Incurable beautifully preserves a few of Johnson’s letters, going a long ways in helping us to get a sense of the man himself. In one of these, written to his close American friend Louise Imogen Guiney, we get Johnson’s sense of what entering the church meant to an artist like himself, in his defense of Aubrey Beardsley’s conversion to Catholicism. Johnson could well have been writing about himself:
His consciousness of imminent death—the certainty that whatever he might do in art, in thought, in life at all, must be done very soon or never—forced him to face the ultimate questions. I do not for an instant mean that his conversion was a kind of feverish snatching at comfort and peace, a sort of anodyne or opiate for his restless mind: I only mean that, being under sentence of death, in the shadow of it, he was brought swiftly face to face with the values and purposes of life and human activity, and that he ‘co-operated with grace’, as theology puts it, by a more immediate and vivid vision of faith, than is granted to most converts. All that was best in his art, its often intense idealism, its longing to express the ultimate truths of beauty in line and form, its profound imaginativeness, helped to lead him straight to that faith which embraces and explains all human apprehensions of, and cravings for, the last and highest excellences.
Johnson also died young, at thirty-five, from alcohol abuse. Being who he was, he left behind no children but his body of work, which lived on—not only through its influence on Yeats, though especially that—into the twentieth century, presaging as it does much in Modernism generally. Johnson had a fascination of and gift for crafting the arresting image, but what separates him from his Imagist progeny is how the objects Johnson depicts always seem to flash for an instant before dissolving into an ethereal mist. If Imagists followed the notion that the world is all that is the case, Johnson’s prose was struck through with the ephemerality of life itself. In Johnson’s poetry, as a fellow mystic said sixty years later, life is a dream already over.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor