Samuel Johnson

A man who fought valiantly against his own melancholy and indolence (whether temperamental, or brought on by the shocks and contradictions of his existence). Who, with his bear-like appearance, bore throughout his life the disfiguring effects of a childhood disease. Who engaged the minds of those he talked to with his concentrated thought and vigorous feeling (whether right or wrong). Who never lost his Black Country accent and gives the lie permanently to the idea that great English prose has to be spoken in the ‘posh’ tones of the ‘voice beautiful’. This is the way Sam Johnson comes back to my mind without opening a book.

I aim here, however, to represent him by opening two books. One is an edition of his Poems, to check the text of what has for long been my favourite single short poem, and the other is his Prayers.

Poem

‘On the Death of Dr Robert Levet’ commemorates the Christian life of an obscure physician - almost certainly possessed of very limited medical knowledge but (Johnson would have us believe) with a healing presence. Levet’s practice was amongst the poor, as two stanzas from the poem will show:

In misery’s darkest caverns known
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless anguish pour’d his groan,
And lonely want retired to die.

No summons mock’d by chill delay
No petty gain disdain’d by pride,
The modest wants of ev’ry day
The toil of ev’ry day supplied.

Johnson’s charity made possible Levet’s charity, keeping his ‘wants’ ‘modest’. He lived free in Johnson’s house off Fleet Street - together with a blind lady, Mrs Williams, and Johnson’s black servant Frank Barber, and Hodge the cat - until his sudden death at the age of 78. The lines quoted unite the abstract and the concrete - ‘anguish’, ‘want’, ‘delay’ and ‘pride’ express the human needs we all feel and the moral failings we all tend to share. But Johnson gives them force and humanity through contrast - unremitting agony ‘pouring’ out, contrasted with the cold torpor of starvation, hypothermia, despair. We are persuaded that Levet’s ‘care’ was felt, that the heart was comforted if not the body. ‘Delay’ is presented to us wearing the face of a fat doctor, a cold heart in an overheated body, who won’t leave his bed or his dinner for a poor patient - and as the suspense endured by that patient and his family, waiting vainly for relief (suspense made worse by the ‘chill’ sense of humiliation). As he honours Levet’s steady, modest heroism, his ‘single talent well employed’, Johnson shows his own. He knew his own talents for what they were, and he could be vain about them - but by his bold reversal of the parable of the talents his five become less than Levet’s single one. He is afraid that he, for all his gifts, will be judged ‘wicked and slothful’.

Prayer

His prayers record his tender concern for others, his life-long love for his wife, Tetty, who died in 1752 thirty-two years before him, and the terrors of his conscience bravely and faithfully confronted. As a moralist he know what human vice and folly led to, and as a Christian he believed that wrongdoing had its spiritual consequences as well as its human cost. This is seen in his Easter prayer of 1777 (written when he was 68 years old) where the ebb and flow of his fears is framed or resolved by the phrases and cadence of the Book of Common Prayer, as he prepares himself for Communion.

Almighty and most merciful Father, Who seest all our miseries, and knowest all our necessities, look down upon me, and pity me. Defend me from the violent incursion of evil thoughts, and enable me to form and keep such resolutions as may conform to the discharge of the duties which Thy providence shall appoint me, and so help me by Thy Holy Spirit, that my heart may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found, and that I may serve Thee with pure affection and a cheerful mind. Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me; years and infirmity oppress me, terror and anxiety beset me. Have mercy upon me, my Creator and my Judge. In all dangers protect me, in all perplexities relieve and free me, and so help me by Thy Holy Spirit, that I may now so commemorate the death of Thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ as that when this short and painful life shall have an end, I may for his sake be received to everlasting happiness. Amen.

For all his fame as the ‘Great Lexicographer’, moralist, journalist, novelist, travel-writer, critic and poet, this awesome relationship with God is plainly at the heart of Johnson’s life. Our almost local hero is truly a spiritual hero, and though he is listed as a ‘moralist’, he is commemorated as such by the his church, the Church of England, on December 13th every year.

Robert Cockcroft


http://www.stpetersnottingham.org/heroes/johnson.html
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 27th December 1998