The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins alienated himself from practically all of his English contacts – including his family – by his decision to convert to Catholicism. Joining up with the Jesuits, he worked intensely, foremost on his priestly vocation and, secondly, on his highly perceptive poetry, which he deliberately kept to himself, frightened of the vanity that renown would bring. Hopkins is, along with John Henry Newman with his visionary The Dream of Gerontius, the best example of a Victorian English poet who converted to Catholicism, at a time when such a decision would lead to ostracism and scorn in his home country.
Yet, following in their footsteps, the late-Victorian poet and Catholic convert Lionel Johnson has been forgotten. Taking a step which would have similarly alienated him, Johnson converted after his undergraduate studies at New College, Oxford, and was received into the Church at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, in 1891. Johnson’s conversion was of enough significance to him that he considered the priesthood, though he decided to focus on his vocation of poetry instead.
Johnson’s conversion appears to have been inspired by a realisation that orthodoxy, although troubling, frees the Christian mind to worship God authentically. Commenting on his fellow poet-convert Newman, Johnson writes: “Though dogma be not revelation, yet revelation is dogma.” Johnson, a lover of mysticism, accepted that such mysticism must be tied up with orthodoxy and submit to the authority of the Church to realise its ultimate expression.
Despite this, Johnson was certainly not a snob. He defended William Blake’s poetry in one of his pieces for the Academy, still a heretical vanguard in the poetic world of his time. In fact, Johnson was willing to overlook Blake’s unorthodox theology to see him as a peer in a very specific sense: he believed that poetry was more than a mere trifle. For both men, poetry was a sacred act of adoration or exaltation which made theological ideas more perceptible. Expressing a vision of a purely devotional poetry, Johnson wrote: “The poet can translate into terms of breathing beauty his personal visions of universal reality … all the furnitures of heaven become to us in her poetry as real, visible, tangible, as altars upon earth.” For Johnson, then, writing a poem was a holy act of revelatory intensity, yet one which recognises Catholic truths such as original sin, re-ordering them in poetic language to show us the initial revelation that inspired them. Johnson’s theories about poetry translate into a beautiful poem, “Bagley Wood”:
The night is full of stars, full of magnificence:
Nightingales hold the wood, and fragrance loads the dark.
Behold, what fires august, what lights eternal! Hark
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