Samuel Johnson’s Alarm, or Genius and Procrastination

On the perennial aspiration to get up earlier.

After Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson may well have had more influence on English literature than any other figure, for his authority insinuated itself into the ongoing yield of the language at — at least — three distinct levels: idea (see his fable on happiness, Rasselas); sentence (sample any of his resourceful and wise secular sermons published as The Rambler); and even word (as creator of the great 1755 Dictionary of the English Language). He was a peerless critic (see his Preface to the plays of Shakespeare, or his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets); an accomplished poet (“The Vanity of Human Wishes”); and a superb biographer (Life of Mr. Richard Savage).

Speaking of biography, he is equally renowned as the subject of one of the most famous biographical works ever written, The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, in which Dr. Johnson’s personality and conversation are — well, immortalized is close enough to the truth. Rather astonishingly, he is also the subject of two other biographies of the first rank, Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage by Richard Holmes and Samuel Johnson by W. Jackson Bate.

Bate’s book, which it seems is out of print at the moment, is a stirring work of great understanding and instruction. I’ll go so far as to claim you’ll be ready to lead a richer, better life after reading it, perhaps an unexpected outcome for a book about a literary laborer — “a harmless drudge” was Johnson’s own definition of a lexicographer — who suffered from sometimes debilitating melancholy and exhibited strange tics and behaviors, posthumously diagnosed as evidence of the condition what would later be defined as Tourette’s syndrome.

Johnson’s prose is a formal marvel, each sentence mitering cadenced clauses into an elegant and sonorous design. A little remote from today’s more demotic literary expression, it refreshes the linguistic attention of anyone who takes the time to appreciate its music. Most tellingly, that music is often in the service of measuring human frailty with sensitivity and sympathy, despite its classical posture. Here’s Johnson on our proclivity for procrastination, from The Rambler, Number 134:

It is indeed natural to have particular regard to the time present, and to be most solicitous for that which is by its nearness enabled to make the strongest impressions. . . . [W]e readily believe that another day will bring some support or advantage which we now want; and are easily persuaded, that the moment of necessity which we desire never to arrive, is at a great distance from us.

Thus life is languished away in the gloom of anxiety, and consumed in collecting resolution which the next morning dissipates; in forming purposes which we scarcely hope to keep, and reconciling ourselves to our own cowardice by excuses, which, while we admit them, we know to be absurd.

That Johnson knows whereof he speaks, which is the quality that ultimately makes his sagacity so useful, and others’ annotation of his life so rewarding to his readers, is demonstrated by the following passage from Bate’s book, in which that author telescopes fifty years of the good Doctor’s private resolutions into one riveting catalogue of aspiration and regret (the quotations are from Johnson’s diaries; the emphases supplied by Bate):

September 7, 1738: “O Lord, enable me . . . in redeeming the time which I have spent in Sloth. . . .” January 1, 1753: “. . . To rise early To lose no time.” July 13, 1755: “I will once more form a scheme of life. . . . (1) To rise early . . .” Easter Eve, 1757: “Almighty God . . . look down with mercy upon me depraved with vain imaginations. . . . Enable me to shake off Sloth. . . .” Easter Day, 1759: “Give me thy Grace to break the chain of evil custom. Enable me to shake off idleness and Sloth. . . .” September 18, 1760: Resolved . . . To reclaim imagination . . . To rise early . . . To oppose laziness . . .” April 21, 1764: “My purpose is from this time (1) To reject or expel sensual images, and idle thoughts. To provide some useful amusement for leisure time. (2) To avoid Idleness. To rise early.” Next day (3:00 A.M.) “Deliver me from the distresses of vain terror . . . Against loose thoughts and idleness.” The following autumn he resolves, on his fifty-fifth birthday (September 18), “to rise early. Not later than six if I can . . .”; and, the following Easter (writing at 3:00 A.M.), “to rise at eight. . . . I purpose to rise at eight because though I shall not yet rise early it will be much earlier than I now rise, for I often lye till two.” Four years late (January 1, 1769, writing after midnight): “I am not yet in a state to form many resolutions; I purpose and hope to rise . . . at eight, and by degrees at six.” A year and a half later: June 1, 1770: “Every Man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.” January 1, 1774 (at 2:00 A.M.): “To rise at eight . . . The chief cause of my deficiency has been a life immethodical and unsettled, which breaks all purposes . . . and perhaps leaves too much leisure to imagination.” Good Friday, 1775 (he is now sixty-six): “When I look back upon resoluti[ons] of improvement and amendments, which have year after year been broken . . . why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because Reformation is necessary and despair is criminal. . . . My purpose if from Easter day to rise early, not later than eight.” January 2, 1781 (he is now seventy-one): “I will not despair. . . . My hope is (1) To rise at eight, or sooner . . . (5) To avoid idleness.”

Even genius, apparently, must face constant reminding that — as this particular genius once put it in a letter — “tomorrow is an old deceiver, and his cheat never grows stale.” Nonetheless, put like that, on this dreary, unproductive, weather-beaten and soon to be expired Sunday of my own, it offers paradoxical encouragement toward whatever the morning may hold — which is one of the small blessings, I suppose, that genius can bestow upon the rest of us.