The Dark Fortress

Lionel Johnson and his poem 'The Dark Angel'

Portrait of Lionel Pigot Johnson

Was this late-Victorian English poet the first Dark Angel? Let's have a look.

A short biography

Before we look at the poem, let's look at the man.

Lionel Pigot Johnson 1867–1902

Johnson was born in Broadstairs, Kent, United Kingdom on 15 March 1867. He studied at Winchester and New College, Oxford, then settled in London where he lived an ascetic, scholarly life, contributing critical articles and reviews to various periodicals. In 1891 he was converted to Roman Catholicism and became deeply interested in the Irish renaissance. Alcohol abuse and illness contributed to his early death, dying of a stroke after a fall (some attribute this to a fall off a bar stool) on 4 October 1902 aged just 35.

Johnson was a member of the Rhymers Club, founded by 1890 by W. B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys. This was principally a group of London poets who met and read poetry — usually in the Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street. The group published two collections of poems in 1892 and 1894, with Johnson contributing to both. Other influential members of the Rhymers Club included Oscar Wilde; poet, critic and magazine editor Arthur Symons; Selwyn Image, clergyman, designer and poet and later Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford; Irish poet and playwright John Todhunter; Thomas Rolleston the Irish poet, literary and political writer.

His poetry, termed 'a catholic puritanism', was considered traditionallist, spare, austere, and at times sometimes anguished. It was usually spiritual in content and deeply emotional reflecting Johnson who was a fervent and largely orthodox Roman Catholic — indeed his homosexuality formed the backdrop to much of his writing and was never far from the surface — as he could never quite reconcille his sexuality to his adopted religion.

His works include Poems (1895) and Ireland and Other Poems (1897), and a critical work, The Art of Thomas Hardy (1894). His Reviews and Critical Papers were published 1921.

The poem

The Dark Angel

DARK Angel, with thine aching lust
To rid the world of penitence:
Malicious Angel, who still dost
My soul such subtile violence!

Because of thee, no thought, no thing,
Abides for me undesecrate:
Dark Angel, ever on the wing,
Who never reachest me too late!

When music sounds, then changest thou
Its silvery to a sultry fire:
Nor will thine envious heart allow
Delight untortured by desire.

Through thee, the gracious Muses turn,
To Furies, O mine Enemy!
And all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.

Because of thee, the land of dreams
Becomes a gathering place of fears:
Until tormented slumber seems
One vehemence of useless tears.

When sunlight glows upon the flowers,
Or ripples down the dancing sea:
Thou, with thy troop of passionate powers,
Beleaguerest, bewilderest, me.

Within the breath of autumn woods,
Within the winter silences:
Thy venomous spirit stirs and broods,
O Master of impieties!

The ardour of red flame is thine,
And thine the steely soul of ice:
Thou poisonest the fair design
Of nature, with unfair device.

Apples of ashes, golden bright;
Waters of bitterness, how sweet!
O banquet of a foul delight,
Prepared by thee, dark Paraclete!

Thou art the whisper in the gloom,
The hinting tone, the haunting laugh:
Thou art the adorner of my tomb,
The minstrel of mine epitaph.

I fight thee, in the Holy Name!
Yet, what thou dost, is what God saith:
Tempter! should I escape thy flame,
Thou wilt have helped my soul from Death:

The second Death, that never dies,
That cannot die, when time is dead:
Live Death, wherein the lost soul cries,
Eternally uncomforted.

Dark Angel, with thine aching lust!
Of two defeats, of two despairs:
Less dread, a change to drifting dust,
Than thine eternity of cares.

Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
Dark Angel! triumph over me:
Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
Divine, to the Divinity.

Meaning and influence

This isn't a literary criticism. The original objective here was to try to link this rather anguished poem, and it's creator, to Games Workshop (or Rogue Trader as it was), to discover if it influenced the creation of the Chapter in any way. So first the poem.

As far as I am aware, 'The Dark Angel' and the sin it refers to specifically concern dissident sexual desire and the poem was probably expressive of Johnson's struggles with his homosexuality in a Christian setting […]
Professor Jane Wright

Johnson's conversion to Catholicism in 1891 was the primal drive for his later repressed state, there is a streak of angst and self-loathing running through the poem, a plea for understanding both at a personal level and the greater issues of acceptance within the context of his religious beliefs. The polarity of his position was almost impossible to reconcile and this is reflected not only in The Dark Angel but in other works too.

So what can we deduce from this and are there any links (real or imagined) to 'our' Dark Angels and what of the influence upon the game designers of the day?

In many ways we can see echoes of the poems sentiments within the psyche of the Dark Angels Chapter. They are engaged on a crusade to atone for their own deep-rooted catastrophe of so many falling to Chaos, and to ultimately find redemption and forgiveness reflecting the need for them to wipe the slate clean — by becoming even purer, even single-mindedly more loyal.

But these were not merely internal struggles of conscious as Johnson, like the DA, needed to physically hide their 'sin' from those of higher authority too. Johnson for legal reasons (homosexuality was only decriminalised in the UK in 1967, and in Scotland in 1980), the Dark Angels to keep themselves out of the gaze of the suspicious Inquistion. It's basically self-preservation which drives the motives of both — a common human condition.

Despite there being no official acknowledgement as such, we must conclude that the poem did influence the backdrop of the Chapter, and Lionel Johnson is indeed the first Dark Angel. The combined coincidences not only of both names but motives too are just too great to pass off as mere chance. Interestingly and possibly in an attempt to 'hide' this literary connnection, the original founder of the Dark Angels was once named 'Lyyn Elgonsen'.

This does pose an interesting question: who on the staff of the day was reading or had knowledge of this fairly unknown and unsung poet?

Bibliography of published work


Poems (1895)
Ireland, with Other Poems (1897)
XXI Poems (1908)
Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912)
Poetical Works (1915)
The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson (1916)

Other works

Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower (1885)
The Gordon Riots (1893)
The Art of Thomas Hardy (1894)
Post Liminium. Essays and Critical Papers (1911)
Some Winchester Letters of Lionel Johnson (1919)
Reviews & Critical Papers (1921)
Two Poems (1929)

Reprints of single or selections of poems

Selections from the Poems of Lionel Johnson (1908)
Some Poems of Lionel Johnson (1912)
Poetical Works (1915)
The Religious Poems of Lionel Johnson (1916)
The Statue of King Charles I at Charing Cross (1917)
Four Poems or Christmas Songs (1917)
A New Selection from the Poems of Lionel Johnson (1927)
Selected Poems (1934)
The Complete Poems of Lionel Johnson (1953)
Poetry & Fiction: Reflections on Three Nineteenth Century Authors (1982)


Response to Failure: Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson,
Lionel Johnson, and Dylan Thomas.
Pushpa Naidu Parekh (Peter Lang Pub, 1998).

Three Decadent Poets: Ernest Dowson, John Gray, and Lionel Johnson:
An Annotated Bibliography.
G.A. Cevasco (Taylor Francis, 1990).

Three Poets of the Rhymers' Club: Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Davidson.
Derek Stanford (Carcanet Press, 1974).

Professor Timothy Webb, MA (Dublin), D.Phil. (Oxon.). University of Bristol.
Professor Jane Wright, BA, MA (Leeds), PhD. (Cantab.). University of Bristol.