Monday, February 06, 2023

'Till I Am Afraid to Resolve Again'

I’ve broken no New Year’s resolutions because I made none. It’s an admirable practice, self-betterment, but I’ve never been one for grand plans of improvement. I tend to break down resolutions into daily increments, completing today’s job before moving on to tomorrow’s. I’m ashamed to admit I remember a self-help slogan from the Seventies: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery.” A rather coarse variation on that theme went like this: “If you have one leg in yesterday and the other leg in tomorrow, you’re shitting on today.” Charming, huh? 

I found a poem by that wonderful Louisiana poet, David Middleton, “Schemes of Life,” published in the Sewanee Review in 2016. It comes with an epigraph from Dr. Johnson: “I have resolved . . . till I am afraid to resolve again.” Here’s the poem:


“Another evening wasted in the mist

Of self-deception, sloth, his new-made list

Of good intentions numbered, ranked, and pinned

On that blank wall where good intentions end:

To go to church well-rested, meek and blithe,

Not late for prelude, hymn, or with his tithe;

To bid farewell to beefsteaks—fatty, rare—

For tofu cakes, bean sprouts, or bleaker fare;

To banish wine and spirits, even ale

For teas that leave him sober, bored, and pale;

To write the late great poem of great old age,

Pure beauty, truth, and goodness page by page.


“Yet when, like all the rest, this scheme of life

Meets the resistant will in final strife,

Succumbing to a dark that’s always here,

He’ll face the day hung over with his fear,

Abstracted by inaction, on the brink,

The waters of oblivion his drink.”


The poem seems to begin as a description of Johnson battling his own urges, weaknesses and bad habits, at least until we hit “tofu cakes.” Middleton broadens things to include us and perhaps himself. All of us are at least occasionally at war with our selves, when the best we can hope for is a Pyrrhic victory, “the resistant will in final strife.” Johnson famously drew up resolutions, often coupled with prayers seeking divine assistance. The fragment Middleton quotes was written by Johnson on Easter Eve in 1761:


“Since the Communion of last Easter I have led a life so dissipated and useless, and my terrours and perplexities have so much encreased [sic], that I am under great depression and discouragement, yet I purpose to present myself before God to-morrow with humble hope that he will not break the bruised reed,


“Come unto me all ye that travail.


“I have resolved, I hope not presumptuously, till I am afraid to resolve again. Yet hoping in God I stedfastly [sic] purpose to lead a new life. O God, enable me, for Jesus Christ’s sake.”


Those who know Johnson’s sensibility won’t be surprised by his first resolution:


My purpose is


“To avoid Idleness.”


By 1761, the year he turned fifty-two, Johnson had already published his Dictionary, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” his Rambler, Adventurer and Idler essays, and Rasselas.

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