Johnson, Lionel Pigot (1867–1902), poet and critic, was born 15 March 1867 at Broadstairs, Kent, third son of William Johnson (1822–91), captain in the 90th Regiment of light infantry, and Catherine Johnson (née Walters). His paternal great-grandfather was Gen. Sir Henry Johnson (qv) of Kilternan, Co. Dublin. After boarding for some years at Durdham Down, Clifton, he won a scholarship to Winchester College in 1880, where he studied with distinction until 1886. Enjoying placid and ‘enchaunted hours’ (Pound, 1) at Winchester, he lorded it over the school literary society, having written verse and read omnivorously from boyhood. The evidence of his early published poetry suggests the onset of an emotional crisis during his first year at New College, Oxford in 1886/7. As there is little sign that his gradual conversion to catholic doctrine (he spoke to the school chaplain about his attraction to Roman tradition in 1882) evoked great inner tension, it is likely that the crisis arose from frightened discovery of a homoerotic orientation, which indeed may never have found physical consummation. Producing literary criticism of some merit by 1887, he made the acquaintance of Walter Pater, whose aesthetic of sceptical restraint dovetailed curiously with his own inclination towards pre-reformation theology. At any rate, in February 1890 Pater passed his name to Oscar Wilde (qv) as a good-looking disciple. Having whisked charmingly into his rooms at Oxford late one morning, Wilde drew him into the periphery of his world. The previous year Johnson had begun an association with an artistic group running the Century Hobby-Horse Guild, a London pre-Raphaelite journal, where he published some likeable early verse. He graduated (July 1890) with a first in literae humaniores, having taken a weak second-class honours in classical moderation (1888).
While staying at the Hobby-Horse base in Fitzroy Square in London in 1889 Johnson had been visited by W. B. Yeats (qv). His confident air and power of terse and incisive judgment, seemingly buttressed by capacious reading in a number of languages, put Yeats in awe, and he became for several years Yeats's ‘closest friend’ (Yeats, Memoirs, 35). His erudite doctrinal orthodoxy served in part as an antidote to the effect of the occult explorations pursued by Yeats in those years. He introduced Yeats to the writings of Pater and seemed to offer an intellectual route by which Yeats could escape subjective confusion and attain a classical impersonality of poetic tone, impressing Yeats also with ‘certain nobilities of style’ together with due reverence for the ‘hieratic’ (Yeats, Autobiographies, 96). In turn Yeats fostered his rediscovery of his Irish ancestry. The fictional personality of ‘Owen Aherne’ in Yeats's Rosa alchemica (1896) was partly modelled on Johnson.
From the summer of 1890 he worked as a literary journalist, reviewing in the Academy, the National Observer, and other periodicals, making a name for himself as a perspicacious critic, opposed to the intellectual poverty of the ‘decadent’ mood. His estimates of contemporaries were cogent and of lasting value. An insomniac as early as 1888, he habitually read all night and slept until the early evening, breaking the pattern every few months with a walking tour in the west of England. Attending meetings of the Rhymers Club from early 1890, he contributed little to the often ‘inimitably tedious’ discussions (Beckson, 73) except for a ‘disapproving silence’ and the occasional reading of a new poem in ‘his musical monotone’ (Yeats, Autobiographies, 301).
In June 1891 he was received into the Roman catholic church at St Ethelreda's, London. Increasingly solemn emphasis on prayer and pious renunciation (he carried a set of huge ‘very old, brown and heavy’ rosary beads about with him) and alleged mastery of the arcana of early church doctrine, hardened a pose of spiritual authority with which he had toyed since his teens. He had just sent a knowing piece of verse in Latin to Wilde, congratulating him on the brilliance of the novel The picture of Dorian Gray, where he was pleased to detect reference to ‘apples of Sodom, and tender sins’ (Ellmann, 306). Later that month, having taken his second cousin, Lord Alfred Douglas, to see a soon-besotted Wilde, he before long let his former idol know in verse that he hated him ‘with a necessary hate’ for supposedly leading Douglas astray. His social life narrowed. Recruited by Yeats into the community of Irish letters, he was a founder member of the Irish Literary Society in London in April 1892 and regularly lectured, from notes, at nationalist venues in Britain on aspects of the so-called Irish renaissance. Soon friendly with the Fenian Mark Ryan (qv), he was stimulated to pour out a number of propagandist poems on the theme of martyrdom ‘with love divine’ on the fields of Ireland (Pound, 59). In mid September 1893 he accompanied Yeats to Dublin on his first visit to the country, giving some talks. Lecturing in Dublin in April 1894 on the topic of ‘poetry and patriotism’ he supported the ideas of Yeats in a strong critique of ‘coercion in literature’ and ‘the West Briton heresy’, which insisted that imaginative literature submit to the superficial requirements of political patriotism (Whittemore, 166).
It was at a dinner in London that month that he arranged for a fateful meeting between his first cousin, Olivia Shakespear, and a sexually inexperienced Yeats. That summer he edited, in collaboration with Eleanor Hull (qv), the first issue of the Irish Home Reading Magazine. His critical study of Thomas Hardy was published in October 1894 to widespread acclaim. Among the selection of poems published in 1895 were perhaps five or six of unusual power. However, the self-torment expressed savagely in his poem ‘The dark angel’ was already causing him to drink compulsively. It is a measure of the deep attachment and respect Yeats felt for Johnson that the sight of his alcoholic deterioration by 1895 was so shocking that he felt it ‘altered my general view of the world’. Living mainly on a small independent income, contributing the odd patriotic poem (at variance with his critical principles) to Irish nationalist journals, retailing imaginary conversations with famous churchmen and politicians, and more and more becoming sequestered in his book-lined London rooms, ‘a small, dark, withered man’ (Kelly, 1997, 230), he managed to hold on to most of his Irish contacts. He spoke on James Clarence Mangan (qv) in Dublin in May 1898, and gave some addresses to meetings of the Irish National Club in the spring of 1899. Answering few letters, dishevelled in appearance, he continued to drink heavily in 1900 and 1901. After suffering a painful neurological disorder over the winter of 1901–2, he resurfaced in Fleet St. in late summer. Slipping from a barstool in the Green Dragon (2 October 1902), he fractured his skull, dying in St Bartholemew's Hospital of a pulmonary embolism, two days later, without recovering consciousness. He never married.