Lionel Johnson and Arthur Hugh Clough: An Ironic Debt?

Article excerpt

 
A BURDEN OF EASTER VIGIL 
 
 
       AWHILE meet Doubt and Faith: 
       For either sigheth and saith, 
                 That he is dead 
   To-day: the linen cloths cover His head, 
That hath, at last, whereon to rest; a rocky bed. 
 
       Come! for the pangs are done, 
       That overcast the sun, 
              So bright to-day! 
   And moved the Roman soldier: come away! 
Hath sorrow more to weep? Hath pity more to say? 
 
         Why wilt thou linger yet? 
         Think on dark Olivet; 
                On Calvary stem: 
   Think, from the happy birth at Bethlehem, 
To thus last woe and passion at Jerusalem! 
 
        This only can be said: 
        He loved us all; is dead; 
                 May rise again. 
 But if He rise not? Over the far main, 
The sun of glory falls indeed: the stars are plain. (1888) 

IN HIS TEXTUAL NOTES TO "A BURDEN OF EASTER VIGIL" IN THE COLLECTED Poems of Lionel Johnson, Ian Fletcher comments that "the title has a Preraphaelite suggestion" (1) and cites statements by A. J. Farmer that "Johnson est ici tout pres d'Arnold et ces premieres verses portent deja l'empreinte de la souffrance intime qui est la racon d'un age, trop avide de certitude" and (incorrectly) by A. W Patrick, who "compares lines 16-20 with the final stanza of Arnold's 'Obermann.'" (2) While the Pre-Raphaelite suggestion could possibly refer to D. G. Rossetti's "The Burden of Nineveh" and the influence of Arnold on Johnson especially during his formative years at Winchester had been profound, (3) there is another possible--although seemingly unlikely--source for the poem: Arthur Hugh Clough's "Easter Day. Naples, 1849."

There is, indeed, ample evidence to show that Johnson never found a source of inspiration, spiritual or otherwise, in Clough as he had in his mentors, Arnold, Pater, and Newman. In fact, he severely criticized Clough's poetry as being overweighted with thought and morality and lacking in artistic excellence. Contrasting Clough with D. G. Rossetti, for example, he concluded, "One verse of the 'Blessed Damozel' is to me worth the whole of 'Dipsychus,' do you feel that?" (Winchester Letters, p. 164). And again: "There is more delight in the structure of a sonnet or villanelle, the cadence of a verse, than in heavy analysis of a foggy soul: Rossetti is the infinite Hyperion and Clough, an ineffable Satyr with the music of Beddoes' 'frog voice.'" (4) In his late (1897) article on the Arnolds, Johnson continued to carp that Clough's "mournful, homesick, desultory poems are indeed touched with decay, because they are composed without care, in no wide spirit of contemplation: reading them we do not think of 'Sophocle s by the Aegean,' nor of the lacrimae rerum." (5)

Johnson's critique of Clough's poetry for using religious topics might seem strange when his own poems are saturated in religious thought. Both poets were experiencing considerable religious unrest at the time of writing their respective "Easter" poems. Clough was being directed away from dogmatic religion to "positive skepticism" that found meaning in practical humanism, while Johnson was gravitating toward the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church where he would be received three years after the composition of his poem and remain until his death in 1902. (6) Clough's "Easter Day. Naples, 1849" and Johnson's "A Burden of the Easter Vigil" are, therefore, ruminations of very different minds upon the same crucial Christian event and, in their respective choice of imagery, allusion, and thematic resolution, provide valuable insight into the mind of each poet. (7)

Despite cogent arguments to prove Clough's essential optimism in "Easter Day. Naples, 1849," (8) the poem's final impression taken literally and by itself is one of overwhelming emptiness and loss. The much repeated, cheerless refrain, "Christ is not risen, no / He lies and moulders low; / Christ is not risen" (9) introduces three features of the poem which are directly in contrast to Johnson's approach. …