Thursday, December 19, 2013

`To Work At; To Move With Difficulty'

I no longer wear a watch and instead rely on my cell phone to tell the time. The watch became doubly a burden – ornamentation and an oppressive reminder of the passing of time. The gesture is palliative, of course, not curative. One’s sense of time’s passage accelerates with age and grows more difficult to ignore or deny. At age fifty-nine, Dr. Johnson chose another strategy. Boswell explains: 

“At this time I observed upon the dial-plate of his watch a short Greek inscription, taken from the New Testament, being the first words of our Saviour’s solemn admonition to the improvement of that time which is allowed us to prepare for eternity; `the night cometh when no man can work.’ He sometime afterwards laid aside this dial-plate; and when I asked him the reason, he said `It might do very well upon a clock which a man keeps in his closet; but to have it upon his watch which he carries about with him, and which is often looked at by others, might be censored as ostentatious.’ Mr. [George] Steevens is now possessed of the dial-plate inscribed as above.” 

The inscription is from John 9:4, in the King James translation: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” In his biography of Johnson, published in 1787, four years before Boswell’s, Sir John Hawkins fleshes out the incident. The watch, he reports, was made by “those eminent artists Mudge and Dutton: it was of metal, and the outer case covered with tortoise-shell; he paid for it seventeen guineas.” The Greek inscription contained a typo, Hawkins says, and adds of the watch: “This, though a memento of great importance, he, about three years after, thought pedantic; he, therefore, exchanged the dial-plate for one in which the inscription was omitted.” 

If the purchase of a handsome watch by Johnson seems like an uncharacteristic indulgence (even with the scriptural warning), Robert DeMaria Jr. reminds us otherwise in Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (1997). Johnson liked owning “fine books” and “enjoyed superior things, even some gaudy things – the red suit he wore to the performance of Irene and the extravagantly expensive gold watch he had inscribed with the biblical reminder of death and judgment (nigh cometh), which ended up in the hands of the Shakespearean collector George Steevens, for example.” 

The passage from John resonated with Johnson. He cites it again in The Idler #43: “Let him that desires to see others happy make haste to give while his gift can be enjoyed, and remember that every moment of delay takes something from the value of his benefaction. And let him who purposes his own happiness reflect, that while he forms his purpose the day rolls on, and the night cometh when no man can work.” And in a diary entry (Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, Yale University Press, 1958) from 1768: 

Imploring Diligence.
O God, make me to remember that the night cometh when no man can work.” 

Jeffrey Meyers in Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008) suggests that Johnson’s obsessive anxiety over “Time's winged chariot” (which is, after all, perfectly human), had its root in “his acute sense of the disparity between intention and execution, between what he’d hoped to achieve and the disappointed result.” Meyers writes: “The fear of failure prevented him from completing or even starting a book. He had inscribed in Greek on his pocket watch the admonition from John 9:4: `the night cometh’ when no man can work. In his life of Pope he mentioned `indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure’ as impediments to literary work.” 

Quintessentially human, Johnson embodied contradiction. He was a sluggard who labored all his life, a writer who countered indolence with toil. In his Dictionary he defined the verb “to labour” as “to work at; to move with difficulty; to form with labour; to prosecute with effect.” And, of course, a lexicographer is “a harmless drudge.”

1 comment:

E Berris said...

There is a sundial at Hampton Court Palace inscribed "Watch Slower - Watch Faster" (which I believe (?) belonged to David Garrick). Practical maybe, but I always think this inscription has a biblical urgency to it like "tempus fugit'.