4 MARCH 1905, Page 19

DR. JOHNSON'S "PRAYERS AND MEDITATIONS." ALL lovers of Boswell's great

biography have, so to speak, known Dr. Johnson, rather than known about him. They have met him in all moods, and the feeling of friendship thus engendered, and of respect for the secrets of the soul and conscience which friendship demands, creates in the reader of his "Prayers and Meditations" a sense of in- trusion and of abuse of privilege almost akin to shame. What is here set down is so intimate and so ingenuous, so full of the incongruities of raw truth, that one wonders how the least self-conscious of men can have prevailed upon himself to authorise even its posthumous publication. Yet the evidence that Dr. Johnson did give such an authorisation is unimpeachable, and friends and strangers alike—those, that is, who have been introduced by the immortal laird of Auchinleck, and those whose acquaintance with "the Great Chain of literature" is but by repute—must brace them- selves to accept his innermost confidence ; and since the book was once given to the world, it is well, perhaps, that, after being out of print for half-a-century, it should be given again.

Dr. Johnson was no doubt a man of the deepest religious feeling, but what may be called the ceremonial part of Anglican piety—attending services and conning the Scriptures—though he certainly recognised, and perhaps exaggerated, its importance, was never, if we may use the phrase, grateful to him, but appeared always in the light of a meritorious task. From his ninth to his fourteenth year, Boswell tells us, he was despatched alone every Sunday to a church at a distance. In fine weather he used to play truant and read in the fields. The habit thus formed continued its influence through life, so that in middle age he confessed to a great reluctance to go to church. All the same, be forced himself to go with some regularity, resolving to pay attention, not only to the prayers, but to the sermon, "if I can hear it, and unless attention be more troublesome than useful." "I have gone voluntarily to church on the weekday but few times in my life. I think to mend," we read among his "Meditations " ; and again the somewhat pathetic entry : "I hope in time to take pleasure in public worship." One day after performing his religious duty with, as it seems, a great devotion, yet, as he himself fears, "some distraction," he tells an incident which relieves the gravity of the scene, and can but delight the reader, for it assures him that in his devout as in his secular moods Dr. Johnson was still Dr. Johnson :—

" I invited home [from church] with me the man whose pious behaviour I had for several years observed on this day, and found him a kind of Methodist, full of texts, but ill-instructed. I talked to him with temper, and offered him twice wine, which he refused. I suffered him to go without the dinner which I had purposed to give him. I thought this day that there was something irregular and particular in his look and gesture, but baying intended to invite to acquaintance, and having a fit opportunity by finding him near my own seat after I had missed him, I did what I at first designed, and am sorry to have been so much disappointed. Let me not be prejudiced hereafter against the appearance of piety in mean persons, who with indeterminate notions and per- verse or inelegant conversation perhaps are doing all they can."

In regard to reading the Bible we find Dr. Johnson, as in the matter of church-going, somewhat loth. He tells us he determined upon one occasion "to read within the year the whole Bible, a very great part of which I had never looked upon "; and later on he sorrowfully recalls a more modest "design of reading the Pentateuch and Gospels, though I have not pursued it." On New Year's Day he makes a good resolution to read the Gospels before Easter, and later on we find him exulting over twenty-four chapters got through at a sitting. "To read good books," "to study more accurately the Christian religion," "to gather the arguments for Christianity," are among his constant, and, we are led to suppose, but scantily fulfilled, aspirations.

So much for the outward and visible signs of his faith. If we

• Prayers and Meditations of Dr. Samuel Johnson. With Notes and an Introduc- tion by the Rev. Hinchcliffe Higgins, and a Preface by Augustine Birrell, K.C. London : Elliot Stock. [50. net,'

would• know the inward and spiritual grace thereof we must listen to his prayers. We must overbear—if we can bear to do so—bow he besought God to "forgive my presumption and enlighten my ignorance," to "deliver me from my terrors and perplexities." "Heal my body, strengthen my mind, compose my distraction, calm my inquietude, and relieve my terrors, that if it please Thee I may run the race that is set before me." For all his dead friends he prays continually, often adding with Protestant scrupulosity a clause of excuse for the possible unlawfulness of such prayers. He longs for some intercourse with the dead, especially with that strange wife " Tetty," whom he loved so tenderly, and for whom almost no one else seems to have had a good word,—" that I may," he sup- plicates, "enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration, whether exercised by appearances, impulses, dreams, or in any other manner agreeable to Thy govern- ment." That he suffered terribly from remorse, for the most part on but small accounts, is evident from almost every page of the book. "My reigning sin, to which many others are perhaps appended, is waste of time and general sluggish- ness," he writes. He is continually resolving "to get up early," though he never accomplishes it ; "to cast my time into some sort of method ; " "to put my room in order." All these things he fails in continually, to his great grief. "Whether I have lived resolving till all possibility of performance is gone by, I know not. God help me, I will yet try."

No serious sins of commission are ever alluded to in this book. Boswell, after the first publication of the "Prayers and Meditations," raked up some supposed irregularities of his youth, and quoted them to explain the seeming discrepancy of his sins and his repentances ; but it is impossible to imagine that a conscience so tender can at any time have been very deeply seared by wrongdoing. Looking back upon his past life, he seems to find little to give him peace of mind, and his undeserved self-condemnation is sad reading indeed. "I have lived totally useless," he laments ; and again : " This year I have made little acquisition. I have scarcely read anything. I maintain Mrs. — and her daughter; other good of myself I know not where to find, except a little charity. But I am now in my 70th year. What can be done ought not to be delayed." "Shall I spend my whole life with my own total disapprobation ? " he at last demands of himself in despair.

A sombre tinge was given to Dr. Johnson's religion throughout his life by a great fear of death, a fear which, oddly enough, seems to have been accompanied by a very strong belief in immortality. He never, he declared, had a moment in which the thought of death was not terrible to him. "Is not the fear of death natural to man ?" Boswell asked him one day. "So much so, Sir," he replied, "that the whole of life is but keeping away the thought of it." The scepticism of his time struck him as having but little real importance, partly, no doubt, because he was not accustomed to give any very great weight to other men's opinions when they conflicted with his own. "There is a great cry about infidelity," we read in his biography, "but there are in reality very few infidels." "The belief in immor- tality is impressed upon all men, and all men act under an impression of it." Boswell mentioned a distinguished gentle- man of his acquaintance who had, he said, no belief whatever in a life beyond the grave. Dr. Johnson forbore to argue, but he pushed the instance aside by a stroke of conversational genius. "Sir, if it were not for the notion of immortality, he would cut a throat to fill his pockets," he thundered.

To what extent Johnson's fear of death was overcome at the last it is not easy from the conflicting accounts a his attendants to feel sure. All that we can be certain of is that it in no way embittered his character, or dimmed his practical courage, or shook his faith in God. It left his moral nature untouched, and must be regarded as of entirely physical origin, like a tendency to insomnia, or any other physical infirmity with a reflex action upon the mind. From first to last, while the unknown remained full of terrors to him—and terror of the unknowable is apt to be very great with those who know very much—he "bore without resentment the Divine reserve." A prayer written shortly before his death witnesses to his struggle to force himself cheerfully to acquiesce in the divine decree Which forbids the satisfaction of human "0 Lord, my Maker and Protector, who haat graciously sent me into this world to work out my salvation, enable me to drive from me all such unquiet and perplexing thoughts as may mislead or hinder me in the practice of those duties which Thou haat

required And while it shall please Thee to continue me in this world where much is to be done and little to be known, teach me by Thy Holy Spirit to withdraw my mind from unprofitable and dangerous enquiries, from difficulties vainly curious, and doubts impossible to be solved. Let me rejoice in the light which Thou bast imparted, let me serve Thee with active zeal and humble confidence, and wait with patient expectation for the time in which the soul which Thou receivest shall be satisfied with knowledge."