-art literary objects.

20In the preface to Some Poems of Lionel Johnson, Louise Guiney introduces Johnson as a devotee of high taste, an arch-critic, and an example of a fierce, if archaic, intellect. Guiney neatly ties Johnson’s tastes with those of his time, imbricating his devotional poetics with those of Oxford and the cult of ‘the White Rose’ and with a non-materialist theology of beauty and transcendentalism: ‘Non-scientific, anti-mathematical, he was a genuine Oxonian; a recruit, as it were, for transcendentalism and the White Rose’ (11). Guiney paints Johnson’s devotion to art in rhapsodic terms—’he was glad to be a bond-slave to his own discipline’—emphasizing that ‘there should be no limit to the constraints and the labour self-imposed’ and that Johnson’s adherence to metre and tradition was both ‘proud’ and ‘melancholy’: ‘the proud melancholy charm of his finest stanzas rests upon the severest adherence to the laws and by-laws of rhythm’ (12). By interpreting Johnson’s work as stemming from hard work, intellectual labour, and faithful devotion to his vocation, Guiney neatly emphasizes both that his work is non-commercial in nature and that it is not ‘decadent,’ expressing a sense of faith mixed with asceticism, rigorous attention to right behaviour, and self-discipline rather than a Wildean distaste for work in any form. Guiney’s emphasis on Johnson’s lyric ‘constraint’ and ‘adherence’ to tradition emphasizes his pointed arch-traditionalism, separating his work from decorative and over-embellished fin-de-siècle poetic works. As Guiney puts it, Johnson, in his pursuit of aesthetic purity, will ‘never count cost, never lower a pennon, never bow the knee to Baal’ (12); she thereby constructs Johnson as an antitype of Wilde or other decadent writers who attempted to popularize and sell an exaggerated vision of amoral aestheticism. Guiney dwells on Johnson’s handwriting as evidence of his unique character, his ‘un-worldliness,’ and non-contemporary nature—‘slender, close slant, very odd, but not illegible; a true script of the old time, without a flaw. It seemed to whisper: “Behold in me the inveterate foe of haste and discourtesy, of typewriters, telegrams, and secretaries!”’ (14).

  • 10 Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’ from the German, popularized by Wagner in his essays ‘The Ar (...)

21Guiney’s Johnson possesses a much greater individuality and purpose than the highly particular, artificial creations of Pound and Yeats. Her preface dwells on particular traits of fin-de-siècle aesthetic attachment; Johnson’s interest in the arcane and the esoteric; and the ‘curial’ nature of his devotion to art, tradition, and craft. Guiney’s work provides a way for the fin-de-siècle reader to admit to a taste for Johnson’s work that frees it from the possible associations with aesthetic immorality, hedonism, or philosophical promiscuity. Guiney rhapsodizes on Johnson’s devotional character, tying Johnson and his poetics to not only the antique, but also the obscure and now-forgotten mystical histories of the ancient pagan past: ‘There was a seal upon him as of something priestly and monastic. His place, like his favourite Hawthorne’s, should have been in a Benedictine scriptorium, far away, and long ago’ (15). In Guiney’s rhapsodic if defensive criticism, Johnson takes his place among the immortals, the dead young poet being hagiographically celebrated as obtaining eternal selfhood through his devotion to the divine. Johnson’s interest in a rigorous, antiquated, and idiosyncratic ‘antiquity’ provides a fitting metaphor for the turn to the antiquated book with its emphasis on ‘rarity’, on devotion to craft, and its anti-modern usage of materiality. As poems, Johnson’s works emphasize their interest in a highly singular readership, a readership familiar with the themes, styles, and modes of obscure devotionality to which Johnson’s antiquated vocabulary and elaborate mannerisms ceaselessly return. When Pound attacked Johnson’s ‘bookish’ language, he could not have been more accurate. For in its formality, its rigour, its self-consciousness, its erotic tactility, and its ornate traditionalism, the language of Johnson powerfully mirrors the fin-de-siècle obsession with book design, the total book, or the Gesamtkunstwerk10—and the dangerous book or fatal work of art that haunted the imaginations of such emblematic British fin-de-siècle figures as Yeats and Wilde or their European counterparts, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Mallarmé.

22Yet for all of Guiney’s attempts to come to terms with Johnson’s poetic style and method, her introduction is placed in a material book that in its lightness, impermanence, and very lack of attention to materiality effectively denies Johnson’s place within the immortal legions that she celebrates. Whatever the immaterial powers of Johnson’s verse, Some Poems’s transience as a material event effectively obliterates the immateriality of the themes presented. Whereas such key texts of the 1890s as the Kelmscott Press’s Chaucer (1896), Wilde’s The Sphinx and Salome (1893), or Gray’s Silverpoints were at pains to focus the fin-de-siècle reader’s attention on the act of reading itself, the presentation of the poems in Some Poems of Lionel Johnson—including the low quality of the paper used, the lack of ornament, the simple frontispiece (that acts as an advertisement for the book series), and the lack of space before or after the poems themselves—makes the reading experience of Some Poems decidedly commercial, expedient, and modern. Some Poems thus comes to resemble a magazine or other printed object meant for ephemeral circulation. Here, the domain of the poem, and of the poetry book as a textually dense, obscure, and difficult work, is invaded by popular media in the forms of modern advertising, paper-making procedures, and industrialized mass-society reading habits focusing upon the fin-de-siècle textual experience itself. Dowling explicates the readerly ‘resistance’ of ornate letterpress printing, late-Victorian decoration, and the illustration of journals in the 1890s where typography in its relation to book design and illustration creates a readerly experience that is ‘intent upon resisting what we may call the mechanical consumption of the page by the eye’ (126). In its lack of decoration, lack of manner, and prosaic impulse, Some Poems renders Johnson’s poems as simple lines of type routinely following each other from beginning to end, thereby avoiding the poems’ multiple contradictions and their rich hybridity of decadent styles, complex religious affiliations, and obscure traditions. The emphasis, ultimately, lies on placing Johnson and his work within the domain of the Vigo Cabinet Series, where one may neatly close the door of the ‘cabinet’ upon the slim selection of Johnson’s poems and be satisfied that one owns a small, inoffensive variant of mildly outré fin-de-siècle culture (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Title Page, Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912)

Fig. 2: Title Page, Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912)

Courtesy of Sophie Guignard

23Each of the editions of Johnson’s work published after his death presents its own vision of Johnson and its own way of accounting for what is good and bad in his poetic style. Although Mathews was a devoted popularizer of Johnson’s posthumous reputation—a reputation that would probably not have continued without Mathews’s endeavours—the balance had swung away from the excessive craftsmanship and decadent poetic styles of the 1890s, and Mathews’s publication of Johnson’s works reflects this tendency. Each edition of Johnson’s posthumous poems participates in this symbolic (and material) economy of aesthetic forms and this shift in interest. For just as the era of free verse was being initiated by disenchanted modernists, so the non-commercial, ideal Morrisonian or Mallarméan book with its promiscuous formalities, aesthetic paganism, and polyvalent eroticism would be purified by modernist fears of social depravity and illicit erotic desire. The emergence of such cultural phenomena as Pound’s attack on ‘inauthentic’ language, the rise of ‘revolutionary’ avant-gardes proclaiming dogmatic visions of aesthetic purity and the experimental, and the Benjaminian insistence on the artwork as participating in a revolutionary shattering of temporal fields, helped distance modernism from its late-Victorian origins. We see in this formal shift an exodus from the Arts and Crafts dream of late-Victorian ‘decoration’ towards a radical modernization of both poetics and aesthetic ideology. For rather than placing Johnson’s poems in a published form that would emulate the great models of the 1890s, Matthews placed Some Poems of Lionel Johnson in a series of paperback, hastily bound books that Pound condemned in a 1913 letter to William Carlos Williams: ‘The trouble with the Vigo is (a) that its [sic] only paper back, (b) more serious, he has already printed a lot of muck in that series and nobody expects to find anything good in it’ (Pound and Williams 21).

24Rather than celebrating the complex borrowing of outmoded traditions and the highly delineated artifice of works demonstrating localized visions of unique culture, the revolutionary avant-garde culture wars of modernism would define the fin de siècle as a negative, transitional phase. The latent commercialism of the aesthetic economy in which Mathews and Lane existed and the anti-decadent aspects of Pound’s literary persona work as caustic influences on the historical memory of what it meant to be an aesthetic poet or writer during the post-Victorian, pre-modernist literary moment.

25When we compare the material presentation of the fin-de-siècle works and the first volume of the arch–modernist-futurist work Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex—published by John Lane in 1914—the attack on effete fin-de-siècle style, decoration, and effeminate deviation is obvious, both in terms of typography and material style and in terms of the items attacked. In Blast, Victorian and late-Victorian medievalism and modes of illustration influenced by Arts and Crafts, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the 1890s’ printing revival are obliterated by a modern typeface engaged in the bludgeoning of its decorative ancestors. Page 11 of Blast (No.1) demonstrates the violence of this attack (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (1914–15). Page 11.

Fig. 3: Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (1914–15). Page 11.

Courtesy of Sophie Guignard

26Here, the attack on Mallarmé’s ‘divine organism’ by brutal newspaper columns is radically evident. The attempt to blast away old England, with its sins and infections—including its effeminacy, its ‘curates’ (such as Dowson and Johnson), its ‘Britannic aesthetes’ (such as Wilde and Pater), and its socialist playwrights (such as G. B. Shaw)—is enacted through a typographical war of material language, where the outdated modes of the fin de siècle (with its perverse precocity, promiscuous polytheism, and ceremonial Catholicism) give way to a new modernist future unencumbered by the effeminate, unmanly cultures of orientalist glamour, erotic hedonism, degenerate illness, aestheticized obsessions, sexual inversions, rhetorical allusiveness, and hieratic artificiality. The title page of Blast with its stylistic brutality—its violent reddish-pink cover unadorned by any decoration, subtitle, regional location, or temporal origin and its bold ‘modern’ typographic style—effectively banishes the elaborate styles of book design championed by Ricketts at the Vale Press and by Morris at the Kelmscott Press. Here, a new avant-garde vision of the literary and of cultural rejuvenation is at work, expressed through the material object in all of its deep cultural significance for understanding the fin-de-siècle subject and the complex afterlife of the decadent aesthete: ‘CURSE / WITH EXPLETIVE OF WHIRLWIND / THE BRITANNIC AESTHETE / CREAM OF THE SNOBBISH EARTH / ROSE OF SHARON OF GOD-PRIG / OF SIMIAN VANITY’ (Blast 11).

  • 11 Quoted in Collier’s Modernism on Fleet Street (209).
  • 12 Emphasizing the dynamic textuality of Wilde’s decorative books, Nicholas Frankel writes: ‘The act o (...)

27In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot writes that ‘[i]t is unlikely in all the mass of letterpress, that the profoundest and most original works will reach the eye or command the attention of a large public, or even of a good number of the readers who are qualified to appreciate them’ (88).11 Eliot could have easily been commenting on the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries’ hyper-digitized mediascape, where neither Blast nor Some Poems by Lionel Johnson will likely reach either a modernist counter-public or a decadent republic of letters (at least as printed texts). However much this insight resembled decadent visions of ‘New Grub Street,’ it did not stop the growth of modernist antagonism toward the aesthetic and moral excesses of the fin de siècle that came to inform a counter-decadent movement that combated illicit pairings of decoration and devotion, of aesthetic vision and elaborate personality—pairings that were uniquely embodied in lavish artisanal attention to making the page mimic the erotic flowering of the fin-de-siècle word. Yet what is perhaps most immediately evident in this dialogical and ideological combat of aesthetic periodization are the intimate ties between the material art objects of the Yellow Nineties and the experimental teens and twenties—between decadent excess and modernist complexity. For just as such seminal works of the fin de siècle as Wilde’s Salome (with Beardsley’s ardent illustrations) or Gray’s Silverpoints (with Ricketts’s attention to style) became art objects for rarefied circles of collectors and coteries, so too (as Lawrence Rainey notes), through the creation of such masterworks as Eliot’s The Waste Land or Joyce’s Ulysses, modernism achieved ‘a strange and unprecedented space for cultural production’ where ‘the work of art invites and solicits its commodification’ as it is ‘integrated into a different economic circuit of patronage, collecting, speculation, and investment’ (3). Fin-de-siècle book design, working hand-in-hand with fin-de-siècle modes of decadent writing, accentuated ‘the word at the cost of the sentence’ (Gagnier 9), emphasizing ‘the textual condition’ (McGann 9–10) in which literary works as material objects could participate. This rich interplay between form and content helped to generate a reading mode that emphasized materiality in terms of both decoration and language for both decadent and modernist fin-de-siècle texts. Some Poems of Lionel Johnson provides us with a strategic moment in the fin-de-siècle history of the book as material object. In their cultural rigour, excess of tradition, and uncompromising ritualism, Johnson’s poems emphasize stylistic excess and obscure content in order to declare their textual desires to the fin-de-siècle reader. Johnson’s stylistic excess and obscurity help produce the fin-de-siècle poetry book as a uniquely hybrid ritual object that must be read in a particular way in order for one to gain access to its symbolic design. Here, the fin-de-siècle poetry book is both a textual object that emphasizes its own complexity as a ‘phenomenal event’ and an event that helps produce the textual conditions of its materiality.12

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Beckson, Karl. London in the 1890s: A Cultural History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992. Print.

Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. Modernist Journals Project. Brown University and University of Tulsa. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

Buckley, Jerome H. William Ernest Henley: A Study in the ‘Counter-Decadence’ of the ’Nineties. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1945. Print.

Collier, Patrick. Modernism on Fleet Street. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Dowling, Linda. ‘Letterpress and Picture in the Literary Periodicals of the 1890s.’ Yearbook of English Studies 16 (1986): 117–31. Print.

Frankel, Nicholas. Oscar Wilde’s Decorated Books. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000. Print.

Gagnier, Regenia. Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859–1920. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Jackson, Holbrook. The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century. London: G. Richards, 1913. Print.

Johnson, Lionel, and Ian Fletcher, eds. Complete Poems. London: Unicorn, 1953. Print.

Johnson, Lionel. Twenty-One Poems Written by Lionel Johnson: Selected by William Butler Yeats. Ed. W. B. Yeats. Dundrum, Ireland: Dun Emer, 1904. Print.

Johnson, Lionel. The Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson. London: Elkin Mathews, 1915. Print.

Johnson, Lionel. Some Poems of Lionel Johnson. London: Elkin Mathews, 1912. Print.

Johnson, Lionel. The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson. London, Elkin Mathews, 1916. Print.

Lewis, Wyndham. Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex, issue 1. London: John Lane, 1914. Print.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Divagations. Paris: Bibliothèque-Charpentier, 1897. Print.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Selected Poems, Prose, Essays, and Letters. Trans. Bradford Cook. Baltimore: John Hopkins P, 1956. Print.

McDonald, Peter. ‘Lane, John (1854–1925)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Web. 9 Jan. 2016.

McGann, Jerome J. The Textual Condition. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991. Print.

Morris, William. The Art and Craft of Printing. New Rochelle: Elston, 1902. Print.

Nelson, James G. The Early Nineties: A View from the Bodley Head. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971. Print.

Nelson, James G. ‘James Joyce’s First Publisher: Elkin Mathews and the Advent of “Chamber Music”’. James Joyce Quarterly 23.1 (1985): 9–29. Print.

Murray, Alex. ‘Recusant Poetics: Rereading Catholicism at the Fin De Siècle’. English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 56.3 (2013): 355–73. Print.

Pound, Ezra, and William C. Williams. Pound/Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Ed. Hugh Witemeyer. New York: New Directions, 1996. Print.

Townsend, J. B. John Davidson: Poet of Armageddon. New Haven: Yale UP, 1961. Print.

Yeats, W. B. The Trembling of the Veil. London: T. Werner Laurie, ltd., 1922. Print.

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1 See article ‘The Ideal Book: An Address by William Morris, delivered before the Bibliographical Society of London, MDCCCXCIII’ in Morris (n.p.).

2 ‘The newspaper holds the advantage here, for it is not exposed to such treatment. But it is nonetheless an annoying influence; for upon the book—upon the divine and intricate organism required by literature—it inflicts the monotonousness of its eternally unbearable columns, which are merely strung down the pages by hundreds’ (translation by Bradford Cook in Mallarmé, Selected Poems 146).

3 Qtd in The Modernist Journals Project.

4 Mathews writes poignantly of the end of the Bodley Head in a note that emphasizes the moral and aesthetic aspects of Lane and Mathews’s work: ‘Since the Bodley Head is fast becoming identified with fiction of a very modern character—made up emotion and no morals, probably I shall in time get reconciled to its loss’ (qtd. in Nelson, The Early Nineties 233).

5 Nelson notes that Mathews’s primary interest in publishing poetry ‘lay in producing books of poetry which, ideally, expressed in traditional terms and modes sentiments about nature, love, and life which soothed and reassured’ (‘James Joyce’s First Publisher’ 18–19).

6 See also Peter McDonald’s discussion of Lane’s importance and his commercial acuity.

7 See Jerome H. Buckley’s study of William Ernest Henley for an important aid in coming to terms with the counter-decadent movement and how it would go on to influence modernist aesthetic praxis—particularly since the counter-decadence of Kipling, Henley, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Davidson utilized fin-de-siècle poetic forms as in Henley’s early usage of free verse (90–95).

8 See Karl Beckson on the New Woman (129–59); the small-press and commercial literature (235–55); and attacks on Decadence (32–70).

9 Pound would continue this mode of criticism by stating that ‘[i]ncompetence will show in the use of too many words’ (63) in the ABC of Reading (1933). Pound goes on to stress that the writer must write from the now ubiquitous point of raw experience: ‘whether the writer really had to KNOW something about the subject or scene before being able to write the page under consideration’ (69). Pound’s reaction against late-Victorian stylistic artifice is foundational to understanding the development of Pound’s modernist aesthetic.

10 Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’ from the German, popularized by Wagner in his essays ‘The Art Work of the Future’ (‘Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft’, 1849) and ‘Art and Revolution’ (‘Die Kunst und die Revolution’, 1849).

11 Quoted in Collier’s Modernism on Fleet Street (209).

12 Emphasizing the dynamic textuality of Wilde’s decorative books, Nicholas Frankel writes: ‘The act of reading is coming to assume a prominence we would usually assign to writing alone, as if textuality itself had suddenly become a phenomenal event’ (21).

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1: Title Page, The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson (1916)
Credits Courtesy of Sophie Guignard
File image/png, 9.7M
Title Fig. 2: Title Page, Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912)
Credits Courtesy of Sophie Guignard
File image/png, 9.6M
Title Fig. 3: Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (1914–15). Page 11.
Credits Courtesy of Sophie Guignard
File image/png, 11M
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Electronic reference

Jeremy Valentine Freeman, « Decoration, Deviation, and the Selected Edition: Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912) », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 84 Automne | 2016, Online since 01 November 2016, connection on 24 March 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3013

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About the author

Jeremy Valentine Freeman

Jeremy Valentine Freeman is presently completing his doctorate in fin-de-siècle British literature and culture at Concordia University in Montreal. His dissertation explores the relation between modes of self-fashioning and aesthetic form in the fin de siècle poetry book. He is assistant editor of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net and has published an essay in a special edition of Gramma on the nineteenth-century book.
Jeremy Valentine Freeman est doctorant à l’Université Concordia de Montréal et termine actuellement une thèse consacrée à la littérature et la culture britanniques de la fin du xixsiècle, et plus particulièrement, aux rapports entre les modes de réalisation de soi et l’esthétique dans le livre de poésie de cette période. Il est rédacteur en chef adjoint de la revue en ligne Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net et a publié un article dans un numéro spécial de Gramma consacré au livre au xixe siècle.

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