On Good Friday 1764, when he was 54 years old, Samuel Johnson made a note to himself, not intended for publication, which said:
“I have made no reformation; I have lived totally useless, more sensual in thought, and more addicted to wine and meat. Grant me, O God, to amend my life, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
In a note below this, he wrote: “I hope to put my rooms in order.” Beneath that, he added, “Disorder I have found one great cause of idleness.” He also wrote: “I fasted all day.”
The next day, he was just as hard on himself:
“My indolence, since my last reception of the Sacrament, has sunk into grosser sluggishness, and my dissipation spread into wider negligence… A kind of strange oblivion has overspread me, so that I know not what has become of the last year; and perceive that incidents and intelligence pass over me without leaving any impression.”
Each Easter, Dr Johnson took communion, the one time in the year he did so; remembered with affection and grief his wife, Tetty, who had died on 17 March 1752; and examined his life over the past 12 months. He wrote prayers, made resolutions to rise early and work hard, and recorded his failure to keep those resolutions.
Dr Johnson is a man who could, if he wished, have had a high opinion of himself. His sonorous command of the English language, pious observances, moral seriousness, self-sacrificial charitable giving, high reputation as a man of letters and tremendous ability to rout opponents in conversation, could all have turned him into a conceited, self-satisfied worshipper at the temple of his own fame.
In his Prayers and Meditations, published soon after his death, the decision was taken to include the miscellaneous notes to himself which Johnson would certainly not have included. He had handed over the notebook under the impression that the prayers which it contained, composed at various times for his own use, would be published, and not the surrounding ephemera.
For he had promised Dr Adams, Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, to provide some prayers, and was now too ill to prepare these for publication himself.
Fortunately for us, everything was published. So we get the full, scorching blast of Johnson’s humility, the very low view which he took of himself, as well as his profound faithfulness, expressed in the stately language of the Prayer Book, and in his religious observances. He generally fasted on Good Friday, but if he had company would eat buns rather than demonstrate piety.
And this mixture renders the volume a hundred times more valuable. On looking into some books of devotion, one thinks of the first passage on which the eye lights, “How fine, how true and how well expressed.”
The same reaction may be evoked, with diminishing force, by the second and third passages. But soon the appetite begins to flag. So much piety becomes hard to take. It erects a barrier between the author, who is a paragon, and the reader, who is a human being.
Johnson never ceases to be a human being, filled with the anxiety and frailty, depression and torpor, guilt and incipient madness, which haunted his life, which ran from 1709-84. Wherever one opens Prayers and Meditations, one comes upon sin, suffering and failure redeemed by faith, hope and love. No writer in English is a more inspiriting companion at Easter.
Here he is, writing at 10.30 p.m. on Good Friday 1775:
“When I look back upon resolutions of improvement and amendment, which have year after year been made and broken, either by negligence, forgetfulness, vicious idleness, casual interruption, or morbid infirmity; when I find that so much of my life has stolen unprofitably away, and that I can descry by retrospection scarcely a few single days properly and vigorously employed; why do I yet try to resolve again? I try, because reformation is necessary, and despair is criminal. I try, in humble hope of the help of God.”