George Walter Thornbury ( )

Dr. Johnsons Penance

Once, indeed, I was disobedient. I refused to attend my father to Uttoxeter Market. Pride was the source of this refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time, bareheaded, in the rain, on the spot where my fathers stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory. (Dr. Johnsons conversation with Mr. Henry White, a young clergyman in Lichfield, in 1784)Boswells Life of Johnson.

A COUNTRY road on market-day
(Is what I see arise),
Crowded with farmers, ruddy men,
Muffled up to the eyes;
For cold and bitter rain beats fast
From the gray cheerless skies.

Past carts with white tilts flagging wet,
Past knots of wrangling hinds,
A burly man with deep-lined face,
Chafed by the churlish winds,	
Strides on like dreary packman who
His galling burden binds.

He wears no ruffles round his wrists,
His wig is scorched and worn;
His slouching coat flaps loose and long,
Its buttons but of horn;
The little lace upon its cuffs
Is frayed and soiled and torn.

It is a day of sullen cloud,
Of shrinking leaf and flower,
A day the sun to shine or warm
Has neither wish nor power;
So fitful falls the wavering veil
Of the cold bitter shower.

The blackbirds from the hedges break
In chattering dismay,
Like wicked thoughts in sinners minds
When they kneel down to pray;
He sees them not, for darkness deep
Bars out for him the day.

Before him black and open graves
Seem yawning in the way;
The sun, a mere vast globe of jet,
Bodes Gods great wrath alway;
He hears strange voices on his track
That fill him with dismay.

The black rooks oer the fallows whirl
Like demons in the sky,
Watching to do some hurt to man,
But for the sleepless eye
Of God, that, whether day or night,
Still baffles them from high.

The millers wagon, dripping flour,
Toils on, close covered in;
The pedler, spite of cloak and pack,
Is drenched unto the skin;
The road to Wroxeter is thronged
With cattle crowding in.

With butting heads against the wind
The farmers canter on
(Sure corn that morning has gone down,
They look so woe-begone);
Till now shone out the steeple vane
The sun has flashed upon.

Tween strings of horses dripping wet
The burly man strides fast;
On market stalls and crowded pens
No eager look he cast;
He thought not of the wrangling fair,
But of a day long past.

He comes to where the market cross
Stands towering oer the stalls,
Where on the awnings, brown and soaked,
The rain unceasing falls;
Where loud the vagrant auctioneer
With noisy clamor bawls.

He heeds not yonder rocking swings
That laughing rustics fill,
But gazes on one stall where sits
A stripling, quiet and still,
Selling his books, although the rain
Falls ceaselessly and chill.

There, in the well-remembered place,
He stands, head low and bare,
Heedless of all the scoffing crowd
Who jostle round and stare,
Crying, Why, lads, here s preacher man
Come to this April Fair.

Here s th April Fool! a farmer cries,
Holding his swollen side;
Another clacks his whip, a third
Begins to rail and chide,
While salesmen cried their prices out
And with each other vied.

Yet when he silent stood, nor moved
For one long hour at least,
The marketwomen leering said,
This is some crazy priest
Doing his penance,pelt him, boys!
Pump on the Popish beast!

Some counting money turned to sneer;
One with raised hammer there
Kept it still poised, to see the man;
The buyers paused to stare;
The farmer had to hold his dog,
Longing to bite and tear.

As the old clock beats out the time
The stranger strides away,
Past deafening groups of flocks and carts
And many a drunken fray;
The sin of fifty years agone
That penance purged away.

Call it not superstition, friends,
Or foolish, weak regret;
He was a great good man whose eyes
With tears that day were wet;
T was a brave act to crush his pride,
Worthy of memory yet.

George Walter Thornbury's other poems:
  1. A Dorsetshire Legend
  2. John of Padua
  3. The Pompadour
  4. Temple Bar
  5. The Three Troops

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