“It was Johnson’s custom to observe certain days with a pious abstraction; viz. New-year’s-day, the day of his wife’s death, Good Friday, Easter-day, and his own birth-day.”
We passively endure such days, if we recognize them at all. For Dr. Johnson, all were sacred, demanding to be solemnly and privately observed with prayer and meditation. Today his spiritual regimen might be diagnosed as symptomatic of depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The observation quoted above is from Boswell, who goes on to cite Johnson’s diary entry from this date, Sept. 18, in 1764. It was his birthday. He was turning fifty-five and had another twenty years to live:
“He this year says:—‘I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake. Amen.’”
Johnson was forever resolving and failing to remain resolved. This makes him hopelessly human, like us. He fumbled through life, reproached himself and fumbled again, lending his genius credence. We don’t feel intimidated when listening to him. His failings are ours. Later in the same diary entry, in a ritual repeated throughout his life, Johnson spells out a list of commands himself. Among them:
“To read the Scriptures. In hope in the original Languages. Six hundred and forty verses every Sunday will nearly comprise the Scriptures in a year.
“To read good books. To study Theology.
“To drive out vain scruples.”
The editors of Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (Yale University Press, 1958) note that Johnson’s Scriptural reading plan is “not in itself formidable.” A year earlier on Easter he had read the 879 verses in the Gospel of St. John. We don’t know if Johnson stuck to the plan. Most of the following year was devoted to work on his edition of Shakespeare. Otherwise, he published only two reviews – by his customary standards, an idle year. What impresses me about these diary entries are Johnson’s efforts to sacralize daily living. Anything might provide fodder for spiritual observance. Charles Lamb is a very different sort of writer and man, but I hear a distant echo of Johnson’s commitment in Lamb’s “Grace Before Meat,” one of the Elia essays: